By Phillip Smith
Four states, including California, the nation’s most populous, voted to legalize marijuana on November 8. That doubles the number of legal states to eight (plus the District of Columbia), and more than quadruples the number of people living in legal marijuana states, bringing the number to something around 64 million.
Every one of those states legalized marijuana through the initiative process, but we’re not going to see any more initiatives on state ballots until 2018, and perhaps 2020. That means that if we are to make more progress on spreading marijuana legalization in the next couple of years, it’s going to have to come at the state house instead of the ballot box.
That’s the same pattern we saw with medical marijuana. California led the way via the initiative process in 1996, with several other states following in 1998 and 2000 before Hawaii became the first state to okay medical marijuana via the state legislature.
The election of Donald Trump is causing great uncertainty about the future of legal marijuana, and will act as a drag on legislators until his stance is clarified. Just as governors hesitated to implement medical marijuana programs in the face of federal hostility a decade ago, legislators will hesitate to move toward legalization in the face of uncertainty, or worse, outright hostility from a Trump administration.
Still, efforts to legalize marijuana through the legislative process have been underway for several years in a handful of states and have already come close to passage in some of them. And now, especially in New England, the pressure of neighboring states having already embraced legalization is fueling legalization fervor. But it’s not just New England. The marijuana legalization message is resonating across the land.
Getting a bill through a state legislature is a long, multi-stage process, with too many opportunities for getting derailed, from obstinate committee chairs to skeptical governors wielding the veto pen. Despite the obstacles, here are five states that could get it done before the 2018 mid-terms:
Connecticut already has medical marijuana and decriminalized possession in 2011 with the support of Gov. Dannel Malloy (D). Malloy had said that decriminalization was as far as he wanted to go, but he’s hinting at changing his tune after marijuana’s big victory on Election Day. “We might have to reexamine our legal position, our position of enforcement, based on what some surrounding states are doing,” Malloy said three days later.
For veteran legislators such as state Reps. Juan Candelaria (D-New Haven) and Toni Walker (D-New Haven), Malloy’s softening couldn’t come soon enough. They’ve authored legalization bills in past sessions, but they haven’t gotten much traction. Look for them to be back at it again next year, with the changed New England political landscape smoothing the road.
Maryland approved medical marijuana in 2014 (although the long-delayed program has yet to see any actual dispensaries open) and decriminalization last year under then Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley.
The bad news is that O’Malley is gone now, replaced by anti-marijuana Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. The good news is that the legislature has already demonstrated a willingness to override Hogan’s vetoes when it comes to pot policy; it did that this year with a housekeeping bill that decriminalized the possession of paraphernalia (an oversight in the 2015 decriminalization bill).
Reform-minded legislators last year filed a legalization bill, the Marijuana Control and Revenue Act of 2015, in both houses, but they were stymied by unfriendly committee chairs. They’re going to be back next year, backed by a carefully-built coalition of drug reform, social justice, and public health groups — and with the support of a healthy majority of Marylanders, according to recent polls.
Eyeing next door neighbor Colorado, New Mexico is another state ripe for marijuana legalization. Two polls this year had popular support for legalization at 61%, and Democrats have now won control of the state legislature. That means two different moves toward legalization could occur: Rep. Bill McCamley (D-Mesilla Park) has filed a legalization bill the last two years, and says he will do it again next year. “It’s not an academic exercise anymore,” he said. And Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino (D-Albuquerque) also says he will be introducing a constitutional amendment that would take the issue to a popular vote.
But like Maryland, legalizers face an anti-marijuana Republican governor in Susana Martinez. Either Martinez is going to have to have a pot epiphany or the legislature is going to have to have enough votes to override a probable veto.
This may be the best prospect of the bunch. Medical marijuana is well-established in the state, decriminalization has been in effect for four years, and now, in the wake of the legalization victory in neighboring Massachusetts, Gov. Gina Raimundo (D) says she’s ready to more seriously consider doing the same in Rhode Island, although she has concerns about public safety and how any legislation is drafted.
Democrats control both houses of the legislature, and both House Speaker Thomas Mattiello and Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio say they are ready to take up legalization bills. That would be a pleasant change: For the past six years, legalization bills have been filed, but never voted on.
Rhode Island’s political leaders finally look ready to catch up to their constituents, 55% of whom supported legalization in a recent poll from Brown University and who smoke pot at the highest rate of any state, reporting a 16% past month use rate.
Vermont very nearly became the first state to legalize weed through the legislative process this year. A legalization bill, S. 241, was supported by Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) and passed with strong support in the Senate, only to die in the House.
Now, a pair of key lawmakers said they are ready to try to get legalization through the legislature again. Sen. Dick Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said legalization votes in Maine and Massachusetts are forcing the state’s hand. “For me, that’s a game-changer, that Massachusetts has voted to legalize,” Sears said.
Sears’ counterpart in the House, Judiciary Committee chairwoman Rep. Maxine Grad, is also ready to go, saying the Maine and Massachusetts votes will make lawmakers more amenable to moving forward.
There’s just one problem: Shumlin is gone now, replaced by incoming Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who is not a big fan of government regulation, but is not a big fan of marijuana legalization, either. “I can appreciate the discussion around ending the prohibition of marijuana,” he said, but had many, many concerns about this year’s bill. Still, it’s possible legislators will have heard those concerns and will come up with a bill that Scott can live with — or a majority that can override a veto.