From full cannabis legalization in New York to the launch of a modest medical marijuana program in Alabama, cannabis reform continued to spread across the U.S. in 2021 amid the ongoing backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and other hot-button political issues.
And while federal prohibition remains in place, the year saw major movement toward reform on the federal level, including a number of new legalization bills in Congress and slow, steady progress on cannabis banking.
In a year marked by partisan divisions, the year also saw more GOP lawmakers than ever take the lead on cannabis, helping craft and introduce bills in at least 10 states as well as Congress.
The year also saw its share of cannabis-related disappointments, including the fact that Congress failed to pass any meaningful marijuana reform bills despite the Democratic majority and President Joe Biden’s yet unfulfilled campaign pledges to stop criminalizing people over cannabis.
The suspension of U.S. sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson for a positive THC test, which kept her from competing in the Tokyo Olympics, also made international headlines and frustrated advocates. But the widespread criticism of the penalty has sparked a review of the marijuana policy, with advocates hopeful it will lead to lasting reform.
Below are some of the most significant cannabis and related news stories from 2021, as selected by Marijuana Moment editors.
Four More U.S. States Legalize Cannabis For Adults
After legalization attempts that repeatedly fell short in recent years, New York lawmakers in March finally saw their latest reform bill signed into law, just hours after they delivered it to the governor’s desk.
While retail sales aren’t expected to begin until sometime in 2022, the bill’s passage immediately removed penalties for possession of up to three ounces of marijuana or 24 grams of cannabis concentrates. Adults will also be able to grow cannabis at home for personal use, but that won’t happen until regulators adopt rules for it, which is set to be no later than 18 months after retail sales begin.
In May a state official estimated the new commercial market will generate $245 million in annual tax revenue by 2024, which is expected to help fill a budget gap left by declining cigarette sales. Delivery and social consumption sites are allowed under the legislation, contributing to what Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) has said will eventually be “thousands and thousands” of new jobs in the state.
The law also requires automatic expungement for marijuana-related activity made legal under the legislation and provides protection against discrimination in housing, educational access and parental rights for people who consume cannabis or work in the marijuana industry. In a first in the U.S., the state announced in October that employers can’t drug test most workers for marijuana. Also unlike most other states that have legalized cannabis, New York’s law lets adults consume marijuana anywhere tobacco use is permitted (even at the New York State Fair).
Lawmakers have already proposed numerous changes to the new system, for example introducing bills that would give cities more time to ban marijuana businesses as regulations develop or let farmers get a head start on growing before the market opens for business. Almost immediately after legalization passed, an assemblywoman filed legislation aimed at minimizing the amount of plastic pollution caused by the industry, while a separate bill encourages hemp-derived packaging as a possible alternative. Other notable bills would extend social equity benefits to transgender, and nonbinary, as well as gay, lesbian and bisexual people, and allow the marijuana industry to deduct business expenses on their state taxes.
Virginia lawmakers passed a comprehensive cannabis package in March, with plans to legalize possession, home cultivation and a retail marijuana market. After lawmakers signed off on amendments by Gov. Ralph Northam (D), the bill became law in April and officially took effect in July. At that point, public possession of up to one ounce of cannabis by adults over 21 became legal, as did personal cultivation of up to four plants at home. Private sharing of up to an ounce of marijuana between adults is also legal, as long as no remuneration is involved. A joint legislative committee also recently voted to recommend that the launch of retail sales be pushed up by a year, starting in 2023 instead of 2024.
According to a website launched by Virginia regulators, “all records of misdemeanor possession with intent to distribute marijuana arrests, charges, and convictions will be automatically sealed from public view in the Virginia State Police’s systems” started in July, as well. As of October, the state had reportedly sealed more than 64,000 misdemeanor marijuana distribution charges since the law took effect.
The fate of the state’s retail cannabis system, however, became less certain following November 2021’s election, which replaced the commonwealth’s pro-legalization Democratic governor with a Republican skeptical about the issue and gave the control of the state House of Delegates to the GOP. Republicans will now decide whether or how to proceed down the path to commercial licensing.
