Changing Cannabis Laws | An Interview with Marijuana Policy Project

This week we interviewed Violet Cavendish of Marijuana Policy Project – a company that has been fighting for cannabis legalization in the US for 25 years. She shared her knowledge on where we are as a country with legalization and decriminalization, what the law changing process looks like, states most likely to legalize next, and how anyone (even with no time or money) can help.



Violet, can you give us a little background on yourself and how you got into marijuana policy?

I came into the marijuana advocacy movement with a social justice background. Previously my work had been concentrated on homeless services and through that work, the issues caused by cannabis prohibition were really brought to the forefront for me. It was the first time I was getting a view of how it was affecting Americans. 

At the time that kind of came as a surprise to me. But knowing what I know now, it’s really not surprising at all. Many of the populations that are most negatively impacted by the war on marijuana overlap with the homeless population. It’s unfortunately common seeing these two things intersect. 


I would say specifically there was an incident I can recall where I was working with a homeless service organization where one of our clients was arrested for simple marijuana possession. I believe he had nothing more than just a joint on him, but was arrested nonetheless – I think he had a few prior charges for marijuana on his record as well.

When he came into our office after this I learned that any arrest (especially one that has to deal with drugs) really limits what we could offer in terms of resources and help. We sat down and he starts to explain the situation and relayed to us that the reason he’s been using marijuana is to help manage and reduce his chronic pain, which is something that’s very common within the homeless population along with many other ailments. 

He mentioned that the prescription medication he had been taken just wasn’t helping as much as marijuana had been. That really illustrated that there was a huge problem around marijuana and how the policy of prohibition is so problematic. 

This experience was two fold. Not only did it highlight that marijuana could be used as an effective alternative medication it also highlighted that it’s still used to criminalize people. So that is what sparked my interest in marijuana policy reform and led me where I am today working for the Marijuana Policy Project.

For the third year in a row, FBI data reports that marijuana arrests have risen and most of them are for simple possession. Even though States are moving towards legalization, we’re still seeing an increase in arrests. Unfortunately it disproportionately affects certain groups of people. 

Marijuana Policy Project

You’re now working for the marijuana policy project – can you just tell us about the company and its goals and missions?

The marijuana policy project has been around for 25 years now and our mission is to change federal law to allow States to determine their own marijuana policies without federal funds interference. We want to see medical use of cannabis being allowed in all 50 States and us territories as well. 

Our ultimate goal is to see marijuana being regulated like alcohol across the country. We’ve been active on the state and federal level again for 25 years, and we are responsible for changing most of the state marijuana laws that have been reformed since 2000. More than a dozen medical marijuana laws. 

We played the leading role in voter initiatives for adult use legalization and Colorado, Alaska, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and most recently Michigan. We also spearheaded the campaigns that resulted in Vermont and Illinois becoming the first two States to legalize marijuana legislatively, which is great. 

Vermont unfortunately didn’t legalize sales, but Illinois became the first state to legalize cannabis in the state legislature and allow for sales, which is great. That just happened in June. So that was unprecedented to this point.

I wasn’t working here 25 years ago, but I know that when the organization was first founded and first started advocating for marijuana policy reform, we were getting laughed out the door and now it’s just a different landscape and it has changed so drastically and last decade alone. 


Where are we as a country as far as medical legalization, recreational, and decriminalization.?

Right now more than 70% of Americans live in States with some kind of marijuana on a law, whether it be medical marijuana, decriminalization or legalized marijuana for adult use. You’re seeing that the majority of Americans support legalization and nearly all Americans support medical legalization specifically. 

So you’re seeing the support grow and grow and more States are looking at how they want to legalize rather than if they should legalize. The question has shifted and 2020 is going to be a big year in terms of what States are going to try to legalize through the legislature and then which States are gonna have questions on the ballot that would legalize for adult use or medical use. 

We’re seeing this grow and grow, but there’s still some hurdles that you still have to jump. It’s not inevitable as we often hear. That’s not the case at all. What’s interesting too, we’re seeing the marijuana policy reform being shifted – originally and it was in the West coast and now we’re seeing more socially conservative States consider it and make progress on it. 

We are seeing the Northeast really taking on a lot of campus legislation as of recently and trying to figure out how the best way to do it there. So it’s growing across the country. It’s no longer concentrated in certain areas. 

So most States are ready to legalize. It’s just more of a battle what’s the right way to do it? How do we go about it?

Yeah. In 2018,  I believe there were 27 States that had some legalization bill introduced at the state level. Of course a lot of those didn’t go anywhere, but that alone is huge and just really says a lot about where we stand today. 


