By John Schroyer
Let the lobbying begin.
Lawmakers across the country are introducing bills to legalize medical or recreational cannabis at the state level this year, galvanizing marijuana advocacy groups and sparking hopes that the industry is poised for yet another expansion.
Twelve states have passed legalization measures over the past four years, and the chances are high at least one – and possibly more – will go that route in the coming months.
In fact, 2015 could turn out to be a fairly significant year, with momentum from the cannabis victories in November and more mainstream acceptance of marijuana bolstering legalization efforts.
“I really think that there’s kind of almost a resignation, even among some opponents of marijuana reform, that marijuana prohibition is ending, and having that acknowledgement is a good step,” said Bob Capecchi, director of state policies for Marijuana Policy Project. “It’s becoming less of a laughing matter and more of a serious policy discussion.”
It will fall in the hands of lawmakers: 2015 is not an election year, so state legislatures will have to authorize legalization.
Lawmakers have already introduced bills in eight states to legalize and tax recreational cannabis and another 10 state legislatures are expected to consider similar bills, according to MPP. In addition, another dozen medical marijuana bills have been introduced in state legislatures, and more measures are expected in another six states.
Count it all up, and that’s three dozen legalization measures.
If even a handful of them pass, the industry will benefit from new business opportunities and hundreds of millions in potential new revenue.
Here’s a look at the states that MPP thinks have the greatest chances of pushing through legalization this year (see the end of this article for a list of all the other states considering legalization).
Though a bill has not yet been introduced in Rhode Island, Capecchi puts the state at the top of his list in terms of recreational marijuana legalization in 2015.
“I’ve had an ongoing conversation at the statehouse there now for a few years,” Capecchi said. “I think that there’s a lot of openness from leadership in Rhode Island to legalizing…The legislature there has been considering bills for a few years now.”
Capecchi said this year’s measure will likely have “the same basic structure” of one that failed in 2014. If the bill passes as written when introduced, it’ll allow the existing three MMJ dispensaries in the state to get first crack at recreational sales before other entrepreneurs are allowed to apply for business licenses.
Still, one question mark is Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo, who has not taken a position yet on rec legalization.
“What she has said…is that she’s keeping an eye on what’s going on in Colorado and Washington,” Capecchi said. “I think it bodes well for either her signing a bill if we get it to her desk or letting it become law without her signature.”
Vermont also has a good shot at pushing through rec marijuana, and a bill to do just that was introduced on Tuesday.
The measure would allow those 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of cannabis, along with up to nine plants for personal cultivation. Non-residents would be limited to purchasing a quarter of an ounce at a time. The measure would authorize a minimum of four rec retailers throughout the state, but doesn’t specify a maximum.
Several legislators and stakeholders recently took a fact-finding trip to Colorado, where they researched the implementation and effects of the country’s first legal rec industry.
The trip was spawned by the expectation that a legalization effort in Vermont this year will have some serious political pull, and several officials wanted to learn first-hand what works and what doesn’t in Colorado when it comes to rec.
The other major cog in the wheel is that Gov. Peter Shumlin has already come out in favor of legalizing rec, though he was cautious in his support and said his state should learn from the experiences of both Colorado and Washington State.
Another factor at play in Vermont is a recent study that found that rec could be a financial windfall for the state, possibly bringing in anywhere from $20 million to $75 million a year in revenue.
Coming quickly on the heels of last year’s near-victory, MMJ proponents were crowing in January after a Republican state senator introduced a bill to expand the state’s medical cannabis program.
Backers of Amendment 2 in 2014, which narrowly failed to get the requisite 60% support at the ballot, called the new bill a “very good start” to approving a broader MMJ program in Florida. But the measure, filed in the state Senate, already has a competitor in the state House of Representatives that has narrower parameters. For example, it doesn’t permit smokable MMJ and also doesn’t allow for as many qualifying medical ailments.
Still, Capecchi said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the Florida Legislature passes one bill or another, partially because many politicos in the state would rather avoid another ballot measure in 2016.
Another consideration is if the Legislature fails to pass a measure that satisfies Orlando trial attorney John Morgan, who bankrolled much of the Amendment 2 campaign last year, another multimillion-dollar political fight to legalize MMJ is a virtual certainty.
Another major MMJ market that could enter the cannabis fold this year is Pennsylvania, where legislators have been attempting for years to approve a medical marijuana law. The main difference in 2015? The state has a new governor, Tom Wolf, who in January came out in support of passing a MMJ program.
A measure with 25 co-sponsors has already been introduced in the Pennsylvania Senate, and though last year’s attempt died in the House after passing the Senate easily, this year could very well be different. That’s due in large part to a change in leadership in the House, to pro-MMJ Republican Rep. Dave Reed.
The 2015 measure will also not be nearly as restrictive as last year’s bill, which prohibited smokable MMJ and only permitted cannabis-based oils, tinctures, edibles and pills. But the measure has yet to be altered to reflect those changes, though one of the bill’s prime sponsors says formal amendments are on the way.
The Rest of the Bunch
Other areas of the country could legalize MMJ or recreational cannabis this year as well.
States that have rec bills on the table – or are expected to soon – include Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.
On the MMJ legalization side, the list includes Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
Of course, the introduction of a bill is only the first step in the process, and many of these measures will likely fail. But it’s difficult to predict what will happen, so it’s plausible that some of these bills will be successful.
John Schroyer can be reached at [email protected]