Law, Politics, and Cannabis Legalization: The Road Ahead in 2016

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Conference goers speak with staff at Medicine Man, Denver’s largest single marijuana dispensary. Photo courtesy Rachel Giraudo.

By Jennifer Curtis and Rachel Giraudo

APLA members learned firsthand about the political, legal, and policy dimensions of legalized marijuana at the 2015 Annual Meeting in Denver. On November 18, 2015 APLA co-sponsored a tour of cannabis grow facilities and dispensaries, and a public forum with local leaders in advocacy and industry. As a number of US states consider cannabis legalization, Colorado has emerged as a model for regulation. The Cannabis Cultures event introduced APLA members to the politics of marijuana legalization, and allowed anthropologists to share their perspectives on legal and political change with local advocates.

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Panelists discuss legalization at the History Colorado Center. From left to right: Taylor West, Jordan Wellington, Andy Williams, Andrew Livingston, and Santiago Guerra. Photo courtesy Rachel Giraudo.

The event also defined areas for anthropological research and engagement as the era of global cannabis prohibition nears an end. In the US, public opinion about cannabis legalization has shifted dramatically since the 1960s. According to the Pew Research Center, 12 percent of Americans supported marijuana legalization in 1969; in 2015, legalization support has risen to 53 percent. California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, when voters approved Proposition 215, or the Compassionate Use Act. Today, 39 states have some form of medical marijuana recognition and/or regulation. Although cannabis is still federally classified as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, in the December 2015 federal budget, the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment was authorized for a second year, prohibiting use of federal funds for raids, arrests, and prosecutions related to medical cannabis in states where it is legal.

The year 2016 will be important in US cannabis reform, and Colorado’s implementation of legal recreational cannabis is providing a model for policy and advocacy. Several US states are voting on full legalization, including Nevada, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Arizona. Presidential candidates are increasingly taking a stance. Senator Bernie Sanders recently proposed a bill to federally decriminalize cannabis. Hillary Clinton, whose husband Bill Clinton infamously tried marijuana but did not inhale, is calling to ease federal restrictions on research. Senator Rand Paul is the only Republican presidential candidate to take a stance on decriminalization, noting gross racial disparities in current policies. Meanwhile, international cannabis reform is already underway with the Mexican Supreme Court ruling marijuana prohibition unconstitutional, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prioritizing recreational legalization. This is a pivotal period of change in national and international drug policy, alongside growing public awareness of how drug laws reproduce and enforce inequalities.

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Marijuana plants at 3D Cannabis Centers in Denver. There are many specialized strains of marijuana with names reflecting their cultivation heritage: Girl Scout Cookies, Sour Diesel Kush, Super Silver Haze, Skywalker OG.

This year, one of the most consequential campaigns for cannabis legalization is emerging in California, and we have extended our work organizing the Cannabis Cultures event in Denver to conduct ethnographic research with the California campaign to legalize recreational use. In the 20 years since Proposition 215 passed, the medical cannabis industry has expanded in California, and the measure has been viewed by federal agencies as a Trojan horse for recreational use. Nevertheless, California voters rejected recreational legalization in 2010. With the success of ballot initiatives in Colorado and Washington and the resulting tax revenue from cannabis sales, as well as the reversal of public opinion, the cannabis regulation landscape in California has changed. In 2015, 18 cannabis ballot proposals were submitted to the state attorney general, and on January 6, 2016, the attorney general cleared the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA) to begin gathering signatures. If the campaign gathers 365,880 signatures, it will appear on the November ballot.

Much of the AUMA press coverage focuses on Sean Parker, a technology billionaire who founded Napster and sponsors the initiative. Parker’s financial support increases publicity, and the chances of gathering enough signatures. But the initiative has broader support, and emerges from longstanding advocacy on behalf of consumers and industry. The AUMA is also supported by the Drug Policy Alliance, Marijuana Policy Project, and the ACLU. On January, 26, 2016 Rachel Giraudo attended the Southern California Quarterly Cannabis Caucus, where advocates and industry representatives discussed the upcoming 2016 campaign. Aaron Justis, president of Buds & Roses Collective, Inc., a dispensary in Studio City, CA, explained the importance of campaigning for legal reform at both the federal and state level. With Department of Justice enforcement constrained by the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, it appears that the Internal Revenue Service has begun acting against legal cannabis business owners in its stead. Justis’ company has filed federal tax returns for several years, but a year and a half ago it was audited, leaving Buds & Roses with debts of more than half a million dollars. Justis and Nate Bradley, executive director of the California Cannabis Industry Association, urged caucus participants to mobilize at the local level in support of AUMA.

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Audience members listen at the forum. Discussion ranged from the local Colorado process to compliance with the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Photo courtesy Rachel Giraudo.

Although the provisions of AUMA are subject to debate within advocacy communities and the industry, and AUMA will not change federal law, legal recreational marijuana in California will likely be tremendously consequential both nationally and internationally. In 2014, the legal cannabis industry in the US made $2.7 billion dollars, and $5.4 billion in 2015. It is projected to continue to grow exponentially, making marijuana the country’s fastest growing industry. California alone brought in $1.3 billion dollars in 2014. Recognizing the likelihood of the ballot initiative, the state has convened the Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy, chaired by Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, to research and discuss new regulations. If legalization expands in the nation’s most populous state, there will be significant investment both in the US and from overseas, and pressure will increase for changes in federal laws. Meanwhile, a key sponsor of the Cannabis Cultures event in Denver, the National Cannabis Industry Association, continues to advocate reform of federal banking laws, as medical and legal legalization proceed at the state level.

Rapidly changing national and international cannabis policies are a site for political and legal anthropologists to examine processes of legal and social change, to consider questions of local and national scale, and to assess the relation of social movements, law, and everyday life. Current efforts to transform drug laws also create opportunities to engage our work with broader publics.


Jennifer Curtis is Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. She is a board member of the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology (APLA). Her ethnographic research in the US. and Europe examines how grassroots social movements alter civil and human rights practices. She is completing a monograph on race, sexuality, and rights in red state America, based on fieldwork in Missouri, and pursuing a project on cannabis legalization in the US.

Rachel F. Giraudo is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the California State University, Northridge. She is a board member (and founding member) of the Anthropology of Tourism Interest Group (ATIG). Her research interests include indigeneity and identity politics in southern Africa, cultural heritage, tourism, and development. She is also pursuing projects on cannabis legalization and cannabis tourism in the US.

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