Is there a process to changing these policies or is it just so different in every state? How do you go about helping out there as marijuana policy project?

It is different in every state in a lot of different ways. MPP has two wheel houses. We have valid initiatives and we have advocating through the legislatures. That’s where most of our success has been – on those two levels. 

When it comes to ballot initiatives, the first question we have to ask is, does the state allow for a ballot initiative? Not all States do. As we continue to change these laws through ballot initiatives, if that means if one state approves it through the ballot initiative, that’s one less state that we can take that approach. So if the state does allow it, the next question we asked is there support in that state for legalization? Because if there’s not, then it’s not going to be a viable policy for us and it would end up being a waste of resources.

We achieve answering that question through polling. If the pulling ends up reflecting that a majority of the state supports reform and that ballot initiative is viable, then we can start moving forward in that state – if we have the resources and the funding to do so. Then the process of gathering signatures begins, which is a first step to getting the question on the ballot. 

Again, each state is very different. They all require a certain amount of signatures to be gathered. Then it breaks down into what percentages of what constituencies and it gets really detailed from there. But if we do collect enough signatures and then they’re verified by the state, then the question of legalization, whether it’s medical or adult use, will be asked to the voters on the ballot on whatever voting day that is coming up.

We try to do our best to get a lot of grassroots volunteer efforts from people on the ground. We consider media and advertisement strategies to get our word out. There’s a lot of combating prohibitionists and misinformation and stigma that we need to do. And then of course, we encourage constituents to vote on election day cause then there’ll be also voting for the question of legalization. It’s very important for us to identify surrogates and gathering endorsements in the state. So we need to drum up support locally.

So if we’re working in one state, but we have a spokesperson from an entirely different state, it might not resonate with the voters as much. So it’s a lot of considering what will work best for that state. 

That comes in terms of messaging as well. One message is not going to resonate the same if you’re looking at a socially conservative state compared to a more liberal state. So it’s a lot of deciding on the best way to approach it. 

I will say that the biggest barrier barrier we have when we are running ballot initiatives is funding. In most cases, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars are needed in order to just fund the signature drive to qualify for the ballot. 

We find that when the voters are able to decide on legalization, they are more likely to do so then a state legislature might – which brings me to our other wheelhouse of our legislative efforts which is becoming more common.

Again, the ballot initiatives where we’re running out of states that allow it. And, and on the flip side, legislators are more willing to take on the responsibility to pass sensible cannabis policies. So we’re growing more there. 

Our efforts in the state legislature includes identifying allies, building relationships with legislative leaders, building coalitions with all sorts of different groups: patient groups, social justice groups, businesses – to bring in as many different perspectives and voices to the table as possible. That helps with identifying the best way to approach it in that state as well.


There are situations we’re seeing where the state as a whole supports legalization, but a majority of the state representatives and state senators come from constituencies that oppose legalization.

This  occurs when support is very high in a limited number of constituencies, but low elsewhere. That’s why a ballot initiative is the simplest way to effectuate the will of the people in that state.

Farm Bill

Did you guys have anything to do with the farm bill? Is that, do you have anything to do with like the hemp side?

We really don’t play a role on the hemp side. We don’t advocate for hemp – just marijuana policy. The Farm Bill was beneficial to our cause over all, because it’s becoming more normalized, but no, we don’t really play a role in any hemp legislation like that.

What States do you think are most likely to get on board with legalization and which do you predict to hold Out the Longest?

I think the Northeast is going to start legalizing in the next year because you’re seeing New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island, all of these States getting together, to figure out how to best approach it. 

There’s been talk about a regional approach because the concern is, let’s say if you legalize in New York, well, people in New Jersey are just going to go to New York. So if one state does it, they all feel the pressure that they all need to do it.


I think there’s going to be a lot of movement made in the Northeast in the near future. We already saw that New Jersey was very close to passing a legalization bill, but fell short ultimately. 

We’re also focusing our lobbying efforts and places like Maryland, Delaware, and Minnesota. We’re hoping for some progress there for adult use. In terms of medical marijuana, we’re seeing the South slowly want to address it. I would say they’re the most hesitant in terms of overall marijuana policy reform, but in Kentucky and South Carolina there’s been a lot of push for medical marijuana. 

I would expect those States to be next on the medical side. But overall I would say the Southern States are going to be the ones that are hardest to get on board for legalization. 

Then you’re also seeing progress being made in the Midwest. Michigan is now legalized. Illinois has legalized. We’re focusing efforts in Montana and Nebraska, South Dakota – so it’s spreading over there as well. We’ll see what happens. South Dakota might be a hard one. The governor is very against it and I think she’s against hemp as well, so that might be a hard state.

