Cannabis “tipping point” close, says Marijuana Policy Project head

Cannabis “tipping point” close, says Marijuana Policy Project head

“By the beginning of 2023,” says Steven W. Hawkins, “we could very easily see half the states in the country having legalized adult-use.”

Hawkins’ position as executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) gives him a better view than most. He’s also the CEO & President of the U.S. Cannabis Council, another Washington, D.C.-based group pressing for legal cannabis reform.

During a recent phone interview, Hawkins told Profiles in Legalization that he thinks half of U.S. states fully legalizing cannabis might be the “tipping point” into an end to federal cannabis prohibition.

Several cannabis bills, including the SAFE Banking Act and the MORE Act, trudge their way through Congress as states continue to defy prohibition. Federal reform demands support from both major political parties, but is that sort of bipartisanship still possible?

Hawkins spoke about his work and what he thinks of the future.

NOTE: Responses have been edited for length and continuity. Steven Hawkins is the first subject of Profiles in Legalization, the project this site was built around.

Aiden Hunt: Can you tell us about your work for MPP?

Steven W. Hawkins: The Marijuana Policy Project works to legalize cannabis for adult use and medical use throughout the United States. We work on the state basis, with each state’s legislature or on ballot efforts. We also work at the federal level trying to change the laws in Congress. My role as the executive director is to provide strategic advice to my board, to coordinate with staff, and to make sure we have the resources to accomplish our mission.

If cannabis is anything, it’s a gateway into the criminal justice system. It’s a way that people get their first convictions or first arrest and the collateral consequences from that.

Steven W. Hawkins, MPP
Steven W. Hawkins, Executive Director, Marijuana Policy Project

AH: Do you think we’ll see federal reform before the midterms next year?

SWH: I think we’ll see some substantial federal reforms. It’s hard to say whether we will see cannabis descheduled in the next two years, but there’s a chance. What matters so much, with respect to what Congress ultimately does, is the continued efforts at the state level. By the beginning of 2023, we could very easily see half the states in the country having legalized for adult use.

AH: You think so?

SWH: Yeah. I do. We’re already at 18, maybe 19, with South Dakota [voters approved an adult-use amendment in 2020, but a circuit court overturned it]. There’s at least two more states that will move legislatively and there’s any number of states that could have ballot efforts that would be successful.

AH: What would you say to people who dislike MPP’s commercialization of cannabis?

SWH: What I say to those people is that there’s already a market for cannabis and it’s been in place for decades, but it’s one that’s underground. It’s unregulated and you don’t know what you’re buying. When you have 70% of the American public desiring the product, yes, there’s gonna be businesses that spring up and supply the public. The difference right now is that a lot of those businesses, and the [cannabis] industry is underground. We have to make sure that we have safe products that are free of heavy metals or pesticides or any other kind of contaminants that could actually do harm to the public.

AH: Do you feel like the growing partisan divide in Congress is a threat to cannabis reform?

SWH: That partisan divide in Congress is a threat to everything. (laughs) That’s just the sad reality. But this is not a red state, blue state issue at all. What the ballot initiatives in 2020 showed is that cannabis enjoys wide support in red states and blue states. The challenge in the months ahead is how to take that public support that crosses all political lines and translate that into support in Congress. 

It’s not so cut and dry that one party is totally in favor of cannabis and the other is totally against. We have a president who certainly has not shown any desire to see cannabis legalized. Quite the opposite.

AH: What do you think it would take?

SH: I think that as we win in the States we begin to– and maybe it comes at 50%. There’s a tipping point, perhaps. There is a sense of inevitability. And we don’t have to convince everyone to like cannabis; they just have to accept it. 

And as a lawmaker, when you have half of the states in the country, you get to the point where this is inevitable and we should do our job. Like any other issue, I think there will be people who come to support legalization for different reasons, but ultimately, we just have to get the votes together to carry the day. 

AH: How does cannabis reform intersect with other social justice issues?

SH: Probably first and foremost, it intersects with the criminal justice system. And, of course, criminal justice issues in the United States are heavily racially skewed. It intersects with criminal justice in really two ways; the continued arrest of people for simple possession. The [other] way it intersects is police behavior. 

The scent of cannabis alone has been grounds for stopping and searching vehicles and the person. I’m encouraged by the fact that states like New York and Virginia have passed laws, as they legalized cannabis, that said [the smell of cannabis] can no longer be enough. So these are ways that it intersects. With that sort of the racial bias in terms of who gets arrested.

Cannabis has been at the center of the War on Drugs. Other things have come and gone, but cannabis stays. It’s at the heart of pretext stops by police in any community of color.

AH: What made you move into cannabis reform after decades of fighting the death penalty?

SWH: I started working on the death penalty, and then I began to do broader work around criminal justice reform. Cannabis legalization, for me, is part of criminal justice reform. I spent a lot of my life addressing issues on the back end, like re-entry [into society after prison] and sentence reduction and so forth. To legalize cannabis is really to address an issue on the front end.

Cannabis was put on schedule one by President Nixon. It was put on the same schedule with heroin. When the federal government makes something “enemy number one” resources flow with it. So you had local police jurisdictions that receive money to really go after cannabis and prosecute. 

Look for a profile essay on the career and accomplishments of Steven W. Hawkins, coming in 2022.