Marijuana legalization through state legislatures heated up in 2021, and that trend likely will continue this year as lawmakers in several states are expected to legalize either recreational or medical cannabis.
The Northeast and mid-Atlantic states are in the spotlight for adult-use marijuana legislative activity, with Rhode Island the top candidate to approve a regulated commercial market, according to industry experts.
Maryland lawmakers are expected to refer an adult-use legalization initiative to voters.
Medical marijuana legalization is expected in Mississippi, where the state’s high court nixed a voter-approved referendum last May.
Lawmakers in North and South Carolina also have a solid chance of legalizing medical cannabis, experts said.
Meanwhile, industry officials and advocates are closing monitoring recreational and medical marijuana legalization efforts in other states across the country. (See map above.)
The expected activity this year follows a strong 2021, when lawmakers in Connecticut, New Mexico, New York and Virginia legalized recreational marijuana markets that eventually are expected to generate more than $4.5 billion combined in annual revenue.
Alabama lawmakers passed a medical marijuana measure.
Several factors at play
Karen O’Keefe, state policies director for the Washington DC-based Marijuana Policy Project, identified a number of factors driving lawmaker-led legalization:
- Support for legalization has roughly doubled in the past decade, with most Americans now supporting recreational as well as medical marijuana. “By and large,” O’Keefe said, “elected officials are starting to realize that this is where the public (sentiment) is.”
- Marijuana sales are generating large amounts of badly needed tax revenue for states.
- Elected officials “now have had plenty of time to see the sky hasn’t fallen” with legalization, O’Keefe said.
- Regional pressures are mounting, creating domino effects for lawmakers to act so their states won’t lose tax dollars to neighboring states where cannabis is legal.
Rhode Island, for example, borders Massachusetts and Connecticut, both of which have legalized adult use.
Massachusetts has a vibrant recreational market where retail sales are projected to reach $2 billion annually by 2024, according to the MJBizFactbook.
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Connecticut just announced it would begin taking applications for certain types of licenses next month.
Maryland sits between two places that have legalized recreational marijuana: Washington DC and Virginia, although the latter market isn’t scheduled to launch until 2024.
For many Maryland residents, “it’s shocking to think of Virginia as being more progressive” on the issue, O’Keefe said.
In some states, it’s more a question of agreeing on the details versus hammering out the precise timing of legalization, O’Keefe added.
States such as Maryland started to lay the groundwork last year. Other states are expected to follow suit this year.
Here is a summary of some of the states to watch this year for potential legalization via state legislatures:
Where recreational marijuana is in play
Summary: Two House committees approved House Bill 150 before the session adjourned last year. The state is on a two-year legislative session, so the bill will be taken up again this year.
Neighboring New Jersey, which is expected to launch its recreational marijuana market later this year, is applying the regional pressure.
Key business details: The measure calls for 30 retail store licenses, including 15 for social equity applicants; 30 processor licenses, including 10 for social equity applicants; and 60 cultivator licenses, including 30 for social equity applicants.
Existing medical cannabis operators could apply for adult-use licenses.
Summary: The Senate passed a legalization bill, SB 767, by a 20-5 vote in 2021, and the measure will be taken up in the House after stalling there last year.
Key business details: The state Department of Health would develop licensing and other rules. The measure doesn’t address equity and doesn’t say when the bill would be effective (the placeholder date of 2137 in the bill is expected to be changed).
Summary: Legalization bills were proposed in both the House and the Senate in 2021, but state House Speaker Adrienne Jones said she intends to push for a bill that would refer the issue to voters.
Key business details: The House and Senate measures were similar, but the House version offers more opportunities for small- and minority-owned businesses.
Summary: The Minnesota House of Representatives – where Democrats hold a majority – passed a recreational marijuana legalization bill, HF 600, in May 2021 by a margin of 72-61. But the companion bill in the Republican-led Senate died.
Key business details: The measure would establish an Office of Social Equity, and social equity would account for 20% of the scoring of license applications. License types would include craft cultivators and microbusinesses.
Summary: The Republican-controlled House of Representatives last week narrowly rejected recreational marijuana bill HB 237. But six other bills remain in play, including some that would refer the issue to voters in the fall. That could be the most likely scenario.
Key business details: HB 237 would have set up a recreational market without license caps.
Summary: A campaign to legalize adult-use sales appears to have collected enough signatures to compel lawmakers to decide whether to adopt the measure instead of leaving the decision to voters. Separately, two Republicans introduced a restrictive adult-use measure last year.
Key business details: The citizen-initiated Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol measure would set up a Division of Cannabis Control that would issue 40 cultivation and 50 retail store licenses. A preference would be given to applicants who participate in a social equity and jobs program.
Summary: Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has urged lawmakers to legalize recreational marijuana, especially now that neighboring New Jersey has.
Democratic lawmakers introduced House Bill 2050 last year to do so, but the Republican-led Senate remains a huge obstacle to passage.
Key business details: House Bill 2050 would include a grant program to help equity applicants. Licenses would be capped as follows: 50 growers, 50 processors, 100 retail permits with up to three locations each, and 35 combination permits.
A “combination licensee” could seek up to three grower permits, five processor licenses and 10 retailer permits.
Summary: Rhode Island might have the best chance of passing a recreational marijuana law this year.
Two measures were in play in 2021, a Senate version, SB 568, and one proposed by Gov. Dan McKee.
The Senate easily passed its version by a 29-9 vote in June 2021. But the Legislature adjourned without the House voting. Lawmakers have been trying to agree on a compromise.
Key business details: The Senate bill called for up to 150 stores and emphasized social equity and craft cultivation licenses. The governor’s plan called for 25 retail licenses, setting aside five for minority applicants.
States that might legalize medical marijuana
Summary: House lawmakers in 2021 passed the Kansas Medical Marijuana Regulation Act, SB 158, but the measure didn’t get a vote yet in the Senate. The bill is considered to have good chance of passing this year.
Key business details: The measure would set aside 15% of licenses for minority applicants.
Summary: State legislative negotiators last year agreed on a more restrictive medical marijuana measure after the state Supreme Court voided a business-friendly, voter-approved measure. The legislation is expected to pass this year.
Key business details: Details are sketchy, but the measure reportedly will include a provision for municipalities to opt out of the medical marijuana program.
Summary: Legislation called the North Carolina Compassionate Care Act, Senate Bill 711, moved through several committees last year before being placed on the back burner in favor of more critical state budget and redistricting issues. But the legislation is seen as having a solid chance of passing this year.
Key business details: Regulators would issue 10 medical marijuana “supplier” licenses. Each license holder could open up to four dispensaries, with at least one in a county designated as economically disadvantaged.
Summary: A state Senate committee advanced the South Carolina Compassionate Care Act, S. 150, last March, but the Legislature adjourned in May before a full Senate vote.
But the state has a two-year legislative session, and the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Tom Davis, has secured a commitment for a Senate floor vote this year, according to MPP.
Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, is warming to medical marijuana legalization.
Key business details: Davis reportedly has said the program would be one of the most restrictive in the country, in terms of limiting the number of qualifying patient conditions and the number of growers.
Jeff Smith can be reached at email@example.com.