High Expectations: Seven States That Could Legalize Medical or Recreational Marijuana in 2016

cannabis legalization

By John Schroyer

This is the third piece in a three-part series looking at key events in the marijuana industry in 2015 and examining what lies ahead for 2016. You can read the first two pieces here and here

This is the year the Green Rush could turn into the Green Tsunami.

No other single year has offered such incredible promise in terms of the sheer volume of states that could legalize, thanks to other pioneering marijuana markets and growing support for cannabis in general.

In a best-case scenario, roughly 14 states could legalize MMJ, adult-use cannabis or possibly both, either at the ballot box or through state legislatures. While it’s doubtful all those states will be successful, there’s a good chance at least a handful will legalize in 2016.

The movement has gotten so big that it’s become a recurring topic in the presidential race, with most candidates being forced to stake out a position on marijuana.

Here’s a cursory roundup of some states with the best chances of legalizing medical or recreational marijuana this year. (For a more comprehensive list, check out the latest edition of Marijuana Business Magazine.)

California

This is the main electoral event for marijuana advocates in 2016.

California is already the biggest medical marijuana market in the country. If voters approve recreational cannabis, the state will generate billions of dollars in recreational sales quickly.

That said, California already failed to legalize rec once already, back in 2010, and many fear that could happen again despite changing attitudes on cannabis.

While several groups are aiming to get measures on the ballot, the most prominent effort has the backing of billionaire Sean Parker and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. Parker has reportedly pledged millions of his own fortune to finance the campaign, so the only real question is whether or not the coalition will be able to solidify enough political support for the measure.

As of June 2015, 54% of California voters supported legalization. That’s not exactly a comfortable margin, but regardless, many advocates expect the state to pass rec legalization.

Florida

A measure to legalize medical cannabis in Florida failed by such a slim margin in 2014 that millionaire MMJ supporter John Morgan decided to give it a second shot this year.

With turnout in the presidential election expected to be much higher than it was in 2014, and with a vast majority of voters in the state saying they support legalizing MMJ, Florida seems set to legalize medical cannabis (beyond its extremely limited CBD program).

If that happens, Florida could become the second-largest MMJ market behind California, and there will likely be a host of business opportunities for cannabis entrepreneurs.

Maine

Maine is exceedingly ripe for recreational marijuana legalization this year.

A 2015 poll found support for legalization at about 65%, which means the right campaign there will easily win the day.

Early on, it looked as though there might be two competing campaigns – with Marijuana Policy Project on one side and a grassroots group on the other – but the two united in October, giving rec a much better chance to succeed.

Maine wouldn’t be the biggest cannabis market in the country, but it would be yet another feather in the cap for the legalization movement in general and a step forward for the industry as a whole. And it could provide big business opportunities if it becomes the first in New England to legalize rec (although it has two competitors for that slot, listed below).

Nevada

Like Maine, Nevada is considered a fairly easy target for recreational legalization.

The home of Sin City is already catering expressly to out-of-state MMJ patients with a policy that lets medical marijuana cardholders from other states purchase cannabis while visiting Nevada.

And several public officials, including Nevada Congresswoman Dina Titus (who even delivered welcoming remarks at the 2015 Marijuana Business Conference and Expo in Las Vegas), have gotten behind the cannabis industry in general, viewing it as an economic boon and a draw for tourists.

The campaign has already qualified for the 2016 ballot, so one thing is for certain: voters will get to have their say.

Pennsylvania

Although Pennsylvania lawmakers failed to reach a consensus bill on MMJ in 2015, many advocates think the past 12 months simply set the stage for legalization to succeed in 2016.

Because the state doesn’t have a citizen initiative process, lawmakers will have to reach a deal on medical marijuana, which many believe will replicate strict systems like New York and Minnesota that prohibit smokable cannabis.

That said, most officials – including the governor – are eager to legalize. So 2016 could see Pennsylvania join the MMJ club.

Rhode Island

Rhode Island is one two states that advocates believe could become the first to legalize recreational cannabis via the legislature.

Last year, a bill was introduced in the legislature to legalize rec, but the session adjourned without seeing a vote on the measure. Advocates believe the bill will be resurrected this year, giving Rhode Island a chance to become the first state east of Colorado to legalize recreational marijuana.

And though the state is tiny, its location near a host of major markets in New England could give any rec business an enormous customer base to draw upon. That means the market could be sizable, especially if no other states in the region legalize rec.

Vermont

Similar to Rhode Island, Vermont saw the introduction of a recreational marijuana legalization bill in the legislature last year. It didn’t get much attention, but one of the measure’s key sponsors has already said he intends to resurrect the issue.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has also voiced support for legalizing recreational marijuana. The local market for recreational cannabis would likely be somewhat small – especially compared to states like Colorado. But, just like Rhode Island and Maine, the industry could draw lots of customers from nearby states without rec laws.

John Schroyer can be reached at [email protected]

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