GOP lawmakers said last month that they aren’t necessarily opposed to letting retail sales proceed, though they’re less keen on Democrats’ planned social equity rules. Some Republicans have even signaled they’re open to advancing the timeline for legal sales, which weren’t planned to begin until 2024.
New Mexico capped off spring’s three-state legalization run when the policy change was signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), who listed legalization as a 2021 priority. Although lawmakers failed to pass the reform before the regular session’s end in March, Lujan Grisham convened a special session to ensure they got the job done.
Provisions of the legalization bill and separate expungements legislation were initially included together in the same package, which passed the House during the regular session but later stalled on the Senate floor. When the special session started, however, supporters split up that legislation into two bills to win favor from Republicans and moderate Democrats, who expressed had opposition to the scope of the original proposal.
Among other provisions of the new law, which took effect in June, adults 21 and older can possess up to two ounces of cannabis, 16 grams of cannabis concentrates and 800 milligrams of infused edibles. Adults can grow up to six mature cannabis plants at home for personal use, while licensed retail sales must begin by April 1, 2022. In August, the state began accepting applications for production licenses.
In June, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) signed a bill into law to make Connecticut the fourth state to legalize cannabis for adults in 2021. The new law, which began to take effect the following month, allows possession of up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana and, in July 2023, will permit adults to cultivate cannabis at home. Regulators launched an informational website over the summer and are working to stand up a licensed retail market by spring of 2022. State officials estimate the new industry will bring in a little over $4 million in tax revenue during the first year of sales, an amount projected to rise to $73.4 million in the 2026 fiscal year.
Under the new law, people under 18 can no longer be arrested for simple marijuana possession, and those between 18 and 20 who possess small amounts of cannabis can only be punished by a $50 civil fine. The smell of marijuana can also no longer be used as the basis for police to stop and search people. Beginning July 1, 2022, individuals in the state can petition to have other cannabis convictions erased, such as for possession of marijuana paraphernalia or the sale of small amounts of cannabis.
While Lamont was broadly supportive of legalization during the legislative session, the path to actually passing legislation was rocky, and the governor at one point asked his New Mexico counterpart for advice. After a tense, late-session back-and-forth with state lawmakers during which the Lamont threatened a veto, a compromise bill was finally released just days before a key legislative deadline, which the legislature approved during a special session. The dispute hinged largely a provision—eventually deleted—that would have allowed past cannabis arrests and convictions to qualify business license applicants for social equity status.
Alabama Adopts Bipartisan Medical Marijuana Law
In May, Alabama’s Republican Gov. Kay Ivey (R) signed a bill to legalize medical marijuana, calling the reform an “important first step” in “a sensitive and emotional issue.” While the measure was approved with a two-to-one margin in both the House and Senate, some Republican lawmakers vigorously opposed its passage, staging a lengthy filibuster that delayed the final votes.
The relatively restrictive legislation requires patients to be diagnosed with one of about 20 conditions, including anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and intractable pain. Regulators will not be able to independently add additional conditions, leaving that decision up to lawmakers in future sessions. The bill also prohibits raw cannabis, smoking, vaping and candy or baked good products. Patients will instead be allowed to purchase capsules, lozenges, oils, suppositories and topical patches.
Louisiana Decriminalizes Cannabis Possession And Adds Medical Flower
Louisiana saw continued cannabis reform in 2021, with Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) signing a marijuana decriminalization bill into law in June. The change, which had bipartisan support in the legislature and took effect in August, reduced penalties for possession of up to 14 grams of cannabis to a $100 fine.
The modest reform could eventually lead to full legalization, Bel Edwards said the day after signing the legislation, noting that the Republican sponsor of a separate legalization bill that session “actually got more traction with it than most people thought.” He acknowledged there’s “a growing recognition that this is going to happen in Louisiana one day,” though he doubted it would happen while he’s still in office.
