By Phillip Smith
Election Day 2016 was a big day for marijuana: Voters in California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada all supported successful legalization initiatives, doubling the number of states to have done so since 2012 and more than quadrupling the percentage of the national population that now lives in legal marijuana states. Only Arizona lost, and it garnered a respectable 48.68% of the vote. Medical marijuana passed in four states too.
Marijuana momentum was high, national polling kept seeing support go up and up, and 2017 was expected to see even more states jump on the weed bandwagon. That didn’t happen.
There are two main reasons this year was a dud for pot legalization: First, it’s an off-off-year election year, and there were no legalization initiatives on the ballot. Second, it’s tough to get a marijuana legalization bill through a state legislature and signed by a governor. In fact, it’s so tough, it hasn’t happened yet.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t go to happen next year. Several states where legislative efforts were stalled last year are poised to get over the top in the coming legislative sessions, and it looks like a legalization initiative will be on the ballot in at least one state — maybe more.
There are other states where legalization is getting serious attention, such as Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island, but they all have governors who are not interested in going down that path, and that means a successful legalization bill might face the higher hurdle of winning with veto-proof majorities. Similarly, there are other states where legalization initiatives are afoot, such as Arizona, North Dakota, and Ohio, but none of those have even completed signature gathering, and all would face a tough fight.
We could be pleasantly surprised. But barring pleasant surprises, here are the three states with the best shot at legalizing next year:
Michigan voters shouldn’t have to wait on the state legislature to act because it looks very likely that a legalization initiative will qualify for the ballot next year. The Michigan Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol has already completed a petition campaign and handed in more than 365,000 raw signatures last month for its legalization initiative. It hasn’t officially qualified for the ballot yet, but it only needs 250,000 valid voter signatures to do so, meaning it has a rather substantial cushion.
If the measure makes the ballot, it should win. There is the little matter of actually campaigning to pass the initiative, which should require a million or two dollars for TV ad buys and other get-out-the-vote efforts, but with the Marijuana Policy Project on board and some deep-pocketed local interests as well, the money should be there.
The voters already are there: Polling has showed majority support for legalization for several years now, always trending up, and most recently hitting 58% in a May Marketing Resource Group poll.
Outgoing Gov. Chris Christie (R) was a huge obstacle to passage of marijuana legalization, but he’s on his way out the door, and his replacement, Gov.-Elect Phil Murphy (D), has vowed to legalize marijuana within 100 days of taking office next month.
Legislators anticipating Christie’s exit filed legalization bills earlier this year, Senate Bill 3195 and companion measure Assembly Bill 4872. State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D) has also made promises, vowing to pass the bill within the first three months of the Murphy administration, and hearings are set for both houses between January and March.
But it’s not a done deal. There is some opposition in the legislature, and legalization foes will certainly mobilize to defeat it at the statehouse. It will also be the first time the legislature seriously considers legalization. Still, legalization has some key political players backing it. Other legislators might want to listen to their constituents: A September Quinnipiac poll had support for legalization at 59%.
A marijuana legalization bill actually passed the legislature last year — a national first — only to be vetoed by Gov. Phil Scott (D) over concerns around drugged driving and youth use. Legislators then amended the bill to assuage Scott’s concerns and managed to get the amended bill through the Senate, only to see House Republicans refuse to let it come to a vote during the truncated summer session.
But that measure, House Bill 511, will still be alive in the second year of the biennial session, and Gov. Scott has said he is still willing to sign the bill. House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D) is also on board, and the rump Republicans won’t be able to block action next year.
Johnson said she will be ready for a vote in early January and expects the bill to pass then. Vermont would then become the first state to free the weed through the legislative process.