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News Fix: Not All Political Victories Are Created Equal

News Fix: Not All Political Victories Are Created Equal
By Vin Narayanan
Date November 10, 2018

This has been a good week for the legal marijuana industry. Marijuana posted a 3-1 record at the ballot box Tuesday (The New York Times). And it notched another victory Wednesday when Attorney General Jeff Sessions decided to resign. If Sessions had his druthers, the federal government would be ramping up a new war on drugs – and marijuana would be one of its chief targets.

Before we get too excited about new marijuana markets opening up in the U.S., let’s remember that all political victories are not created equal. That’s especially true with Tuesday’s marijuana victories.

The ballot measures that passed in Michigan (Detroit Free Press), Utah (The Salt Lake Tribune) and Missouri (The Kansas City Star) all come with strings attached. And the defeat of a marijuana measure in North Dakota (Duluth News Tribune) muddies the waters at the federal level.

Let’s start with Michigan, which legalized recreational marijuana on Tuesday. Medical marijuana is already legal in Michigan. But cities have effectively used zoning laws to keep the industry from growing. Those laws are not going away. Even worse, the Michigan legislature has the power to bring the growth of the recreational marijuana industry to a halt.

Right now, cities and towns in Michigan have the right to “opt out” of legalizing recreational marijuana. The Michigan Legislature could change that to an “opt in” requirement.

If communities have to opt in to legalize recreational marijuana, NIMBY – not in my backyard – is going to rear its ugly head. The NIMBY mentality prevents progress on all fronts throughout the country.

Take Silicon Valley for example. Property prices in the Bay Area are insane. Demand is incredibly high. Supply is incredibly low. And the result is one of the most expensive housing markets in the world.

There’s only one solution: increasing supply. But cities and towns have been refusing to increase the housing supply for decades. They claim they don’t want to increase traffic/congestion or have overcrowded schools. The message is, “If you want to build new houses, go build them somewhere else.” Of course, this doesn’t stop them from complaining about the price of real estate. This is the power of NIMBY.

Opting in is much more difficult than opting out. If cities and towns have to opt in to legalize recreational marijuana, NIMBY attitudes will be incredibly difficult to overcome. The message will be, “We want recreational marijuana to be legal. But just not in our town.”

Utah passed a medical marijuana measure. But the state legislature is already crafting a more restrictive legislative solution that is expected to replace the ballot initiative the voters adopted.

In Missouri, doctors are supposed to be the gatekeepers that dictate access to medical marijuana. How that plays out in reality is another matter. Regulations still need to be written. If the regulations are liberal – and allow a variety of doctors to prescribe marijuana – the industry could take off. If the regulations require stringent conditions before a prescription can be issued, the industry will be in trouble before it even launches.

Even the defeat of a recreational marijuana initiative in North Dakota adds to the confusion.

Marijuana is still illegal at the federal level. But there’s a growing (bipartisan!) movement in Congress to decriminalize it. Ten states and the District of Columbia have approved recreational marijuana use. Thirty states have approved medical marijuana use. The common political thinking is we’ve reached a tipping point in the marijuana debate. It’s time to resolve the conflict between federal and state law. And the only way to do that is to legalize marijuana at the federal level.

North Dakota’s vote presents a challenge to that line of thinking. The forces that oppose the legalization of marijuana will use the North Dakota vote to argue that the country isn’t ready for legalization yet. And they’ll try to kick the can down the road.

Like I said, not all political victories (or defeats) are created equal.

That’s your News Fix.

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