Later in June, Louisiana also adopted a bill to let registered medical marijuana patients legally smoke whole-plant cannabis.
Schumer Unveils Long-Awaited Federal Legalization Bill
While it’s not yet clear what Congress will do in 2022 on cannabis reform, lawmakers are likely to consider a handful of landmark bills. One leading candidate is legislation from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and congressional colleagues, the initial details of which came out in July.
Titled the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA), the draft bill would federally deschedule cannabis, expunge prior convictions, allow people to petition for resentencing, maintain the authority of states to set their own marijuana policies and remove collateral consequences like immigration-related penalties for people who’ve been criminalized over the plant. The bill would also impose a federal tax on marijuana products and put some of that revenue toward grant programs meant to support people from communities most impacted by prohibition who want to participate in the industry.
In the months after the draft text was unveiled, Schumer announced that he and other key senators had reached an agreement that lawmakers wouldn’t advance widely anticipated cannabis banking legislation until more a more comprehensive legalization bill advances. He added that he planned to lobby Biden “heavily” on legalization.
Schumer has said some of his goals with the legislation are to keep corporate “big boys” out of the cannabis industry and ensure some profits from legalization are directed back to communities most affected by the drug war. He told an interviewer in November, “After all the pain that’s been occurring in communities like the one you represent in Brooklyn, where I’m from—to have the big boys come in and make all the money makes no sense.”
GOP Lawmakers Offer Alternative Federal Legalization Plan
In November, congressional Republicans unveiled a federal cannabis legalization measure of their own, framing the bill as an attempt to bridge the partisan divide on marijuana—an alternative to both Democrats’ more far-reaching plans and GOP-led proposals to merely deschedule the plant.
Sponsored by Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC), the States Reform Act would legalize and tax cannabis at the federal level. Further, it would take specific steps to ensure that businesses in existing state markets can continue to operate unencumbered by changing federal rules. Along with Mace, the bill is cosponsored by four other GOP lawmakers.
Some industry stakeholders see an opportunity in the Republican-led effort, expressing skepticism that Democratic-led legalization bills will be able to pass without GOP buy-in. While Democrats hold majorities in both chambers, in addition to controlling the White House, the margins for passage are slim.
House Judiciary Committee Passes Federal Marijuana Legalization Bill
In a sign of just how much cannabis’s prospects in Congress have changed in recent years, in September a key U.S. House committee approved a bill to federally legalize marijuana and promote social equity. The 26–15 vote in the Judiciary Committee fell largely along party lines, with all Democrats supporting the measure—the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—and all but two Republicans voting against it.
“This long overdue and historic legislation would reverse failed federal policies criminalizing marijuana,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who also chairs the committee. “It would also take steps to address the heavy toll this policy has taken across the country, particularly among communities of color.”
The legislation would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), allow people with cannabis convictions to have their records expunged and create a federal tax on marijuana with the revenue going to support community reinvestment and other programs. It also contains language to create a pathway for resentencing for those incarcerated for cannabis offenses, protect immigrants from being denied citizenship over marijuana and prevent federal agencies from denying public benefits or security clearance due to its use.
Nadler’s cannabis legislation passed the House last year but did not advance in the Senate under GOP control. This time around, advocates are optimistic that something like the chairman’s bill could be enacted now that Democrats run both chambers and the White House, and as more states are moving to enact legalization, though it’s just one of a handful of bills now before Congress.
Cannabis Banking Reform Again Fails To Cross The Finish Line
The battle to reform federal banking restrictions facing the cannabis industry continued through the end of 2021, with congressional lawmakers repeatedly trying—and, so far, failing—to pass the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act. Despite a recent push to include the measure as part of a federal defense bill, Senate leadership earlier this month successful argued to omit the reform, leaving supporters planning their next steps.
