Which states will legalize recreational marijuana in 2014?

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This article is the first in a two-part series. Next week, we’ll highlight states with the best chances of passing medical marijuana legislation this year.

The marijuana industry has enjoyed mainstream headlines since Colorado rolled out its recreational marijuana industry on Jan. 1. But advocates for legalization haven’t been resting on their laurels.

Groups like the Marijuana Policy Project and the Drug Policy Alliance have been hard at work on various bills and referendums across the country, hoping to add other states this year to the short list of places where recreational marijuana can be sold.

It won’t be easy, particularly for advocates trying to legalize via the ballot box (as opposed to state legislatures). During non-presidential years, the turnout of important young voters is typically much lower, and those heading to the polls have historically been less sympathetic toward pro-marijuana initiatives in these years.

That said, 2014 could still shape up to be a big year for the recreational cannabis industry.

While efforts are underway in everywhere from California to Arizona to Maine and Maryland, here are four states with the best odds of legalizing marijuana for adult use this year:

Rhode Island
Unlike Colorado and Washington, Rhode Island would proceed with legalization after a legislative vote in the General Assembly, not a general election. The country’s smallest state could legalize marijuana as early as June or July, despite Gov. Lincoln Chafee recently saying Rhode Island should wait a year before voting on such a measure.

moneyshowhorizontal300Advocates have introduced a legalization bill during the last three sessions of Rhode Island’s General Assembly and spent upwards of $20,000 in campaign contributions to lawmakers. They’ve also had permanent lobbyists on retainer there, working to advance pro-legalization sentiment throughout the state’s House and Senate.

Recent estimates put support within Rhode Island’s Senate at above 50%, which is a good sign. Passing legalization would require a simple majority of lawmakers to support the bill, not a two-thirds majority. Chafee could always veto the decision. But Rhode Island has passed medical marijuana and decriminalization laws in succession, and that momentum could dissuade the governor from taking such an action.

Alaska looks to be heading for a general election vote on legalizing marijuana, which would happen in August. Last week, a group called The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana earned great fanfare from the industry when it submitted nearly 46,000 signatures to Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, beating its deadline to turn in the signatures by nearly two weeks. The petition included a proposed draft of legislation, which includes many of the same rules and regulations as Colorado, only with a $50 per-ounce tax.

If the state’s elections division can verify 30,169 of those signatures, the initiative will appear on the ballot. Early polling shows the pro-marijuana side to have a slight advantage. But advocates realize that legalization will not come easy; the group Smart Approach to Marijuana plans to enter the fight in Alaska and fund opposition. And failure in Alaska would be a huge setback to marijuana advocates because it would advance the belief that voters are not yet ready to proceed with legalization.

Voters in Oregon have not been kind to legalization efforts. The state rejected initiatives to legalize marijuana in general election votes in 1986 and 2012, and in 2010 the group Oregonians For Cannabis Reform failed to collect enough signatures to put a legalization initiative on the ballot. But advocates believe that 2014 may be the year that the state moves ahead with legalization.

A poll taken in May 2013 shows that support for legalization is at 57%. And the group New Approach Oregon, which is spearheading the latest push, has financial backing from The Drug Policy Alliance as well as from billionaire Peter Lewis, who donated to the organization shortly before his death in November. New Approach Oregon will push lawmakers to refer their legalization measure to the November 2014 ballot. If that route fails, the group will go on the hunt for signatures: it needs 87,213 signed petitions in order for the measure to appear on the ballot.

We added California to our list, even though many advocates believe that 2014 is simply too early to push forward with a legalization effort. There’s a chance the momentum created by legalization in Colorado and Washington State will spill over into California.

In December, the Drug Policy Alliance submitted the Control, Regulate and Tax Marijuana Act, and two other legalization initiatives have been submitted in California as well.

The 2010 defeat of Prop. 19, the most recent legalization effort, left a bad taste in the mouths of many marijuana advocates. Some therefore believe that the legalization effort should be held until 2016, which would give them three extra years to raise funds for an expensive media push before the election.

Still, some groups have decided that now is the time. And support for legalization appears to be there: A Field Poll released in December found that 55% of Californians back the initiative.