2020 Year in Review: NORML’s Top Ten Events in Marijuana Policy

#1: Advocates Run the Table on Election Day

Voters approved every statewide legalization measure put before them on Election Day. Voters legalized the possession of marijuana by adults in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and in South Dakota. They additionally approved ballot measures legalizing of medical cannabis access in two states, Mississippi and South Dakota.

Commenting on the Election Day victories, NORML’s Executive Director Erik Altieri said: “These results once again illustrate that support for legalization extends across geographic and demographic lines. The success of these initiatives proves definitively that marijuana legalization is not exclusively a ‘blue’ state issue, but an issue that is supported by a majority of all Americans — regardless of party politics.”

#2: House of Representatives Votes to Repeal Federal Marijuana Prohibition

Members of the United States House of Representatives voted in early December to approve the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act, HR 3884, which removes marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act — thereby eliminating the existing conflict between state and federal marijuana laws and providing states with the authority to establish their own cannabis laws free from undue federal interference. The vote marked the first time in 50 years that a chamber of Congress has revisited the classification of cannabis as a federally controlled and prohibited substance.

Following the historic vote, NORML’s Executive Director Erik Altieri said: “By going on the record with this vote, House members have set the stage for a much-needed legislative showdown in 2021 when we will have the Biden administration in office — one that has publicly expressed an appetite for advancing the restorative justice remedies outlined in the MORE Act. We are primed and ready for this legislative debate and we expect, ultimately, to win it.”

#3: Tens of Thousands Have Their Marijuana Records Expunged

Tens of thousands of citizens previously burdened with the stigma of a lifelong marijuana conviction had those convictions expunged in 2020. In California alone, over 100,000 citizens had their records expunged. In several other states – including Colorado, Nevada, Illinois, and Washington – public officials granted pardons to tens of thousands of citizens with cannabis convictions. In addition, lawmakers in various states, like Michigan and Vermont, enacted legislation in 2020 explicitly facilitating the expungement of low-level marijuana records – joining over a dozen other states that have passed similar legislation. According to 2020 polling, 70 percent of Americans now favor expunging the criminal records of those with marijuana-related convictions.

Said NORML’s Deputy Director Paul Armentano: “Millions of citizens unduly carry the undue burden and stigmatization of a past conviction for behavior that most Americans no longer believe ought to be a crime, and that in a growing number of states is no longer classify as a crime by statute. Our sense of justice and our principles of fairness demand that officials move swiftly to right the past wrongs of cannabis prohibition and criminalization.”

#4: Sales of Retail Cannabis Products Reach Historic Highs

State-licensed marijuana retailers sold an unprecedented volume of cannabis products in 2020, bringing in record levels of tax revenue. Commenting on the historic sales trends, NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said: “The dramatic rise in retail marijuana sales is likely not so much a reflection of increased consumer demand, but of consumers shifting from the illicit market to the above-ground legal marketplace. As these legal markets continues to mature, consumers are going to continue gravitate toward it and away from the underground marketplace.”

#5: No Uptick in Youth Marijuana Use Following Legalization

Self-reported marijuana use by young people has either stayed stable or fallen during the time period that numerous states have adopted adult-use cannabis legalization. That’s according to findings compiled by the federally-sponsored Monitoring the Future study and others. Data compiled by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention similarly reported that the number of adolescents admitted to drug treatment programs for marijuana-related issues has fallen precipitously in states that have legalized and regulated its adult-use.

Commenting on the results, NORML’s Deputy Director Paul Armentano said, “These add to the growing body of scientific literature showing that legalization policies can be implemented in a manner that provides access for adults while simultaneously limiting youth access and misuse. Furthermore, these findings stand in sharp contrast to the sensational claims often made by legalization opponents, claims that thus far have proven to be baseless.”

#6: Vermont Lawmakers Legalize Retail Marijuana Access

Vermont lawmakers enacted legislation this fall establishing rules and regulations overseeing the commercial production and retail sale of marijuana to adults. Commenting on the passage of the law, NORML State Policies Coordinator Carly Wolf said, “This is a victory for those who wish to disrupt the illicit marketplace and move forward with an above-ground, regulated cannabis marketplace.”

Prior to the passage of the law, Vermont had been the only state to depenalize marijuana possession without providing adults with legal, above-ground access to cannabis and cannabis products via state-licensed retailers.

#7: More Seniors Report Using Cannabis to Improve Their Quality of Life

A growing percentage of seniors are engaging in the use of cannabis to mitigate symptoms of old age and to improve their overall quality of life. “These results are to be expected,” NORML’s Deputy Director Paul Armentano said. “Many seniors likely experimented first-hand with cannabis during their youth and are now returning to it as a potential therapy to mitigate many of the health-related symptoms associated with older age, including chronic pain. Many seniors are well aware of the litany of serious adverse side-effects associated with available prescription drugs, like opioids, and they perceive medical cannabis to be a viable alternative.”

#8: Cannabis Retailers Designated as “Essential Businesses”

In dozens of states this spring, lawmakers and regulators designated marijuana producers and retailers to be “essential services” – explicitly permitting them to remain open during pandemic lockdowns and loosening rules so that they could expand their operations to include services like curbside pick-up and home delivery. Writing in an op-ed, NORML’s Deputy Director Paul Armentano said, “Regulators’ actions acknowledge that for many Americans, and for chronically ill patients especially, cannabis is not some alternative on-the-fringe therapy option, but rather an essential medicine – one that must be recognized and protected accordingly, particularly during a time of crisis.”

#9: Studies Show Off-The-Job Cannabis Use No Threat to Workplace Safety

Adults who consume cannabis in their off-hours are no more likely to suffer injuries at work than are those employees who abstain from the substance, according to the findings of several studies published in 2020 – including those here, here, and here.

Commenting on the findings, NORML’s Deputy Director Paul Armentano said: “Suspicionless marijuana testing in the workplace is not now, nor has it ever been, an evidence-based policy. Rather, these discriminatory practices are a holdover from the zeitgeist of the 1980s ‘war on drugs.’ But times have changed; attitudes have changed, and in many places, the marijuana laws have changed. It is time for workplace policies to adapt to this new reality and to cease punishing employees for activities they engage in during their off-hours that pose no workplace safety threat.”

#10: Virginia Ceases Arrests for Marijuana Possession

After years of lobbying and pressure by Virginia NORML and others, lawmakers this year abolished its strict criminal penalties for marijuana possession offenses – replacing them with a $25 fine, no arrest, and no criminal record. “NORML is proud to have worked … to bring about these needed changes to Virginia law, said NORML development director, Jenn Michelle Pedini, who also serves as the executive director of Virginia NORML. “Virginians have long opposed the criminalization of personal marijuana possession, and the enactment of this legislation turns that public opinion into public policy.”

Following this legislative victory, NORML immediately pivoted to push for the enactment of adult-use legalization in Virginia – a push that spurred the state’s Governor and Attorney General in November to publicly endorse the policy change.