Dec 6, 2018
Following ABC Precedent: States Expected to Determine Future Cannabis Policy, Business Opportunity
While Congress may not be able to make up its mind on whether and how to permanently deal with cannabis legalization, the American people clearly have done so. In virtually every state with any kind of significant urban presence and direct voter access to the ballot, marijuana is in some stage of decriminalization. However, states have taken a patchwork-quilt approach to the issue, meaning if you have seen one state's cannabis policies, you've seen one state's cannabis policies.
Generally, states fall into three categories when it comes to cannabis policy: light medical, broad medical and fully legal.
Light-medical states primarily allow possession of low-THC marijuana products for treatment of specific conditions under the supervision of a doctor. These state programs vary a good bit in terms of which conditions are authorized, how patients obtain the product and what form the product can take. The biggest policy debate in light-medical states involves production: Because it is federally illegal to take the product across state lines, some form of in-state production is required to ensure a legal supply. These states are concentrated in the Southeast and rural West, where conservative political views on social issues have kept cannabis policy in a very limited medical lane. Large states in this category include Texas, Virginia and Georgia.
Broad-medical states allow general possession of marijuana products for a wide range of issues. Physician involvement is usually a little more limited, and a robust and regulated production structure is in place to provide cannabis products to consumers. Because these policies tend to evolve in the direction of majority political opinion, many states begin as light-medical states and slowly evolve into broad-medical states. Effectively, these states decriminalized and now tax marijuana, but keep some general requirement in place that a healthcare professional must diagnose a specific condition and that product distribution may happen only under a very limited and regulated system. Some of the larger states on this list include Florida, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Finally, fully legal states have crossed the philosophical Rubicon and allow adults to use marijuana for recreational purposes. This list began with Colorado but expanded to include a number of states, such as California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Massachusetts. In most of these states, a medical program existed before recreational legalization, so the distribution and production structures remained largely in place as the customer base expanded dramatically.
Moving forward, the number of individuals eligible to legally use marijuana and the businesses that serve those individuals in virtually every U.S. state likely will continue to grow. The pace and precise details of that growth will vary, but the outcomes will be the same. The resulting business structure will resemble what emerged in the U.S. after the end of prohibition: state-regulated distribution systems that serve a broad consumer market. Over time, the evolution of state policy pertaining to marijuana use has created a licensed production and distribution system that has already created highly valuable "real estate" in the form of limited licenses similar to the production, distribution and retail tiers of the alcoholic beverage industry.
Additionally, state licensing programs associated with marijuana likely will follow precedent and maintain governing authority even if Congress eventually addresses federal marijuana laws. This means cannabis policy — and the business opportunities that result — will continue largely as a creature of state law.
These interactive maps depict trends in cannabis legalization across the U.S. and provide concise state-by-state historical information since 2011 on legislation attempting to regulate the marijuana industry at the state level.