Overall, I think once there’s about 25 States that have adult use legalization, it’s going to really take off. We’re already seeing how much revenue these States are making, how effective these bills are becoming. I think it’ll help normalize this cause more. As the normalization of it happens, you’re gonna see a decrease in stigmatization, which is something that obviously really makes people hesitant to want to reform these laws. 

Cannabis Bud

Would you Say The Stigma is Still Incredibly Strong in Many Places?

We’re seeing a majority of Americans support this kind of reform, but there is that stigmatization that still exists and persists and can affect sensible policy change. 

Can You Talk More About the Northeast States Banding Together?

Right now we are examining how it would play out. They’re just in the beginning of stages. If they did take a regional approach that would be unprecedented. It would be very interesting. I think it makes the most sense. 

As I mentioned, if one does it, they’re just so close and so small. It’s better for them to all take it on. But we’ve never seen that before. It’s the governors and the top officials that are wanting to do it. 

What Are Some of the Main Oppositions that you’re still seeing to Legalization? 

One of the biggest barriers to passing marijuana policies stems from the stigmatization and the misinformation about it. A lot of concerns that we hear from legislators are that if we pass legalization it will increase marijuana consumption in youth. But we see study after study showing that that’s not happening. In fact, some places it’s decreasing. 

There’s the gateway theory that if we legalize marijuana, it’ll lead to other drugs and people start using more drugs. On the same kind of note on the gateway theory, if I legalize marijuana, we’re going to legalize all drugs, which is not the case either. People also worry that it’ll increase crime, which again is unfounded.

The concerns I would say that we hear from legislators are there’s no way to test for impairment when it comes to driving and employment protections –  which are valid. There’s been lots of research trying to find an effective way to test for an impairment. 

Another thing I hear that’s pretty valid is there is the argument of not enough research, but then you have to look at why there’s not enough research. It’s because it’s a schedule one narcotic and that is what inhibits our ability to research it. 

People are filled with misinformation still that stems from reefer madness.

Reefer Madness

Canada and they have legalized on the national level and they’re not up in flames. I also should mention that when it comes to medical marijuana, legislators are often hesitant to even go that far because they think that legalizing medical marijuana just means that you are covering the fact that it’ll really lead to legalization of adult use marijuana. 

One, five and 10 year industry predictions?

On the national level, I would say in the next year you’re not going to see much change in the industry.I will say there’s going to be growth after 2020 elections depending on which States legalize either through the legislature or the ballot initiative. 

At the end of 2020 I think we’ll start to see the industry growing, but not a huge amount. It’s already in the last 10 years grown immensely, but we’re not gonna see a huge increase in this next year and the next five years.

 I think the industry is going to be raking in a lot of money and I think it’s going to be way more diverse than it is right now. We’re stuck into this situation where only certain people with certain capital and influence and connections can get into the industry and succeed because the federal prohibition causes so many problems – even if it’s legal on a state level. People aren’t able to enter the industry.

We’re also seeing States roll back through expungements – which are causing certain groups of people to not enter the industry. As more States continue to do that, it’s going to be a more diverse industry, which I’m really excited to see. 

10 years, I think the industry will be normalized. It will be diverse and it will be very profitable. It will transform in a way that it’ll see best practices. It will change in terms of how it interacts with the public. It’ll learn from the mistakes that are happening now.

If People Care About Legalization, How Can They Help?

There are so many ways that people can help and most of them don’t cost money at all and a lot of them don’t take up a lot of time. First and foremost is the education on marijuana that’s critical to passing sensible marijuana policies and to de-stigmatizing it. Get out and inform your friends and families on the issue. 

You can write into your local newspapers about the need for marijuana policy reform. This will all help to dismantle the stigma around it. If you see something, say something – if you hear misinformation, be informed and be able to challenge that misinformation. 

Another thing that is helpful is to send letters to your representatives about the need for cannabis policy reform and why you support it and what it looks like in States that have already legalized. If you are in a state that hasn’t. 

On the state level it’s great to meet with your state representatives about the issue. Personal face to face visits are so impactful, they have considerable influence on elected officials. 

If you have a platform, especially in the cannabis industry, use your platform to highlight and promote sensible cannabis policies. Remind your audience that prohibition isn’t over. It’s still continuing. People are still getting arrested. It’s still negatively impacting so many Americans. Voice that to your audience. 

MPP Quote

And then of course, in a self-serving kind of way, you can donate to marijuana policy project so we can keep on continuing our work. We wouldn’t be able to do our work without the funding from our donors and we want nothing more than to continue it until we really see an end to prohibition across the United States. 

Learn more and get access to free resources on MPP’s Website Here.

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