Cannabis and the South: How Things Change

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When it comes to the North vs the South in America, there is usually a pretty evident divide when it comes to social issues. From abortion to religion in schools to drugs, the South is generally slower to adopt new policies. In the case of cannabis and the south, a lot of change has happened in the last few years, signaling a massive shift in overall public perspective.

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Sometimes change comes slow to the South, and this is evident from resistance to legalized abortion, pushing religion being taught in schools, letting go of slavery (let’s not forget that one), and the decriminalization and legalization of different drugs. But even those slow with the pickup, eventually come around. Whether it’s the changing of society through new generations being born, or the insertion of new information that changes minds. Whatever the case here, and as highlighted by the last election, how cannabis is viewed in the South, has seen much change and improvement in the last few years.

The last US election, and what is the ‘South’?

The last US election was quite the circus, with a persistent battle that continued after results were in, as to who actually won. As it stands, Joe Biden was officially sworn in to the white house in January, effectively ending that conundrum. But perhaps bigger news than a post-election presidential standoff, is the inclusion of several more states when it comes to cannabis legalization. In fact, for the first time, it became evident that cannabis is no longer shunned in the South, with new laws reflecting this change in perspective.

It wasn’t just the South that saw these changes. Four new states became legal for cannabis recreationally: Arizona, Montana, South Dakota and New Jersey. On the medical front, South Dakota (pulling double duty) and Mississippi joined the ranks of the legal for medical use group. Of all these states to change policy, the one that stands out the most, is Mississippi.

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Why is Mississippi interesting? Because it’s a southern state, and the only southern state to be on the list of changed state policies for this past election. When talking about southern states, there is not actually a strict definition. Being a ‘southern state’ does not necessarily mean being in the south of the country as California, New Mexico, and Arizona, all of which are touching Mexican borders, are not considered part of the south. On the other hand, West Virginia, which isn’t really all that south, is generally included in southern states. The following are considered the southern states of America: South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Maryland, Florida, and Texas.

Many people define the ‘South’ simply by the inclusion of states that fought for the confederacy during the civil war. This is in contrast to the US federal government which includes Delaware, Washington, DC, and Oklahoma.

Then there’s the deep south states, also known as “the Cotton States”, since these states relied on cotton farming prior to the civil war. The deep south only applies to the southeastern corner of the country, and includes: Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. These states were the biggest supporters of slavery, and keeping it intact.

Where is the South now with cannabis?

The first thing to know, is that of the 15 States, one district, and two territories (Guam and Mariana Islands) that have legalized cannabis for recreational use, none of this exists in the South, no matter how it is defined. So far, all progress made in cannabis legalization in the South, has to do with a change to medicinal legalization policies and decriminalization policies.

For the purpose of this article, we will not use the federal government’s definition of the South, but the one more generally used that I listed above, so Delaware, Washington, DC, and Oklahoma are out. The southern states that have legalized for medicinal use so far are: Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Georgia, Texas (kind of), and Mississippi.

In terms of decriminalization measures, the following southern states have some sort of cannabis decriminalization, though what this means varies greatly by location: Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee (partially) and Virginia. Of the southern states, Maryland, Mississippi, and Virginia have both a full medical legalization, and a decriminalization measure.

The biggest holdouts for cannabis legalization are in the South, highlighting how some places change more slowly. Southern states where cannabis is completely illegal (or close to it) are: South Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, and Tennessee.

Medical cannabis

Of course, the interesting part is that even these holdout states, aren’t as illegal as we generally think they are. In fact, no US state is totally cannabis illegal since the last farm bill, and the only state to have no written cannabis policies on the books is Idaho (which isn’t a part of the South, but is even more cannabis unfriendly than Kentucky.)

I’ll start with Texas, even though I didn’t put it on the holdout list. Texas has no formal medical policy, but it did approve limited medical use in 2015, which was expanded in 2019, and it does have licensing for cultivation and sale. In that sense it kind of does have a real medical policy, but the limitations of it are what keep Texas on this list.

