These states could legalize cannabis next in 2021

These states could legalize cannabis next in 2021 | Leafly

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With the signature of Gov. Ralph Northam expected later this week, Virginia will become the 16th state to legalize cannabis for adult use—although legalization won’t actually take effect until 2024.

Who’s likely to follow Virginia? There are a number of serious contenders.

At least 12 state legislatures have recreational legalization measures on the table right now, which is a typical number for this time of year. But unlike previous years, in which all but one or two states scrapped their plans right away, as many as five states have a realistic shot at actually passing adult-use, insiders say.

“The pressure is really on lawmakers at every level of government to take action,” said Carly Wolf, NORML’s state policies director. “Public and political support has only continued to increase.”

About three-quarters of U.S. states allow some form of medical marijuana and 15 states also permit adult-use.

Here’s what’s happening in the states most seriously considering adult-use legalization, in order of most-likely to least-likely.

New Mexico

New Mexico’s Democrat-controlled House and Senate has until March 20 to choose between five adult-use bills, which include four initiatives outlining the framework for the new program and a Republican-sponsored bill that takes aim at the illicit market.

The most likely scenario for the final bill is an amended proposal that combines the best of each of the five current bills. The legislature’s priorities include finding a way to subsidize medical cannabis for low-income patients, providing state grants for minority communities most affected by prohibition, and wiping out previous low-level marijuana convictions.

The biggest question is whether New Mexico will follow in the footsteps of Nevada and Illinois by limiting the number of cultivators and dispensaries or opt for a more open-market approach like Oregon and Colorado.

Once passed through New Mexico’s legislature, the adult-use initiatives will almost certainly be approved by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. A longtime legalization advocate, Lujan Grisham said last month that adult-use will bring “tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in new revenue” to the state.

New York

Gov. Andrew Cuomo identified $100 million in expected recreational marijuana tax revenue as part of his state budget introduced last month. Haven’t we heard this before?

Cuomo backed adult-use legalization in 2019, but momentum sputtered when he and the Democrat-controlled Legislature couldn’t see eye-to-eye. When it was all said and done, not enough leading legislators were ready to make the leap into adult-use.

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This year could be different in two major ways:

First, a key cannabis dissenter from the senate has not only changed his mind but is now helping lead the charge for adult-use. Sen. Pete Harckham, a Democrat from Westchester County, said watching neighboring Massachusetts’ success with the plant has convinced him that marijuana taxes “can be put toward a social good.”

And after being scorned by his own party for focusing too much on raising revenue with marijuana, Cuomo agreed recently to expand a social equity fund designed to support minority communities most affected by cannabis prohibition. The added support has advocates hoping for a final adult-use proposal by April 1. If signed into law, adult-use sales could start as early as July 1, 2021.

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Connecticut

Democrat Gov. Ned Lamont included adult-use cannabis in a Feb. 10 budget request, calling for an industry “that prioritizes public health, public safety, and social justice.” Lamont also asked that Connecticut’s recreational laws fall in line with those from other adult-use states in the region, like Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont.

“Let’s not surrender these opportunities to out-of-state markets or even worse, underground markets,” Lamont said during his state of the state address earlier this year.

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The leading legalization bill, LCO 3311, would let adults 21 and older legally possess up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana, with retail sales starting in 2022.

The proposal would notably ban homegrow, but would soften penalties for those caught growing the plant at home. The bill sets the framework for adults convicted of previous low-level marijuana crimes that are no longer illegal to have their convictions expunged.

A second bill, HB 6377, expands on the expungement process and opens the door for the state’s Native American tribes to get involved in the industry.

Democrats control both the House and Senate in Connecticut’s General Assembly, and adult-use legalization is more a matter of “when” than “if.” If Lamont and the General Assembly can agree on a plan by early June, adult-use could be legal by July 1, 2021.

Legalization advocates in Connecticut say they plan to put adult-use legalization on the 2022 ballot if the Legislature fails to pass it this year.

Minnesota

The Gopher State has a difficult path to adult-use legalization, as its Republican-led Senate seems poised to stonewall any adult-use proposal, just like in 2019. Back then, legislators in the state’s House didn’t even try to try to move forward with an adult-use legalization bill. This year has already seen more progress.

HF 600, which would allow adults to possess 1.5 ounces of flower and expunge past marijuana convictions for low-level offenders, recently became the first-ever adult-use bill to make it out of committee. It passed on party lines with members of Minnesota’s left-leading Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party all voting in favor and Republicans voting against.

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Gov. Tim Walz (D-F-L) has publicly supported adult-use legalization since 2018. Recently he urged lawmakers to end prohibition when asked about sports betting during a Jan. 26 budget address.

