While not likely to be as historic as the legalization wave of 2016, this is expected to be a watershed year for the cannabis industry.
For the first time, from all indications, state legislatures are poised to pass recreational marijuana legalization laws, with the East Coast being the most fertile ground for such efforts.
Vermont appears to be leading the charge after state lawmakers Wednesday approved legislation permitting citizens to possess and home grow marijuana. Republican Gov. Phil Scott said he will sign the legislation.
So far, the recreational cannabis laws that exist in eight states and Washington DC have been enacted by voters.
But some state legislatures are poised to lead the way, apparently brushing off the decision by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to rip up Obama-era protections for states with legal marijuana industries.
If those efforts are successful, it could provide the impetus for other states to follow.
“This would be a major development for the cannabis industry,” said Michael Bronstein, a marijuana industry advocate who’s involved in efforts to legalize recreational MJ in New Jersey, one of several states where lawmakers are working on adult-use bills.
“It would show lawmakers across the country that they can pass adult-use laws and the sky won’t fall,” he added.
“In fact, it would show that they are in lockstep with public sentiment, which overwhelmingly favors adult-use legalization.”
Here’s the latest snapshot of rec legalization efforts in statehouses:
- Vermont, as noted, is on the precipice of a legislature-created recreational marijuana law, though it’s limited in scope.
- New Jersey’s lawmakers appear strongly positioned to approve adult use.
- The Rhode Island and New Hampshire legislatures are entertaining recreational measures, although their odds of passing adult-use laws are notably longer.
Below is a state-by-state rundown:
The state Senate handily passed a modest but milestone recreational marijuana bill that’s headed to Gov. Scott.
He vetoed a similar bill last May but told Vermont Public Radio after Wednesday’s Senate vote that he intends to sign this one.
The measure – passed a week ago by Vermont’s House of Representatives – will take a few days to get to the governor, who has five days to sign it.
And that means the adult-use legislation could become law before the end of the month.
The bill doesn’t allow the establishment of a regulated and taxed commercial cannabis industry; rather, it permits individuals to grow a limited number of plants and possess up to an ounce of flower. If passed, the law would take effect July 1.
Despite the measure’s lack of commercial elements, it would be a major victory for cannabis legalization, giving the plant a huge mainstream affirmation and creating a steppingstone to a full-fledged rec industry.
Indeed, a state commission established by Scott to study the feasibility of adult-use legalization will present its findings later this year.
Though Scott says he’s open to the concept of a regulated commercial market, the governor is adamant he’ll only support a plan that addresses impaired driving concerns.
Prohibitionist Republican Gov. Chris Christie is leaving office, and his pro-cannabis successor, Democrat Phil Murphy, takes control Jan. 16.
Murphy will work with a state legislature where Democrats control both chambers and many favor legalization.
In New Jersey, Sessions’ announcement could motivate some lawmakers in the post-Christie era to support legalization even more, giving them another issue with which to jab the Trump administration.
“It’s certainly a factor,” said Kate Bell, a legislative analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) who covers New Jersey.
Added Bronstein: “This will be discussed for context as policy is adopted, but it won’t change the political will for legalization.”
Indeed, both Murphy and New Jersey’s top lawmakers spoke in favor of legalization after Sessions’ announcement
“Governor-elect Murphy believes strongly in New Jersey’s right to chart its own course on legalizing marijuana,” a spokesman said in a statement, according to Politico.com.
State Senate President Steve Sweeney also chimed in:
“We will continue to work toward legalization and will resist any attempts by Attorney General Sessions or the Trump administration to impose its will on the states and to stop the progress that has been made to reform the prohibition-type mentality that criminalizes the use of marijuana.”
New Jersey’s pro-cannabis lawmakers are expected to introduce a compilation of recreational marijuana bills that already have been proposed.
Recreational cannabis legalization enjoys some passionate support in Rhode Island’s legislature, and Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo has said she’s not opposed to it.
However, leaders in both chambers have opposed legalization efforts, and Raimondo – despite her openness in principle – has voiced concerns about the state moving too hastily on adult use.
And that could mean if Raimondo and other fence-sitting lawmakers were reluctant to move on legalization before, Sessions’ announcement will make them even harder to persuade, said Rep. Scott Slater.
“It gives them one more excuse not to do anything,” added Slater, whose late father, Thomas, also a state representative, championed the state’s medical law.
Nevertheless, Slater and Senator Josh Miller plan to introduce recreational marijuana bills for what would be a fourth consecutive year. And they believe they are close to achieving enough support to get at least a modest measure passed.
Rhode Island’s leaders certainly have incentives to move forward with legalization, Slater said.
For one, the state borders Massachusetts, which is expected to start recreational sales this summer – and there are concerns that Rhode Island’s cannabis consumers would simply travel there.
Then there’s the issue of Rhode Island’s medical marijuana industry.
Though the state has three vertically integrated MMJ dispensaries, a new class of cultivation licenses has been awarded to about 20 growers. And dozens more are being evaluated, Slater said.
But the state has only 19,100 MMJ patients, which Slater believes is too few to sustain the newly licensed growers.
“They’re setting (the new licensees) up for failure,” he added.
A bill that would allow adults to possess three immature and three mature plants – similar to Vermont’s – is now in the House Ways and Means Committee.
If the measures advances – and it’s expected to – the bill goes to the state Senate, where it will face much more resistance.
“The Senate has always been much more difficult,” said Matt Simon, New England political director MPP. “But the Senate isn’t immune from being influenced by popular sentiment.”
That may be a moot point.
Republican Gov. Chris Sununu told the Concord Monitor he can’t support recreational marijuana because it would exacerbate the state’s opiate addiction crisis.
Omar Sacirbey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org