2015 has been a stellar year for mainstream marijuana. It is becoming more apart of American life and culture. When Americans go to the polls in November, they’ll be voting for a new president, many crucial Senate races and the future of legalized marijuana. It appears that at least five states, including California, will be voting on whether the marijuana industry should be regulated like alcohol while some of the more conservative states, will vote on allowing medical marijuana. As the industry grows up, here’s a look back at marijuana in 2015.
January 1: Colorado Completes First Year of Legal Pot Sales
On New Year’s Day, legal pot sales were underway in Colorado and Washington state and, as supporters liked to say, the sky hadn’t fallen. In 2014, recreational and medical sales totaled $700 million in Colorado, and 2015 sales appear likely to show substantial gains.
The year started off with legalization poised to expand its geographic footprint as well. In November 2014, Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., had voted for recreational weed.
January 8: Peter Thiel Invests in the Green Rush
Founders Fund, a venture capital firm co-founded by Peter Thiel, a big-deal investor known for his early bet on Facebook, invested millions in the cannabis-focused private equity fund Privateer Holdings. But speculation that mainstream money would pour into the green rush was premature. While companies continued to raise money, the Thiel investment was probably the most buzzed about deal of 2015. Privateer aims to develop global marijuana brands. Its companies include the website Leafly and Marley Natural, named for the Reggae legend.
February 25: Jamaica Decriminalizes Marijuana
With legalization advancing in the U.S., Jamaica’s parliament decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana and approved programs that would allow medical use and scientific research. Marijuana use is widespread in the island nation thanks largely to Bob Marley and ganja’s role in Rastafari. The law went into effect in April. In November, High Times hosted one of its Cannabis Cup gatherings in Jamaica.
April 20: Denver Celebrates Weed
In Denver, the annual 4/20 festivities included concerts by Redman, Method Man and Cypress Hill, plus a rally and at least one brunch pairing cannabis with crepes. Snoop Dogg also played the Mile High City; later in the year he launched Leafs by Snoop, one of several product lines with a celebrity figurehead. Other artists associating themselves with the green rush include Willie Nelson, who’s also a prominent opponent of corporate pot, and Melissa Etheridge who sells a cannabis-infused “wine tincture.”
July 28: Chris Christie Says No to Legalization
GOP presidential candidate and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie solidified his position as the most anti-legalization candidate in the 2016 field. “If you’re getting high in Colorado today, enjoy it,” he said at a town hall in New Hampshire. “As of January 2017, I will enforce the federal laws.” Despite medical marijuana now being allowed in 23 states and Washington, D.C., it remains illegal federally, and the feds don’t acknowledge any medical uses for the drug.
In November, Christie received some of the best press of his campaign for discussing addiction to cigarettes, heroin, cocaine, alcohol and prescription painkillers. “I’m pro-life,” Christie said, referring to more than fetuses. It’s been speculated that Republicans have been more sympathetic to treating the heroin crisis as a health matter because it’s more likely to have personally touched their white supporters than marijuana arrests.
July 30: “Green” Credit Union Sues the Feds
The Denver-based Fourth Corner Credit Union, which hopes to provide financial services to marijuana companies, sued the Federal Reserve after it was denied a “master account” that would allow it to transact with other banks. Access to bank accounts remains a problem for many state-licensed marijuana businesses, which have to conduct much of their business in cash. This is a hassle, they say, and ensures that they remain attractive targets for thieves. The lawsuit is ongoing.
September 3: Denver Public-Use Initiative Is Dropped
Since legalization, many visitors to Colorado have noticed that unless they make special arrangements, there’s almost no place where a tourist can smoke a joint; most hotels don’t allow smoking, and consumption is forbidden in public. The situation isn’t dire – edibles are just one workaround – but activists want to make room for businesses where users can indulge without an eye over their shoulder.
However, in September, activists shelved a Denver ballot initiative that, if approved, would have allowed limited use in bars and similar settings. With few exceptions, an Amsterdam-style “coffeehouse” scene remains unrealized in this country.
