By Phillip Smith
It’s a fundamental of our political system that governors play a critical role in shaping policy at the state level—and even beyond. Governors can use their position as a bully pulpit to advance their agenda, they can use their budget proposals or empower commissions to shape legislation, and they have the power to kill legislation they don’t like with their veto pens.
And because Congress has so far refused to act to end federal marijuana prohibition, the role of state governors in marijuana policy is even more important. While they can’t simply wave a magic wand to enact their desires, gubernatorial support or opposition can make or break a marijuana reform bill.
With public opinion having shifted dramatically in favor of marijuana legalization—an October Gallup poll had support nationwide at 66 percent, including even a majority of Republicans—and several years worth of legalization to look at in pioneering states such as Colorado and Washington, more and more governors are getting on the legalization bandwagon.
Last week, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) released its 2019 US Governors Scorecard. It gave each governor a letter grade from A to F based on a combination of legislative history, policy positions taken, and public comments on the issue. NORML was pretty happy with what it found.
“There exists unprecedented political support among U.S. governors for marijuana policy reform,” the group noted, pointing to A grades going to nine governors, all of them Democrats. That’s up dramatically from the two A grades handed out just last year. Similarly, seven governors, six of them Democrats, saw their grades improve over last year.
Several newly elected Democratic governors, such as Ned Lamont of Connecticut, J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, and Tim Walz of Minnesota actively campaigned on a pledge to legalize marijuana, while re-elected New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has also broken dramatically toward legalization. It’s a winning issue for Democrats.
But support for legalization is “more partisan than ever before,” NORML points out. “While almost half of all Democratic governors are now on record in support of adult use regulation, no Republican governors publicly advocate for this policy.”
NORML graded 46 governors, saying it had insufficient data to grade the other four. Of the 23 Republican governors only five (22 percent) received a passing grade of C or higher, while among the 23 Democratic governors all but one (96 percent) got at least a C. Of the nine governors getting an A, all were Democrats. Of the four governors getting an F, all were Republicans.
Here are the governors graded the worst by NORML. The list contains the four governors graded F as well as the two governors graded D-. They are all Republicans.
1. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey: D-. Ducey opposed a 2016 marijuana legalization initiative, saying “I don’t know how we make ourselves a stronger state or a better place through this initiative. Almost everything outside of our economy and education that I have to deal with in this state has a common culprit of drug abuse and addiction.” After the measure was narrowly defeated, he said. “Fortunately, Arizona is a place where common sense can still work. We fought very hard and we won this round.”
2. Idaho Gov. Brad Little: F. Little just took office this month, but is on record opposing marijuana legalization and supports only the most limited of pilot programs permitting the use of CBD, but not its broader legalization. He has also expressed concern that allowing hemp cultivation—which is now legal under federal law—would serve as “camouflage for the marijuana trade.”
3. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant: D-. While he allowed an extremely limited CBD bill to become law, that law provides no in-state supply for those products, and he remains vocally opposed to marijuana legalization: “We’re not going to consider it in Mississippi as long as I’m governor,” he said. At least he’s term-limited out in 2020.
4. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts: F. A firm foe of marijuana legalization, Ricketts has complained bitterly about neighboring Colorado’s legal marijuana regime, saying it imposed a burden on western Nebraska law enforcement (which is presumably forced to sit on the side of highways coming out of Colorado and pull over people looking for pot). Ricketts also opposes medical marijuana absent any firm study by the Food and Drug Administration. He and his fellow Cornhuskers have apparently forgotten that the state was once a leader in progressive pot policy, having decriminalized it during that first wave in the 1970s.
5. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine: F. DeWine just took office this month, but as state attorney general he declined to comment on whether the Justice Department should go after medical marijuana users and providers in the state. When running for governor, he opposed a statewide initiative that would have diverted many low-level drug users from prison and came out firmly “against the legalization of recreational marijuana,” even falsely claiming that its legalization in other states had led to increased use among youth.
6. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem: F. Noem hasn’t been in office long enough to do any damage, but she thinks marijuana is “a gateway drug” and vowed that “As governor, I will oppose all attempts to legalize marijuana.” She has the distinction of governing over the only state in the country that makes it a crime to have used marijuana.