In South Carolina there’s Julian’s Law which allows very limited use for people with certain kinds of epilepsy that do not respond to standard treatments. It applies only to CBD, and is vague about cultivation and sale, meaning there isn’t technically a solidly legal way to obtain such medications. So though there is technically a legal protection offered through the law, the gray area of the law still allows for patients to get in trouble.

Alabama Carly’s Law, which allows for an affirmative defense for having CBD oil for debilitating diseases, and Leni’s Law, which expanded on this allowance to any individual with seizures where a doctor recommended the use of CBD oil.

Kentucky really is a very restrictive state. In fact, the only legal cannabis option is CBD oil, which was legalized to a sort of gray area in 2014, with a doctor’s recommendation, and under clinical trials specifically at the University of Kentucky.

This does not include the ability to produce and sell, nor is it a standard law as it relates to clinical trials. However, because it exists, Kentucky does outdo Idaho, making the most restrictive state, not in the South! In 2020, a medical legalization bill was introduced, but never made it through because of corona. Representative Jason Nemes, stated he will resubmit the bill again in 2021.

Tennessee – This is an interesting state, because while the population overwhelmingly wants both medical and recreational legalizations, the state does not support an overall voter initiation policy, meaning a ballot measure cannot be started by citizens, only by the government, which has repeatedly shut down legalization bills. Having said that, Tennessee does, as of 2015, allow the use of high-CBD oil for seizure sufferers, although much like South Carolina, there are no laws to govern a regulated system.

recreational cannabis

Another thing about Tennessee is that it did pass bills for decriminalization in Nashville and Memphis, only to have them repealed. While the repeal was meant to prevent local governments from making any further decriminalization bills, that was not the case, and as of July 2020, Nashville was successful in partially decriminalizing recreational cannabis, in that minor possession charges will no longer be prosecuted.

Georgia is on the list because it tends to come up on these lists, but this too, is incorrect. Georgia is actually a bit like Virginia. It passed a bill in 1980 for the medical use of cannabis for cancer and glaucoma patients, but essentially never acted on it, leaving it sitting for about 30 years. In 2015, Haleigh’s Hope Act was passed allowing medical marijuana for certain illnesses. This was expanded on in the next few years, but only in 2019 was a bill passed to set up a regulated market for in-state cultivation and sale of low-THC cannabis products.

What this means

What it means is that, while we often talk about how parts of America are still completely cannabis illegal, this actually isn’t true at all. What it comes down to, is that Kentucky is the most restrictive, having no real medical policy, but still isn’t 100% cannabis illegal. The only 100% cannabis illegal locations are not in the South at all.

This doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement, as there is plenty of that. All of the states mentioned today are, indeed, very strict about cannabis policies, but to say that cannabis is fully illegal in them, is completely untrue at this point. It also means that out of 50 states, one district, and five territories, Idaho and American Samoa are the only ones that don’t allow any form of cannabis under any circumstances, and Kentucky is right behind, with about the flimsiest policy out there.

I should take a second to point out the difference between a full medical legalization, like Pennsylvania or Florida, and a bill that legalizes certain and specific things, like in Kentucky or South Carolina. The latter two have laws on the books that allow medical cannabis, but they are highly specific, and have no actual regulated market in which these legalizations can be useful. In that sense, they aren’t real medical programs at all. But Idaho doesn’t even have that, and neither does American Samoa, and that is still a big difference. Pennsylvania and Florida have fully functioning medical cannabis policies, complete with regulation systems, dispensaries, and laws of protection for users.

Conclusion

A whole article could be written on why cannabis policy in the South has seen less change than in other locations, but that’s a story for another time. The more important aspect to ‘why’, is the idea that the ‘why’ is changing. At this rate, it’s not weird to think that all of these states will get past their issues in the next few years, and it’s even quite possible that Virginia will give us the first recreationally legal state in the South.

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