Trending Legislation: Marijuana Legalization & Local Government

State governments have been legalizing the sale and use of marijuana since 1996 when California was the first to allow use of medical cannabis. In 2012, Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize cannabis for recreational use. However, legalization at the state level creates a complex set of issues that local governments need to address.

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Weeding through history

In the early 1970s, the idea of decriminalizing cannabis started to take hold in a few municipalities. But it wasn’t until two decades later that approving sale and use of marijuana for medical purposes began trending. At the local level, San Francisco and Washington D.C. were a couple of the first cities to lead the way.

Between 1996 and 2012, more than 20 states legalized medical marijuana. And in the 10 years following, nearly every state in the country approved of some level of legalization or decriminalization of marijuana, either medical or recreational. And many states continue to broaden the scope of legalization, including growth, recreational use, and medical dispensing, within their jurisdictions.

Cannabis and marijuana – what’s the difference?

When reading or researching the topics of cannabis, marijuana, and hemp, the terms can sometimes appear to be interchangeable. In fact, they’re technically not. Cannabis is a plant genus. Both hemp and marijuana plants are species belonging to the cannabis genus. In other words, all marijuana is cannabis, but not all cannabis is marijuana.

It’s legal – so what’s next?

Once a state passes legislation that legalizes or decriminalizes marijuana use or sale, that’s when the municipal implications need to be examined and dealt with.

A number of factors come into play, especially from a legislative standpoint. In many cases, states provide municipalities with an opt-in/opt-out timeline where each community is allowed a grace period of sorts to take action to either prohibit or limit its participation in the legalization.

Once a community makes its decision, a review of its municipal ordinances is critical. Ensuring the local code is compliant with statutory regulations also entails making sure that local ordinances properly reflect the stance the community is taking on the issue.

Municipal review

Any existing municipal ordinances regulating or prohibiting cannabis may be null and void after state adoption of legalizing legislation. It may be necessary to readopt local ordinances to keep them in effect.

Additionally, other factors such as penalties or violations may need to be reviewed and updated or removed altogether. Having the municipal attorney and professional codifiers help in this review is recommended to avoid contradictory regulations, ensure consistency throughout the code, and to support effective enforceability.

Useful examples from the eCode360® Library

If your community is interested in legislating on the use and sale of marijuana or cannabis, here are some useful examples that can be found in our eCode360 Library:

Regarding use:

Regulating sale:

Updating municipal codes is vitally important

We encourage our clients to submit code updates as soon as possible to safeguard that constituents and local government officials and staff are always referencing and working with the most up-to-date resources. Clients can send legislation to [email protected].

With the ever-shifting needs of the COVID-19 era, local governments continue to adjust and transform digitally. Keeping municipal codes updated has become more essential than ever. And providing accessibility to the most current regulations and resolutions is equally important.

Best practices for managing your codification budget

Many of our client communities find it helpful to be on a code update schedule. This helps to consistently manage their budgets throughout the year. Our Client Care Advocates can work with you and explain the options and benefits of scheduled code updates. Give them a call at 800.836.8834 or send an email to [email protected]. They’d be happy to help or answer any other codification questions you might have.


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