The congressional debate over SAFE Banking this year has divided lawmakers and advocates. They share the ultimate goal of ending cannabis criminalization, but there’s growing tension between the pragmatic desire to pursue standalone banking legislation—which the House has passed in various forms five times–and the push for comprehensive reform, which faces longer odds in a partisan Congress.
Supporters of passing banking reform sooner rather than later remain frustrated that the change, which has broad support, is being delayed by Democrats, such as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who have agreed to prioritize broader legalization and social equity measures.
“I don’t have a problem with [broad legalization] personally,” Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), the SAFE Act’s lead sponsor, said in a recent interview with Marijuana Moment. “I just want to pass something that breaks the ice so that the Senate starts taking this up in, you know, bigger chunks if they’re willing to do that.”
Drug Policy Debate Moves Beyond Marijuana
Congress Sees First-Ever Bill To Decriminalize All Drugs
In June, on the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of a war on drugs, two U.S. House Democrats introduced the first-ever federal legislation to finally end it.
The proposal, titled the Drug Policy Reform Act (DRPA), would end the threat of incarceration for people caught possessing drugs for personal use. Courts would still have the option of imposing a fine, but that could be waived if a person couldn’t afford it. Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Cori Bush (D-MO), the bill’s sponsors, say the measure would replace criminal penalties with an evidence- and public health-based approach to substance misuse.
Notably, the bill would also withhold federal funds for law enforcement in states and cities that continue to enforce criminalization of simple drug possession. The threat of losing that money could be incentivize states and municipalities to stop locking people up for drugs.
The bill faces an uphill battle in Congress, but at the time of its introduction, polling from the Drug Policy Alliance and ACLU showed that the public supported ready for the policy change, with two-thirds of American voters saying they believed the drug war should end and that simple possession of currently illegal substances should be decriminalized.
California Bill To Legalize Psychedelics Advances Toward Final Passage
A landmark bill to legalize the possession of psychedelics in California passed the state Senate and two Assembly committees in 2021, but its sponsor ultimately pulled the legislation to build broader support for passage. As a two-year bill, it’s still technically in play and likely to be taken up in 2022.
Introduced by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D) in February, the bill cleared the full Senate in June and then moved through the Assembly Public Health and Public Safety Committees. In August it advanced through a second reading on the Assembly floor before Wiener decided to hold it until next year.
The bill, SB 519, would remove criminal penalties for possessing numerous psychedelics—including psilocybin mushrooms, DMT, ibogaine, LSD and MDMA—for adults 21 and older. For psilocybin specifically, the legislation would repeal provisions in California statute that prohibit the cultivation or transportation of “any spores or mycelium capable of producing mushrooms or other material” that contain the psychoactive ingredient.
As approved by the Public Health Committee, the bill currently includes language setting personal possession limits for each substance, a provision that led Decriminalize Nature, a group that’s worked to enact psychedelics reform across the country, to call for the tabling of the legislation. The bill originally included record sealing and resentencing provisions for people previously convicted of psychedelics possession offenses, but that language was removed in its last committee stop prior to the Senate floor vote as part of an amendment from the sponsor.
Wiener said in September he’s confident his proposal will prevail. “I think that we still have a very strong piece of legislation,” he said, “and we are committed to passing it in 2022.”
Texas Passes Law To Begin Studying Psychedelics
Texas lawmakers, who’ve taken a slow, cautious approach to medical marijuana in the state, turned their attention to psychedelics in 2021, enacting a law in June to begin studying the therapeutic potential of psilocybin, MDMA and ketamine.
Under the new law, the state will be required to study the medical risks and benefits of the substances for military veterans in partnership with Baylor College of Medicine and a military-focused medical center. It also mandates a clinical trial into psilocybin for veterans with PTSD, in addition to a broader review of the scientific literature on all three substances.
Its sponsor, Rep. Alex Dominguez (D), said psychedelic medicine “has the potential to completely change society’s approach to mental health treatment, and research is the first step to realizing that transformation.”
Gov. Greg Abbott (R) let the bill become law without his signature, though days earlier he signed a bill to modestly expand the state’s limited medical marijuana program. Former Gov. Rick Perry (R), meanwhile, had called on lawmakers to approve the change.
