Week in Review: Marijuana Legalization Developments in Pennsylvania, Ohio & Vermont

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By Omar Sacirbey and John Schroyer

Pennsylvania becomes the first legalization domino to fall in 2016, Ohio lawmakers offer up their vision of medical cannabis in the state, and hopes for recreational marijuana in Vermont take a huge hit.

Here’s a closer look at several notable developments in the marijuana industry over the past week.

Pennsylvania prelude?

When Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf signs a bill to legalize medical cannabis on Sunday, his state will become the 24th in the nation to join the MMJ club.

The move also could give other states some extra oomph to push through marijuana legislation in 2016, which is already expected to be a historic year for marijuana legalization.

“Pennsylvania is a significant state, politically and economically,” said Michael Bronstein, co-founder of the American Trade Association for Cannabis Hemp. “What happens here can set the tone for what happens elsewhere.”

In particular, Pennsylvania could help medical marijuana legalization efforts in Ohio, where activists are pushing a legalization ballot measure and lawmakers are drafting their own MMJ legislation as well (more on this below).

“There’s already strong support for medical marijuana in Ohio,” said Morgan Fox, communications manager at the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington DC. “But if you have neighbors on each side of you with legalized medical marijuana, voters will be aware of that, and I think they don’t want their state to be left behind.”

However, Pennsylvania’s success in passing a medical marijuana law likely won’t have an impact on states considering recreational cannabis legalization this year, such as California, Nevada and Massachusetts.

“States that are voting on (recreational) legalization did what Pennsylvania did years ago, so to them it’s not that important,” Fox said. “Still, it does move the needle a bit.”

Rule of law?

Speaking of Ohio…

Surprise! The quintessential swing state in presidential politics is set to be a major battleground for the marijuana industry this year as well.

The Marijuana Policy Project has already begun working on a ballot initiative to legalize medical cannabis there in November, and chances are good that MPP will be able to pull it off.

But state lawmakers in Columbus appear to want full control over how and under what circumstances MMJ becomes legal, hence their move this week to introduce a competing version of medical cannabis legalization.

“To those that are operating outside the scope of this process, it is extremely irresponsible to continue without coming forward and participating with us in this process,” the Republican speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives told reporters on Wednesday.

The effort to do so only emerged, however, after an expensive marijuana legalization campaign last year persuaded lawmakers that there’s enough public support for MMJ that they should take the issue seriously.

This is a story the cannabis industry has heard before: specifically in Florida two years ago.

Similar to Ohio, there were sky-high polling numbers in favor of MMJ just months before the November 2014 election, when a measure to legalize a broad medical cannabis program was ultimately defeated (even though it received 58% of the vote).

In an attempt to undercut a more permissive MMJ industry from springing up, the legislature there approved a limited CBD program before the election.

Ohio lawmakers can probably read the writing on the wall: Multiple polls for over a year now have found support for MMJ in the Buckeye State at over 80%.

So they’re not looking for a pre-emptive strike. If lawmakers legalize a narrow MMJ bill, they can use that as political ammunition against MPP’s initiative, which, incidentally, lawmakers would have a much more difficult time altering because it’s an amendment to the state constitution.

Green Mountain blues

At the start of the year, Vermont seemed like a pretty good bet to succeed in legalizing recreational marijuana through its state legislature.

But that hope is hanging on by a thread after a majority of the House Judiciary Committee rejected a version of a legalization bill passed by the state Senate last month.

To salvage any hope, a supporter crafted a new bill that essentially only creates a committee to study legalization.

The watered-down bill must still go through two other committees, where supporters hope at least some provisions of the original legalization measure will be restored.

The bill could also be passed as is by the two committees, but then be changed when it goes to a joint committee of senators and representatives tasked with crafting a final bill for each of their chambers to vote on.

“There are still paths forward, more narrow paths, but there is still an opportunity to restore some of the elements of the bill so we can move to a legalized and regulated structure,” said Bill Lofy, a spokesman for the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative.

One idea that has been discussed is writing “triggers” into the legislation, stating essentially that if one of Vermont’s neighbors legalizes adult-use marijuana, then the state would within a certain time period have to start building its own regulatory system, Lofy said.

Voters in two Vermont neighbors, Massachusetts and Maine, are likely to consider legalization ballot measures in November.

“But the question is what will be the support level on the House floor for those various iterations,” Lofy said. “If there is a way to pass legislation that does move us out of this current prohibition system but does so in a slow and deliberate way, that could address some of the concerns we’ve heard expressed by many legislators.”

Omar Sacirbey can be reached at omars@mjbizdaily.com

John Schroyer can be reached at johns@mjbizdaily.com