Looking at any map of state marijuana policies in the United States–including our own–it becomes clear that certain regions have openly embraced marijuana legalization, while others lag behind. Only nine states have legalized recreational marijuana: six on the West Coast; three in the Northeast, plus Washington DC. The reach of medical marijuana is much larger: thirty-one states allow doctors to prescribe cannabis for medical conditions, although some states are far more restrictive than others.
Of the twelve states in what is defined as the Midwestern United States, only Illinois, North Dakota, Michigan, Ohio, and Minnesota have legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes. In all twelve states, prohibition of recreational marijuana is still the law of the land.
But that might change this November, when voters in four states will get to decide whether to continue the failed War on Drugs or to loosen restrictive and damaging policies. The cannabis revolution is coming to the Midwest, and it could change the face of drug prohibition in America.
On November 6, voters in Michigan, Missouri, North Dakota, and Utah will be asked whether they want their state governments to loosen restrictions on cannabis use. Currently, Missouri and Utah have total prohibitions in place on marijuana use. The ballot initiatives in those states will, if approved, allow doctors to prescribe cannabis for medicinal purposes. Missouri and Utah will be the thirty-second and thirty-third states to lift the prohibition on medical cannabis.
Both states desperately need these reforms. Recent research has shown the profound impact that medical cannabis can have on rates of opioid prescription rates and opioid overdose rates. In Utah, the opioid prescription rate in 2015 was 73.1 per 100 people, and the 2016 opioid overdose rate was 16.4. In Missouri, those rates were 90 and 15.9. Both states were in the top 40 percent in the country for opioid overdose rate.
For patients in Missouri and Utah, medical cannabis will provide much-needed relief and treatment to which they have not had access. Conditions for which research has shown cannabis to be an effective treatment include HIV, arthritis, asthma, epilepsy, glaucoma, and multiple sclerosis.
Having access to medical cannabis will save lives and improve the quality of life throughout Missouri and Utah, but voting to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes will also serve a second purpose. These votes can send a message that it is finally time for the United States to abandon the failed, dangerous war on marijuana, to move past prohibition and pursue real, evidence-based solutions to medical issues, pain management, and the opioid crisis.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has repeatedly spoken out against marijuana legalization, instead advocating for harsher punishments for those who use cannabis. While the Department of Justice currently does not interfere with states that have chosen to legalize marijuana, that could change tomorrow, especially since Sessions rescinded former Attorney General Eric Holder’s “Cole Memo.” In addition, marijuana is still a Schedule 1 drug, meaning that research on its medicinal benefits is severely restricted.
There is no evidence that the Trump Administration is going to reverse course on marijuana. In fact, it seems that the federal government’s Marijuana Policy Coordination Committee is seeking to undermine state autonomy on marijuana legalization. The most effective way to fight back against these attacks is by sending a message that the American people want to end prohibition now.
Tom Houseman, Policy Director