Maine Bill To Decriminalize All Drugs Passes House But Dies In Senate
Maine lawmakers made a run at decriminalizing all currently illegal drugs this year, and while the proposal cleared the House of Representatives, the Senate rejected it in a narrow, 14–18 vote in June.
As passed by the House, the legislation would have made possession of controlled substances for personal use punishable by a $100 fine, without the threat of incarceration. That fine could also have been waived if a person completed a substance misuse assessment within 45 days of being cited.
Even if the legislation had passed, however, it was expected to be vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills (D), whose administration opposed the reform, as did the state attorney general. Supporters of the legislation included the American Academy of Pediatrics’s Maine Chapter, Maine Medical Association, Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services in Maine and Maine Council of Churches.
“We are continually trying to criminalize a symptom of a disease. It hasn’t worked. It won’t work,” Rep. Charlotte Warren (D), the House chair of the legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said before the House vote in May. “We have tried criminalizing this disease for decades, and 11 Mainers a week are dying.”
Safe Consumption Sites Gain Momentum
In a milestone for harm reduction advocates, New York City authorized the nation’s first sanctioned safe consumption sites for illegal drugs in November. And the service—which allow people to use currently illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment and receive treatment resources—is already saving lives, city officials say.
In the background of the launch, a Trump-era Justice Department challenge against another non-profit seeking to establish the facilities in Philadelphia also continues. While the U.S. Supreme Court recently rejected a request to take up the case, it’s still being pursued in a low court, and the current administration faces a March 2022 deadline to make its position known.
Meanwhile, the governor of Rhode Island signed a historic bill in July to establish a safe consumption site pilot program.
A similar harm reduction bill in California, sponsored by Sen. Scott Wiener (D), was approved in the state Senate in April, but further action has been delayed until 2022.
Olympics Suspension Of Sha’Carri Richardson Spurs Review Of THC Ban
Sha’Carri Richardson, known as fastest woman in America, was denied a chance to run at the Tokyo Olympics this year after testing positive for THC in violation of U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) policy. In a press interview, Richardson said she consumed cannabis in Oregon, where marijuana is legal for adults, after learning about the death of her biological mother.
In the aftermath, USA Track & Field, said the policy “should be reevaluated.” Some lawmakers also called for a change to the rules, which resulted from U.S. influence over world anti-doping policy in the 1990s. Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), for example, wrote a letter to USADA and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) expressing “dismay” at the punishment and calling the ban “a significant and unnecessary burden on athletes’ civil liberties,” while a separate letter from 18 members of Congress urged USADA and WADA to “re-evaluate its criteria and decision to include cannabis, specifically [THC], as a prohibited substance.”
While none of the calls for change could return Richardson to the Tokyo Olympics, they could ultimately overturn the global ban on cannabis in athletics. In September, WADA announced it would conduct a scientific review of marijuana in 2022 to determine whether it should continue the international ban. In a press release, WADA said the panel agreed to conduct the review “following receipt of requests from a number of stakeholders.” The ban will remain in place through at least next year.
More Republicans Take Lead On State-Level Legalization
This year saw more support for legalization than ever by elected Republicans, who’ve generally been slow to adopt the policy position despite majority support among GOP voters. In addition to the States Reform Act in Congress, Republicans shepherded legalization bills in a number of states in 2021.
By March, Republican lawmakers in at least 10 states—including Florida, Georgia, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wyoming—had taken lead roles in crafting and sponsoring legislation to legalize cannabis in the 2021 legislative session. In some cases, members from both sides of the aisle collaborated on marijuana bills, a rare example in today’s divided age of lawmakers finding common ground.
The cross-country wave of Republican lawmakers embracing legalization comes after voters in several GOP-leaning states, such as Montana and South Dakota approved cannabis reform measures on their November ballots, which might be influencing more politicians across party lines to embrace the issue.
