4 states have a good shot at legalizing recreational marijuana in 2023

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Image of a yes vote on a pad adjacent to marijuana nuggets

If the Minnesota state Capitol feels different lately, it’s not just the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) enjoying the “trifecta” – control of both houses in the Legislature plus the governor’s office – for the first time in 10 years.

It’s also the marijuana – as in a detectable whiff from the direction of state Rep. Jessica Hanson.

A second-term lawmaker whose first foray into politics was serving as executive director for a legalization advocacy organization, Hanson co-sponsored bipartisan adult-use legalization legislation that was reintroduced last week.

The bill, which passed the state House last year, is expected to get a friendlier reception this year in the now-DFL-majority Senate.

“We elected people at a grassroots level to the Legislature in this state who care about this issue,” said Hanson, believed to be the first admitted cannabis consumer elected to state office in Minnesota.

The rosy outlook and fresh momentum for legalization in Minnesota – where the Democratic governor has promised to sign a legalization bill into law – can be seen across the country in 2023.

At least four states – Ohio, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania, in addition to Minnesota – have a good chance to legalize adult-use marijuana this year, observers and interested parties told MJBizDaily.

Oklahoma voters will decide on legalization in a March 7 special election with only cannabis on the ballot.

It’s believed to be the first time in the United States that marijuana is on a ballot by itself, with no candidates or other voter initiatives.

And unless the Ohio General Assembly overcomes recent reluctance and adopts a voter-initiated proposal by May 3, a well-funded and organized campaign to qualify legalization for the November ballot in that state is already operational.

Though many details in state legislatures are still pending – including questions of local control, social equity and other issues – even that potential conflict is encouraging for Hanson.

“We’re having a fight at the Capitol over how to legalize, not whether or not to legalize,” she told MJBizDaily.

Elsewhere, advocates say the time is ripe to lay the groundwork for more ambitious wins, and some are plotting longer-shot efforts in the Carolinas, Indiana and New Hampshire.

This year’s state action comes after legalization advocates achieved mixed results during the November 2022 midterm elections, with two victories and three losses.

Where marijuana is legal in the United States

Pivotal potential

In addition to Minnesota, state lawmakers in Pennsylvania are renewing a serious push to legalize adult-use cannabis - this time in a friendlier political clime that bode well for legalization.

Though odds in Pennsylvania are a little longer - with control of the Legislature currently split between Republicans and Democrats - legalization still has vocal bipartisan support as well as an endorsement from the governor.

It was a group of GOP state senators who unsuccessfully tried to convince former U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, to support the SAFE Banking Act in Congress.

They'll be asked again to back state Sens. Sharif Street, a Democrat, and Dan Laughlin, a Republican, who introduced a legalization proposal in October 2021 that so far has stalled out in Harrisburg.

The two have vowed to try again this year. But, for now, the state House currently has no majority party and likely won't until a Feb. 7 special election to fill two vacant seats.

Past hurdles give way

That complexity aside, bipartisan legalization bills have in the past made limited headway in Minnesota and Pennsylvania - before running into mostly partisan roadblocks that have since been lifted or eased.

The Minnesota House, for example, passed a legalization bill last May - only to have a Republican majority block the bill from advancing in the Senate.

There’s still work to lobby some Senate Democrats, but that’s expected to be an easier lift, Hanson told MJBizDaily.

“There are going to be some people who need to be educated,” she said. “There will be some Democratic senators who are apprehensive and nervous and scared.”

Legalization might also be boosted by fears of a recession, as COVID-19 pandemic federal spending disappears from state budgets and lawmakers search for new revenue sources.

In Pennsylvania, industry advocates believe reluctant lawmakers under more pressure to move forward with adult-use legalization after the success of the state’s $2 billion medical marijuana industry as well as the 2022 openings of recreational markets in nearby New Jersey and New York.

Whether Democrats end up with the outright majority in the state Legislature, the party’s strong showing “certainly gives us the best chance that we’ve had in several years,” said Meredith Buettner, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Cannabis Coalition, which lobbies on behalf of multistate operators.

A looming $2 billion budget deficit in Pennsylvania in fiscal 2023-24 also means incoming Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro, a legalization supporter who takes office Jan. 17, will be under pressure to find new sources of revenue.