September 16: Jeb Bush: “Sorry Mom,” I Smoked Pot
During the second GOP debate, onetime frontrunner Jeb Bush admitted to his already widely reported pot smoking as a teenager. The Marijuana Policy Project, which grades candidates on their views, recently bumped the former Florida governor up to a C- after he said the drug should be decriminalized. According to the group, the presidential candidates who have smoked pot include Republican Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul. Bernie Sanders has also copped to smoking. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has said she never used.
September 28: FBI: More Than 700,000 Marijuana Arrests in 2014
In the news, legalization had all the momentum this year. But data from the FBI revealed that there were just over 700,000 U.S. marijuana arrests in 2014, down only slightly from the peak of 775,000 in 2007. Of the 2014 arrests, 88 percent were for possession alone.
Studies have repeatedly shown that marijuana arrests disproportionately affect people of color. The ACLU says U.S. authorities spend $3.6 billion annually enforcing possession laws.
October 1: Recreational Sales Begin in Oregon
The Beaver State started selling to all adults, and sales totaled $11 million in the first week. (The news quickly got buried by a fatal mass shooting at a community college in the state.)
States that saw their first medical dispensaries open in 2015 included Massachusetts, Illinois and Nevada.
October 18: Justin Trudeau is Elected in Canada, Pledging to Legalize
Justin Trudeau, whose campaign promises included a pledge to legalize, won election as prime minister of Canada. If he follows through, Canada would be by far the largest Western nation to make weed legal. Trudeau’s father, the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Canadian equivalent of John F. Kennedy, had also taken steps to legalize, though he eventually abandoned the plan.
October 28: Bernie Sanders Calls for Ending Federal Pot Ban
Speaking at George Mason University, Bernie Sanders called for an end to the federal ban on marijuana. “I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for non-violent offenses,” Sanders said. “We have a criminal justice system that lets CEOs on Wall Street walk away and yet we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana.”
Hillary Clinton, Sanders’ rival for the Democratic nomination, soon called for the drug to be removed from its current classification as a schedule I drug, a category that includes LSD, heroin and other substances deemed not to have medical benefits.
November 3: Ohio Says No to Legal Pot
On Election Day, Ohio voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have written legal, medical and recreational marijuana into the state constitution. While legalization in the big Midwestern swing state would have been a coup for the movement, the loss was not seen as much of a setback.
The initiative would have essentially granted indefinite control of growing in the state to a group of ten companies that had paid for the political campaign to pass it. One investor said it would deliver a “tsunami of money” to those few supporters. The arrangement turned off voters, including some who support legalization. In Ohio, as in much of the nation, polls show that large majorities support some form of medical marijuana, and a slimmer margin favor recreational use.
November 4: Mexican High Court Clears Path to Legalization
Mexico’s highest court declared that growing and distributing marijuana for personal use is a human right, opening a legal route to legalization.
In Mexico, traffic in illegal drugs to the U.S. has enabled corruption and fueled many cycles of horrific violence. The group pushing for legalization took a different approach, arguing that “the government is infringing on the constitutional doctrine of the free development of personality.”
November Looking Forward
As legalization has advanced and sales have grown, the plant looks more like a business that would be of interest to big alcohol, tobacco, pharmaceutical companies and those in other fields. This been a concern for legalization opponents, who say Big Weed companies will be rich and powerful enough to mislead the public or distort the science of pot’s negative effects.
In early November, Dan Riffle, the Marijuana Policy Project’s federal policy director and a longtime activist, quit his job, emailing colleagues to say that “industry is taking over the legalization movement and I’m not interested in the industry.” Around the same time, the group announced a fund drive called Pledge 4 Growth, which would allow participating companies to donate 0.420 percent of their gross revenue to advancing legalization.
In 2015, the green industry began to look more like any other industry, but this was mere preparation for what we can expect in 2016, when a slate of full and medical legalization measures are expected to appear before tens of millions of voters.
California, which has allowed medical use since 1996, will command the most attention. While it’s possible that more than one initiative will appear before voters there, support has begun to consolidate around an initiative spearheaded by Napster founder and tech world gadfly Sean Parker.
In 2010, Californians voted down full legalization, in part because it did not have full support from pot growers in the state’s northern Emerald Triangle region. Since then legalization has passed in several states, and the prospect of holding the vote in a presidential election year, when the electorate skews younger, has supporters bullish. If legalization opponents are going to take a stand, California could be their last chance.