Beyond the Republican lawmakers who’ve sponsored bills to fully legalize marijuana, even more have embraced relatively modest measures to decriminalize possession or allow medical cannabis. Others are championing even more far-reaching measures to reform laws around psychedelics and other drugs. Iowa Rep. Jeff Shipley (R), for example, filed legislation this session to decriminalize psilocybin and to allow seriously ill people to access psychedelics.
The Biden Administration
From a cannabis perspective, Biden’s first months in office got off to a rocky start after reports that the new administration asked dozens of staffers to resign, or otherwise punished them, for past marijuana use. After criticism—including from Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who said the actions represented an “antiquated response”—the White House later claimed that nobody was fired for “marijuana usage from years ago,” nor had anyone been terminated “due to casual or infrequent use during the prior 12 months.”
Despite the White House downplaying the event, it was a sign to many of the behind-the-times approach to cannabis from Biden, who helped write tough-on-crime policies as a senator in the 1990s.
On the campaign trail, Biden pitched himself as a moderate reformer. He said his administration would pursue marijuana decriminalization and expungements for people with prior cannabis convictions and indicated support for medical cannabis legalization, modestly rescheduling marijuana under federal law and letting states set their own policies without federal intervention. “We should decriminalize marijuana,” he said during a town hall event in October 2020, adding, “I don’t believe anybody should be going to jail for drug use.”
As 2021 draws to a close, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are now taking aim at Biden for lack of action. Last month a group of senators, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), sent the president a letter urging him to “pardon all individuals convicted of non-violent cannabis offenses, whether formerly or currently incarcerated.” Advocates have been calling on Biden to issue the order since at least February, when 37 members of Congress sent him a letter asking for mass pardons. Earlier this month, lawmakers sent an “urgent” request to the White House for a status update.
Even some GOP lawmakers have criticized Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris for their “lack of action” and “continued silence” on marijuana reform and urging the administration to reschedule cannabis under federal law. Reps. Dave Joyce (R-OH) and Don Young (R-AK), both co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, first requested in July that the president take steps to reclassify marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act, but this month the lawmakers told Marijuana Moment they have yet to receive a reply.
Many are also frustrated with Biden for his budget proposal in May that maintained a ban on allowing Washington, D.C. to legalize marijuana sales. “It’s hard to reconcile with his strong support for D.C. statehood—and, for that matter, with the rest of his budget,” said Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC). “For example, he does not interfere with medical marijuana.”
While Biden has not interfered with medical cannabis, his support for reform has been cautious. On April 20, his administration declined to commit to supporting legalization reform if Congress delivered a bill to his desk.
The president has nevertheless supported some reforms, for example by signing a massive infrastructure bill that included provisions allowing researchers to study the actual marijuana that consumers are purchasing from state-legal retailers instead of having to use only government-grown cannabis.
Congressional researchers say Biden has the power to do much more on his own. A recent analysis from the Congressional Research service concluded that the president can grant mass amnesty to people who have violated federal marijuana laws and can also move to federally legalize cannabis without waiting for lawmakers to act.
2022: The Year Ahead
Efforts to roll back the drug war are likely to continue at both the state and federal level in 2022. In more than a dozen states already, activists have already filed or are pursuing ballot measures on cannabis, psychedelics and broader drug reform.
In Colorado, advocates have proposed ballot initiatives to legalize psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelics. Washington State activists are also mounting a push to put broad drug decriminalization on the ballot.
Lawmakers are also going to be considering reform legislation for the year ahead, including a recent psychedelics bill in New York and cannabis measures in Rhode Island, Maryland, Ohio, Kentucky and other states.
On the federal front, expect continued debate—and disagreement—on not whether to legalize marijuana, but how. Competing bills from both parties will set the stage for discussions on national regulations, social equity and more. Banking restrictions, tax reform and drug-related research are also likely to see action. The political winds may also shift as election season approaches, with not only congressional but also a number of state governor seats up for grabs.