2021 Year in Review: NORML’s Top Ten Events in Marijuana Policy

2021 Marijuana News

#1: Five More States Enact Adult-Use Legalization Laws

Legislatures in five states — Connecticut, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Virginia — enacted laws in 2021 legalizing adult-use marijuana possession and regulating retail cannabis markets. These legislative victories marked a significant change from past years, when similar laws were enacted almost exclusively via citizens’ initiatives, not by legislative action. In total, 18 states — comprising nearly one-half of the US population — have now adopted laws regulating adult use marijuana production and retail sales.

“State lawmakers have learned that advocating for adult-use legalization laws is a winning political issue that is popular with their constituents, regardless of their age, race, or political affiliation,” NORML’s Deputy Director Paul Armentano said.

#2: State Officials Vacate Over Two Million Cannabis Convictions

Officials in multiple states have moved to either expunge or seal the records of over two million people with cannabis convictions. Specifically, officials in New York announced vacating an estimated 400,000 convictions. In Virginia, officials have similarly taken steps to seal some 400,000 convictions. In New Jersey, officials have expunged over 360,000 marijuana-related convictions. Officials in Illinois have vacated an estimated 500,000 cannabis convictions, while California officials have expunged over 200,000 convictions. In all, more than a dozen states have enacted legislation in recent years facilitating the process of having past marijuana convictions either expunged or sealed from public view.

In December, US Representatives Dave Joyce (R-OH) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) introduced federal legislation to provide funding to state and local governments for the purposes of expunging the records of those with marijuana-related convictions. Following the bill’s introduction, NORML’s Political Director Justin Strekal said, “This bipartisan effort represents the growing consensus to reform marijuana policies in a manner that addresses the harms inflicted by prohibition. There is no justification for continuing to prevent tens of millions of Americans from fully participating in their community and workforce simply because they bear the burden of a past marijuana conviction.”

#3: Lawmakers Enact Workplace Protections for Cannabis Consumers

Policymakers at the state and local level adopted numerous laws in 2021 limiting employers’ ability to either fire or refuse to hire employees solely based upon their off-the-job marijuana use. In New York, lawmakers enacted sweeping legislation prohibiting employers from firing workers who test positive for cannabis absent “objectively observable indications” of impaired performance. Legislators in several other states – including Connecticut, New Jersey, and Montana – similarly took actions limiting pre-employment screening as a condition of employment. Municipal lawmakers in several cities – including Atlanta, Baltimore, Kansas City, and Philadelphia – passed similar measures.

Overall, fewer companies are drug testing their employees for cannabis. In June, representatives of the Amazon corporation – the United States’ second-largest employer – announced that the company will no longer engage in pre-employment marijuana screenings for its new hires, except for those in federally regulated positions (that mandate drug testing). Survey data provided this fall by the Manpower Group found that nearly ten percent of employers have eliminated drug testing requirements as a way to attract new hires and to retain current employees.

“These decisions reflect today’s changing cultural and legal landscape,” NORML’s Deputy Director Paul Armentano said. “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.”

#4: Marijuana Arrests Decline Precipitously

The number of persons arrested in the United States for violating marijuana laws declined 36 percent between 2019 and 2020, according to data released in September by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. According to the agency, police made an estimated 350,150 arrests for marijuana-related violations in 2020. That total is down more than 50 percent from peak levels in 2008, when police made over 800,000 marijuana-related arrests. Marijuana-related arrests were least likely to occur in 2020 in western states — most of which have legalized the possession of the substance.

“As more states move toward the sensible policy of legalizing and regulating cannabis, we are seeing a decline in the arrest of non-violent marijuana consumers nationwide,” NORML’s Executive Director Erik Altieri said. He added, however, “While these numbers represent a historic decline in arrests, even one person being put into handcuffs for the simple possession of marijuana is too many.”

#5: Historic Percentages of Americans Say Cannabis Should Be Legalized

The percentage of Americans who believe that “the use of marijuana should be legal” held at record highs in 2021. According to nationwide polling data provided by Gallup, 68 percent of US adults support legalization. That ties the highest percentage of support ever reported in a national Gallup poll. “As was the case in 2020, solid majorities of US adults in all major subgroups by gender, age, income and education support legalizing marijuana,” Gallup pollsters determined. Several other 2021 surveys, such as those compiled by Quinnipiac University and Harris Research, similarly identified supermajority support for legalizing marijuana.

“There is no buyer’s remorse on the part of the American people. In the era of state-level legalization, voters’ support for this issue has grown rapidly — an indication that these policy changes have been successful and are comporting with voters’ desires and expectations.” NORML’s Executive Director Erik Altieri said. “Today, voters of every age and in virtually every region of the country agree that marijuana should be legal. We have a mandate from the American people and we intend to make sure that elected officials abide by it.”

