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Stand Up For Your Rights Pt 2: How Cannabis is Legalized

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

Cannabis laws are changing fast and it is important that all voices are heard. You can help shape the end of prohibition. Part 1 outlined how your voice can make a difference. It's important to know the process for legalizing cannabis, so you be part of the decision-making process.

Some may remember Schoolhouse Rock, and the catchy way I'm Just a Bill explains how laws are made. And that's doubly important in cannabis legalization. You need to know the rules if you want to play the game. These games are "Is cannabis legal yet?" and When should I speak up?

Currently, cannabis legalization is an evolving patchwork on the state level as states pass laws allowing medical or/and adult-use cannabis consumption. Federal and international legalization must be covered separately because the racist roots of prohibition are an essential part of the story.

Ballot Initiatives

Some states like Massachusetts and New Jersey voted on cannabis legalization through the ballot initiatives, first for medical marijuana and later for adult use. Organizations like Marijuana Policy Project repeatedly attempted to get referendums before the voters during the annual November elections. Please join local advocacy organizations (here, here, here, here, or here) if cannabis is not legal in your state. Often it takes several attempts over many years to get on the ballot. Then, the voters can approve (or reject) the proposal. And cannabis is legalized!?

Not yet. The ballot initiatives direct the state legislature to pass laws to enable the proposal. Although some ballot initiatives are very detailed, a bill is written and must go through the legislative process to be approved. Substantial changes may be made.

Bills Become Laws

Bills become laws by a lengthy process through both legislative bodies. Elected officials, like your State Representative, write bills and introduce them to the appropriate committee. Committees hold public hearings and may revise the bill. Contact your representatives and let them know that cannabis legalization is important to you.

Be Your Own Lobbyist

You can make your voice heard by joining in on a lobby day. A lobby day is when one or more groups decide to focus their efforts to communicate with their legislators on the same issue. Often organizations will provide talking points and contact information for representatives. It helps to have written notes when calling your elected officials. You can send your notes to them as a follow-up email.

On Wednesday, March 3, several groups are lobbying New York State representatives about cannabis legalization, including Smart NY and Women Grow and the Drug Policy Alliance.

Once the bill is approved by one or more committees, it is introduced to the House floor where it is approved or denied. When it has gained approval by the House, it must also be approved by the Senate. It must go through Senate Committee hearings and modifications. Sometimes, parallel bills are introduced in both chambers; however, they may be amended differently. The Committee members must vote to approve it to go to the full Senate for a vote. Once/if the Senate approves the bill, it is still not a law.

If the bill passed by the Senate is different from the bill passed by the House, then the two bills must be reconciled by a conference committee. The conference committee report must be approved by both chambers. The final law is presented to the Governor for signature. And then it's legal to buy cannabis?

State Agencies

Still no. You may be able to grow your own, but you can’t go to a store yet. The law creates a framework enabling a state agency to license, tax, and set standards for cannabis cultivation, production, and sale. State Departments of Taxation and Revenue are directed to levy and collect taxes. Often, a new regulatory agency must be created.

The Agency may hold public hearings, some start with listening sessions. Find out when and where the public hearings are and speak out. At the hearings, you can meet others who are interested in cannabis legalization and starting new businesses. This can be a good opportunity to meet other cannabis advocates in your community.

The new agency then proposes specific regulations. There are public hearings on the proposed regulations. The regulators are listening to many interested parties, including medical patients, alcohol lobbyists, cannabis consumers, corporate lobbyists, social equity applicants, tobacco lobbyists, other government agencies, police lobbyists and representatives, addiction and drug abuse counselors, victims of drug violence, local government officials, and anyone else with the time and interest to attend and speak out.

Local Approval

Meanwhile, at the local level, local officials are debating if and where they will allow cannabis business. Sometimes, the laws that allow for cannabis legalization also allow local governments to opt-out or ban cannabis businesses from their communities. Cities and towns can also enact zoning regulations that limit where cannabis businesses can be located. Local zoning ordinances are limited to areas where be no suitable properties for sale or no areas are suitable for cultivation. Get involved in your local community. Sometimes, cannabis legalization is about attending local zoning board meetings.

Cannabis Businesses are Licensed

Finally, regulations are established that allow businesses to apply for licenses to cultivate, manufacture, and sell cannabis products. Large corporations and small businesses then apply for licenses to start businesses. The application process can be lengthy and expensive. Finding a suitable property can be very challenging.

After businesses are licensed then they can cultivate, test, manufacture, and/or sell cannabis products. And yes finally, you can buy legal cannabis.

Advocacy is Ongoing

Fortunately or unfortunately this is an ongoing process. Once “cannabis is legalized” for medical use the push begins for legalization for adult-use. Pushback from prohibitionists also begins. Many of the aspects of the business, from what you can create to how you can advertise are subject to change. The business landscape is in perpetual motion.

Alliances and business councils are formed to help their membership advocate for regulations that will help them and may limit others. Joining together with like-minded people may be key to making your voice heard on critical topics like home grow, social justice, patients rights, delivery, social consumption, product quality, worker protections, and business opportunities.

There are many ways to get involved and speak out during all phases of the regulations. And it is imperative that you do.

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