When Republican legislator Jason Nemes, from very conservative Kentucky, introduced a medical marijuana bill this year, he included stringent stipulations to prevent physicians from overprescribing the drug. Having never smoked pot himself, he is decidedly anti-drug and not advocating for the recreational use of marijuana. Until recently, he did not believe it effective at treating illness, like epilepsy or cancer.
In speaking to Politico, Nemes clarified, “We are not interested in allowing people to go and smoke marijuana just for the heck of it.” With marijuana legalization spreading rapidly across country, his fears are well founded. Advocates on both sides worry that medical pot programs are increasingly becoming a Trojan horse for de facto legalization in states still undecided about the issue.
Effect of Marijuana Legalization
They believe this momentum is fast changing the policy and political landscape of the emerging industry. Despite legal markets flourishing in states like Colorado and California, cannabis remains illegal at the federal level. Under President Barack Obama, the Justice Department deferred cases to local and state prosecutors. However, Trump reversed that policy in January, greatly hindering state-level efforts.
This about-turn, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, came even as marijuana advocates were making progress in numerous states. By the end of the year, New Jersey will likely legalize. New York and Pennsylvania are quickly following suite. Even Connecticut got a recreational use bill out of committee in April. There is no stopping, or even slowing, the spread of marijuana legalization nationwide.
Even the most conservative states are feeling the push. The most ardent opponents are now willing to reconsider when it comes to medicinal use. Nemes had his own epiphany, “Last year, I was against it, but I met with some constituents and heard, ‘hey, maybe I am wrong.’” This led him to sponsor Kentucky’s medical cannabis bill.
Nemes is positive that a similar bill might pass this year or early next year, pointing out changing public opinion in support of medical weed, particularly as communities struggle under the opioid crisis. “But,” he said, “We do not want the Wild West.” There is no doubt that, indeed, medical cannabis has been driving legalization in other states.
Spread of Marijuana Legalization
The decision of California to approve medical marijuana sales two decades ago paved the way for it to become the world’s biggest market for recreational cannabis. Now, with 90 percent of the population supportive of medical weed, according to Quinnipiac University, proponents are eying the conservative states, such as Louisiana, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Kentucky, or trying to expand existing medical cannabis programs in states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Issues of “De Facto” Legalization
Although advocates of medical pot claim to have the interest of patients at heart, opponents disagree vehemently. According to Kevin Sabet, CEO and president of anti-recreational group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, “There is a marijuana industry makingall sorts of claims that, if they were pharma companies, they would probably be jailed.” We have all seen such claims overwhelming the Internet.
For genuine patients, these claims are often fraudulent, with no evidence to back them up. “It is not this bright line between medical and recreational,” Sabet explained, “And there should be a bright line.” This could not be clearer than in New Jersey, where connected bills seek to merge the state’s medical pot program with its legislation for the recreational use of marijuana.
Under ex-Governor Chris Christie, New Jersey limited medical weed to a handful of patients with chronic and debilitating medical conditions. However, in March, new Governor Phil Murphy gave doctors freedom to treat common issues with cannabis, such as anxiety and pain. This doubled the program’s size in just a few months and now people are treating disease with scant evidence of effectiveness.
New York and Pennsylvania are seeing similar efforts. According to Sabet, who favors medical pot for specific illnesses, the growth of medical marijuana programs is skyrocketing despite insufficient research to support claims of its efficacy, making these programs little more than just a political smokescreen for the larger marijuana industry.
“This does not have anything to do with cancer patients or folks with epilepsy. This is about expansion of the marijuana industry,” Sabet said. “The worst kept secret about most medical marijuana programs is that they often act as de facto legalization. With the expansion of programs in New Jersey or other states, this is often tied to the marijuana industry’s interest to expand the user pool and make money.”
Recreational Use of Marijuana
Even proponents agree. The increasing acceptance of medical cannabis has played a crucial role in destroying the stigma surrounding recreational use. Tom Angell, publisher of Marijuana Moment, a leading news outlet on cannabis reform, explained the rapid growth of marijuana programs and the fear of de facto legalization, both recreational and medical, best. He said:
“When you have a situation in a state like California, where there are cannabis stores in your neighborhood; when you can see what that looks like and how much it is different from the unregulated criminal market; when you can see the effects of businesses moving into storefronts that generate jobs and tax revenue; then it is far easier to change the minds of fearful or skeptical consumers and political leaders.”