#6: Rates of Youth Marijuana Use Decline

Fewer young people are consuming cannabis, according to data compiled by the US National Institutes of Health and published in November. The NIH data is consistent with findings reported by the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future, the Youth Behavioral Risk Survey, and other recently published data sets. Speaking publicly on the subject in September, Nora Volkow, Director of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse, acknowledged that state-level marijuana legalization hasn’t led to an increase in the percentage of young people using marijuana.

Commenting on the trend, NORML’s Deputy Director Paul Armentano said, “These findings ought to reassure lawmakers and others that cannabis access for adults can be legally regulated in a manner that is safe, effective, and that does not inadvertently impact young people’s habits.”

#7: Courts Strike Down Marijuana Legalization Votes

The Supreme Courts of Mississippi and South Dakota issued rulings this year nullifying voters’ decisions to legalize cannabis.

In May, judges on the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled to quash Initiative 65, which sought to regulate medical cannabis access in the state. Seventy-three percent of Mississippi voters had approved the measure on Election Day, but justices later determined that citizens’ initiatives were no longer permissible under state law.

In December, justices on the South Dakota Supreme Court struck down a voter-approved adult-use legalization initiative after determining that it violated the state’s single subject rule. The state’s Republican Governor spearheaded the litigation. Fifty-four percent of voters had approved the ballot measure.

In response to the rulings, NORML’s Deputy Director Paul Armentano said: “Legalization opponents cannot succeed in the court of public opinion or at the ballot box. Thus, they are now petitioning the courts to overturn the will of the people. Whether or not one supports marijuana legalization, Americans should be deeply concerned by this trend and by the outcomes of these cases.”

#8: Unregulated Delta-8 THC Products Often Mislabeled, May Contain Impurities

Labeling information provided on the packaging of grey market Delta-8 THC products is typically inaccurate, according to independent analyses of unregulated, over-the-counter products. Many available products also contain heavy metals and unlabeled cutting agents. The production and popularity of synthetically derived Delta-8 products rose significantly in 2021, prompting NORML to issue a report cautioning the public that most Delta-8 producers are not regulated and that they may use potentially dangerous household products in their manufacturing processes.

NORML Board Member Dr. Dale Gieringer, who authored NORML’s 2021 report, said: “Consumers are facing a bewildering array of new cannabis products, including novel agents such as Delta-8 THC. Many come from suspect, unregulated sources on the hemp market or contain new synthetic substances not found in nature. … We strongly recommend that consumers stick to state-regulated products consisting of naturally occurring cannabis ingredients, and that they avoid novel products from the underground market or that are derived from industrial hemp CBD.”

#9: Twin Study Rebuts Claim that Early-Onset Cannabis Use Increases Psychosis Risk

Cannabis exposure during adolescence is not independently attributable to either adult-onset psychosis or signs of schizophrenia, according to longitudinal data from two cohorts of twins published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Researchers reported: “Epidemiological studies have repeatedly shown that individuals who use cannabis are more likely to develop psychotic disorders than individuals who do not. It has been suggested that these associations represent a causal effect of cannabis use on psychosis, and that psychosis risk may be particularly elevated when use occurs in adolescence. … This study, however, does not support these hypotheses, suggesting instead that observed associations are more likely due to confounding by common vulnerability factors.”

In recent years, opponents of marijuana legalization have increasing alleged that exposure to certain cannabis products, particularly those with higher percentages of THC, can trigger psychotic episodes in consumers as a justification to roll back marijuana legalization laws.

#10: US Senate Punts on Opportunity to Advance SAFE Banking

Members of the US Senate failed to include House-passed SAFE Banking provisions as part of the 2021 version of the National Defense Authorization Act. The provisions were ultimately removed from the bill in conference committee “at the Senate majority leader’s insistence.” The SAFE Banking provisions – which allow state-licensed marijuana-related businesses to engage freely in relationships with banks and other financial institutions – have been passed by the US House of Representatives on five occasions, but they have never been advanced by the Senate.

“It is unfortunate that Congress failed to take this opportunity to affirm the legitimacy of state-legal marijuana markets and instead acted in a way that will continue to deny this emerging legal industry access to basic financial tools and services,” NORML’s Political Director Justin Strekal said. “Until Congressional action is taken, state-licensed marijuana businesses and those millions of Americans that patronize them will continue to be at a higher risk of robbery due to the all-cash nature of this industry. Furthermore, smaller entrepreneurs who seek to enter this industry will continue to struggle to compete against larger, more well-established and well-capitalized interests.”