“I would still like legislators to take a look at recreational cannabis, not just because of the revenue sources that dwarf sports betting, but because of the equity issue and quite honestly, the racial impact of our cannabis laws,” Walz said.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, a Republican, has repeatedly opposed legalization. The most likely scenario, if and when the Senate rejects HF 600, is that adult-use eventually makes it on the 2022 ballot as a statewide initiative.

Florida

Florida legislators are unlikely to legalize for adult use this session, but they’re preparing a number of bills that could broaden access to medical marijuana—and some politicians have introduced longshot measures to legalize recreational use.

The bills come alongside a separate move to put recreational use before voters as a state constitutional amendment in 2022, following the success of a ballot measure approving medical marijuana in 2016. The Make It Legal advocacy group says it must collect about 200,000 more signatures; 766,000 are needed to put the issue before voters.

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Leaders in the state Legislature, controlled by Republicans for more than two decades, have long been generally opposed to legalizing recreational use, but at least one Republican state senator has sponsored a bill to make it legal for people over 21 to light up for fun. In addition to being in favor of the measure, Sen. Jeff Brandes, a lawmaker from central Florida, said it makes sense to give the Legislature first crack at it.

“My argument has always been that, you know, this should be a legislative matter,” he said. “And if the Legislature fails to act, then the people should be able to act to pass it via constitutional amendment.”

More than a dozen bills have been introduced for consideration during the Legislature’s next session, which begins March 2. They fall roughly under three categories: reforming the current medical marijuana system, legalizing recreational use and eliminating criminal penalties for certain marijuana-related offenses.

Pennsylvania

Forthcoming legislation to legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania, announced Wednesday, is believed to be the first with a Republican as an author, although it likely faces the same uphill fight against opposition from the state Legislature’s GOP majorities.

Sens. Daniel Laughlin, R-Erie, and Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, recently outlined the proposal in a memo distributed to fellow senators.

Laughlin and Street say regulating it can improve public safety and better prevent minors from getting it, while raising money for the state treasury, boosting the economy and ending the disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws against Black and Latino people.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a second-term Democrat, supports the legalization of marijuana, changing his position in 2019.

Jeff Reidy, executive director of the Lehigh Valley chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the forthcoming bill is the first legitimate marijuana legalization bill sponsored or authored by a Republican lawmaker in Pennsylvania.

For years, Democrats have introduced bills to legalize marijuana, at least as far back as 1983, when Street’s uncle, then-Sen. Milton Street, introduced one, Reidy said.

Hawaii

Adult-use might already be legal if not for the Aloha State’s top Democrat.

Gov. David Ige has opposed ending prohibition since taking office in 2014, citing fear of federal intervention.

An adult-use bill in 2019 didn’t make it to Ige’s desk, but the governor vetoed another pair of cannabis measures passed by his fellow Democrats in the legislature that year: one to allow transportation of medical cannabis across the state’s eight islands and the other to launch an industrial hemp program. A third bill to expunge former possession crimes of less than 3 grams of the plant passed that year without his signature.

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Similar to 2019, Democrats have a supermajority in Hawaii’s House and Senate. Will this year be different? Maybe not, but at least the legislature is going for it.

Senate Bill 767, which passed out of committee last month, would legalize recreational possession of up to an ounce and also up to six plants, only three of which can be mature, per household. Senate Bill 758, which also passed through committee, would expand decriminalization and the expungement program from 3 grams of flower to an ounce.

Both bills could reach Ige’s desk as early as next month. If the governor vetoes them, the Democrat supermajority could override the veto. In the most likely scenario, Hawaii will wait until the term-limited Ige leaves office in 2022.

Maryland

Legalization advocates have introduced a bill to legalize the adult use of cannabis in Maryland, but it has near-zero chance of becoming law this session because Gov. Larry Hogan would almost certainly veto it.

Still, the bill, HB32, is an important conversation-opener on issues like social equity and racial injustice. Legalization bills often take years to gain majority support in state legislatures, so HB32 plays an important part in the long-game process.

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“This is the year we are talking about equity,” Del. Jazz Lewis, D-Prince George’s, sponsor of the bill, said at a recent House Judiciary Committee meeting. “And now is the time that we pass this bill.”

HB32 would legalize, tax, and regulate cannabis for adults 21 and older, and also allow for expungement and release for individuals previously arrested or incarcerated.

Lewis argued at the hearing that the bill would take the production of cannabis off of the streets to ensure safer products, while simultaneously creating jobs, helping small businesses, and bringing in potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in annual tax revenue.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has made his anti-cannabis stance absolutely clear. Over the past few years he’s vetoed nearly every progressive cannabis reform measure to cross his desk.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Chris Kudialis

Chris Kudialis is a Las Vegas–based cannabis reporter. He has written articles for the Los Angeles Times, Las Vegas Sun, Charlotte Observer, Houston Chronicle, Detroit Free Press, and Brazil’s Rio Times, among other metropolitan dailies.

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