He might deploy a revenue-generating argument during his state budget proposal, the first major policy speech of his term.

If marijuana is included, that could signal legalization is a priority, Buettner said.

“I’ll be way more bullish” if Shapiro mentions legalization, Buettner added. But, either way, “we’re in a better situation than we’ve been in.”

And, like Shapiro, who received an A+ rating in NORML's voter guide, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz is pro-legalization.

Walz has vowed to sign any bill that reaches his desk and has told interviewers he expects lawmakers to send him one.

Action back at the ballot

In Oklahoma, a robust MMJ program that's seen as largely successful and the state's libertarian streak are believed to tilt odds in legalization's favor when voters go to the polls on March 7 to decide Question 820.

There's already been a significant buildup.

Advocates tried to qualify legalization for the November 2022 ballot before a series of questionable bureaucratic delays and legal challenges impeded the effort.

Weeks before the November election, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that the question would go before voters either in 2024 or during a special election.

It was Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, who has gone on record opposing legalization, who triggered the rare special election with an executive proclamation.

However, the Yes on 820 campaign says the off-year situation means turnout will be decisive.

"We are cautiously optimistic - I think that's the best way to say it," Michelle Tilley, Yes on 820's campaign director, told MJBizDaily in a phone interview.

"We have done some polling, and it's come back favorably.

"But we're in a tricky situation: March 7 is a special election that people just aren't used to voting in."

After Oklahoma, attention will turn to Ohio, where another protracted struggle is expected to resolve in 2023.

There, competing legalization bills - one sponsored by Republicans, the other by Democrats - previously stalled in the General Assembly after Republican leadership blocked the bills.

Separately, backers of a well-funded voter-initiative campaign squabbled with both lawmakers and the secretary of state over whether signatures were submitted on time.

A legal settlement gave the General Assembly four months, starting Jan. 3, to decide whether to adopt legalization itself.

If not, a petition drive to qualify legalization for the November ballot will resume in earnest.

The efforts in Oklahoma and in Ohio are considered viable and important enough by both the marijuana industry and legacy advocacy organizations to attract significant fundraising.

Through the end of September, Yes on 820 reported $2.74 million in campaign contributions, most of it from advocacy organizations, records show.

In Ohio, an alliance of advocacy and industry has thrown $1.5 million to date behind the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol - a total that's expected to grow throughout the year.

"Most Ohioans view legalization as an inevitability," said Tom Haren, a Cleveland attorney serving as the coalition's spokesperson.

"It's really just a question of making sure we give Ohio voters a voice on the issue.

"I think no matter what turnout looks like in November, you will find a majority of voters supporting legalization."

Long shot, long view

While most of the 29 states that have legalized adult-use cannabis have done so via the voter initiative, that strategy has political and practical limitations.

Observers say Congress will be under greater pressure to take action on marijuana policy reform if counterparts in state legislatures make moves rather than ceding the responsibility to voters.

But in many of the states that still prohibit adult-use sales, the legislature is the only option. Most of those states have limited the power of voter initiatives or lack that mechanism entirely.

And “voter propositions generally produce bad laws, particularly in complicated domains like cannabis legalization,” said Jonathan Caulkins, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who studies drug policy.

These laws tend to be unwieldy and difficult to amend, he said. They can also be exposed to legal challenges.

A 2020 measure that legalized adult use in South Dakota was overturned by the state Supreme Court after a lawsuit endorsed by Republican Gov. Kristi Noem.

A legal challenge also successfully overturned a voter-approved MMJ law in Mississippi, though that saga led to lawmakers passing a separate bill allowing patients to use cannabis.

Meanwhile, longer-shot bills to legalize recreational cannabis have been introduced in Indiana and New Hampshire, while proposals to legalize MMJ are in the works in North Carolina and South Carolina.

In those states, lobbyists such as Jeremiah Mosteller, senior policy analyst at Americans for Prosperity, a Virginia-based libertarian think tank funded by billionaire Charles Koch, are “hyper focused” on convincing Republicans that legalization is a bipartisan winner popular with voters and not a partisan issue that gives Democrats a win.

“We’re connecting them to veterans and to medical patients who have really seen the benefits,” he said, noting the message is not that “we’re pro-cannabis, but we’re anti-prohibition.”

Chris Roberts can be reached at chris.roberts@mjbizdaily.com.