This post has been updated with news Gov. Justice signed West Virginia's medical marijuana bill into law on Wednesday.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to bring back the war on drugs, but on medical marijuana — which he says “has been hyped, maybe too much” — he may be too late.
Any minute now, medical marijuana will be legal in West Virginia. West Virginia! It's a state that voted for Trump by nearly 42 points in November, and approved medical marijuana via its Republican legislature last week. Democratic Gov. Jim Justice (D) signed it on Wednesday.
And West Virginia is on the tail end of the medical marijuana trend. Half the population of the country, spread out among some 28 states and the District of Columbia, can legally smoke some form marijuana for medical purposes. All but three states legalize some part of the drug found in the cannabis plant for medical cause (mostly the compound cannabidiol, which research suggests doesn't get people high but can help with anxiety and pain).
Liberal, West Coast states launched the medical marijuana trend almost two decades ago. Western, redder states with a libertarian streak followed. And now, a February Quinnipiac University poll found that 93 percent of voters support medical marijuana being legally prescribed by a doctor.
In 2017, all that's left for medical marijuana advocates to conquer is more traditional Republican states, which they're doing. West Virginia is the third Republican-controlled state legislature in a row to pass a medical marijuana bill. In November, voters in all or mostly GOP-controlled Ohio and Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana by ballot.
“I remember 10 years ago, when I started working on theses issues, it was hard to have a conversation about limited medical use with a lot of legislatures,” said Matt Simon of the Marijuana Policy Project. “They didn't even want to take meetings on it. The tide has shifted dramatically — it used to feel like we were trying to push a boulder up a mountain, and it feels like we're going downhill with the wind at our backs.”
West Virginia's legalization path underscored how bipartisan medical marijuana has become. To bring a state Senate bill to the floor, state House Republicans revolted against their leadership with a parliamentary procedure led by state House Democrats to override reluctant leaders.
“I think we all know someone who has benefited from some application of marijuana or certainly could benefit based on the research that's available today,” state Rep. John Shott (R) said, according to the Associated Press.
But if the battle over medical marijuana is done, we're in the throes of a legal pot battle that states are far more reluctant to touch. Eight states have legalized recreational pot, and not one via a state legislature. (They've all been ballot initiatives.) Last year, Vermont lawmakers got close, but the bill fizzled.
This year, advocates have their eyes on Rhode Island, where pot advocates in the legislature are trying to race Massachusetts, whose voters legalized marijuana by in November, to the market.
Back in Washington, the federal government is still a universe away from even where West Virginia stands on pot: It's technically illegal to buy, sell or use marijuana, including for medical use. The government puts marijuana in the same category as heroin: a Schedule 1 drug that has the “high potential for abuse and no accepted medical treatment use.”
The Obama administration decided not to enforce some of those laws as it reduced mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. But Sessions has indicated he'll re-up those sentences and crack down on people found guilty of possessing drugs.
“Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs is bad,” Sessions said to law enforcement officials last month, reports the Washington Post's Sari Horwitz.
If Sessions decides to enforce the federal laws that ban medical marijuana, he'd have to crack down on half the country.
Congress may soon have to decide between Sessions or the states. In the recent past, a coalition of Republicans and Democrats in Congress have limited how much the Justice Department can interfere in states' medical marijuana programs. Lawmakers have even been receptive to expanding those protections to recreational pot as well.
While the federal government decides what it wants to do, advocates are moving quickly to recreate their medical marijuana success in the legislature. Simon says he thinks once they hook their first state legislature to legalize recreational marijuana, others will quickly follow.
That strategy worked for medical marijuana. Two decades ago, it was nearly impossible to imagine a state like West Virginia legalizing medical pot. Now, it's barely even news.
Correction: This article originally misspelled state Rep. John Shott's name.