For all cannabis legalization’s progress, and all the excitement drug-policy reform and a booming CBD and cannabis market make, much of the United States remains outwardly hostile to marijuana — in some cases, outwardly so.
Against this backdrop, a few states stand out for soldiering on with the drug war.
In Mississippi, where CBD oil was legal even prior to the Farm Bill-sparked CBD craze, an Oregon man was sentenced to 12 years in prison for simple possession — a draconian punishment that was, in fact, a re-negotiated sentence that was meant to be kind. And in Oklahoma, which may be the most marijuana entrepreneur-friendly state in the country, a shipment of what was supposedly hemp was seized by authorities, who as of earlier this month remained hellbent on proving that what Mitch McConnell said was a legal commodity is grounds for imprisonment. With some notable exceptions, the entire American South has been a last bastion of cannabis prohibition and the drug war status quo.
But these are not the worst offenders. These are not quite as bad as Idaho, Nebraska, and South Dakota. In these three states, there is no medical marijuana access of any kind. Outliers, last redoubts of a failed idea, clinging desperately to a lost cause, these are the only three states in the Union with no cannabis reform laws on the books at all, according to NORML.
What “progress” there is here borders on an ironic joke. About the best there is to report from any of these legal cannabis-free zones is what the. Marijuana Policy Project called the “most restrictive and limited of any state law that acknowledges some form of cannabis’s medical value.” A 2017 law that says South Dakota residents can access CBD-only oil, but only if and when CBD products receive official federal Food and Drug Administration approval, a process that is likely to take years.
The good news is that all three states allow for citizen-driven ballot initiatives. And activists in all three states are trying to put substantive medical cannabis measures on the 2020 ballot. But even if they succeed, access could be years away and, in the meantime, state residents must contend with some of the country’s strictest possession laws.
Idaho is in the West, where legal cannabis made its first and most lasting stand. Idaho also abuts several legal states. Ad Idaho, stubborn and obstinate, refuses to play the game and, in fact, joins states like California and Colorado in openly flouting federal law, but in favor of making cannabis more illegal than even the Controlled Substances Act calls for.
Simple possession of 3 ounces or less is a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine or a year in jail; more than 3 ounces is a felony. If you’re growing at home, as you can do across the border in Washington, you’re playing with a felony charge punishable by up to 15 years in prison, if authorities argue the cultivation is for sale.
Idaho is also where state police decided that the Farm Bill signed into law by Donald Trump last December doesn’t apply. Though federal law now says that cannabis sativa with 0.3 percent of less of THC is hemp and legal to possess, Idaho state law declares THC of any amount verboten and so hemp shipments here are subject to seizure, in open defiance of federal authorities who insist that hemp is OK.
After yet another session in the state Legislature ended with no reform, activists will try for the 2020 ballot. If they can collect 55,000 signatures from registered voters by the end of April 2020, voters will have the chance to bring the state “up to speed with states like Oklahoma, Arkansas, and West Virginia,” as campaign spokesman Bill Esbensen recently told reporters. That might not seem like much of a benchmark — West Virginia’s program is not yet operational and it took Arkansas, governed by a former DEA chief, several years to get a voter-approved measure off the ground — but deliberately comparing Idaho to other conservative states who are far ahead is a wise move.
Of the three medical-less states, Nebraska may offer the safest harbor, but lurking behind every slight crack in the prohibitionist facade is nuclear-level punishment.
The maximum penalty for possessing small amounts of cannabis is $300, though sales of “any amount” can be punished with a mandatory minimum of one year in prison. Possessing cannabis concentrates — like a vape-oil cartridge — can land you in state prison for five years.
That’s all bad. A bill that would legalize medical marijuana stalled out in the state Legislature earlier this year and during debate, a crowd of protesters assembled outside the state house to demand that prohibition be kept in place.
To understand why, perhaps it’s helpful to peek into some Nebraskans’ mindsets. Lincoln resident Margaret Wall described herself to Omaha.com as a “pot refugee,” who specifically moved to Nebraska because it was one of the Last Three states without any marijuana reform laws on the books — and that opposing even a limited medical-cannabis bill is necessary to keep the state from slipping towards legalization. Wall and all of her friends may have to repeat the performance next year if advocates are successful in putting a measure on the ballot.
This may be the final frontier for cannabis reform in America.
It wasn’t always this way: South Dakota actually decriminalized cannabis in 1977, but experienced a severe case of reformers’ remorse and “almost immediately” repealed the law, as the Marijuana Policy Project notes. But in the decades since, South Dakotans have consistently shown they’re not interested: medical-cannabis ballot initiatives were voted down in 2006 and 2010 by increasingly wide margins — the last effort lost by nearly two-to-one — and a proposed initiative last year did not qualify.
It seems likely that cannabis reform here may hinge on federal action in Congress, which shows you how entrenched prohibition remains in the minds and in the law books of a select few Americans.