This is the first in a four-part series looking at marijuana legalization attempts in the United States in 2021. There will be no citizen initiatives, which means that change will only happen through state legislatures and governors’ offices.
With coronavirus still taking huge bites out of local and state budgets, elected officials from coast to coast are looking to legalize marijuana in the coming months, at least in part to get their books back in the black.
While most legalization efforts have come from voters themselves, about half of US states don’t have a voter initiative or referendum process in place, and with no federal election this year, if there’s legalization action, it will have to come from state legislatures and governor’s mansions.
Several states in the Northeast are ripe for marijuana reform. In November, New Jersey voters legalized recreational cannabis for adults — joining the ranks of Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and, hell, even Canada — which only increased the already boiling pressure on neighboring states to follow suit.
The most likely Northeastern state to legalize marijuana is New York, but it was also the most likely to legalize last year and the year before that.
Newly scandal-ridden Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) is once again promising legalization this year, and polls all show majority support among voters in the sprawling and diverse state. Nothing materialized in years past, but the state and New York City weren’t facing a projected $73.3 billion budget gap until the coronavirus pandemic left its mark across the Empire State.
“It’s not a matter of when, it’s a matter of how,” New York state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) said of legalization last year.
But it’s hardly cut-and-dried. The governor continues to refine his legalization plan. Just at the end of February he promised revisions to the original proposal, adding provisions that would allow delivery services, lower penalties for illegal sales and more promotion of social equity to calm fears.
“The governor wants to pass a bill. The legislature wants to pass a bill,” Karen O’Keefe, Marijuana Policy Project director of state policies, told The News Station. “They disagree on the differences as they are trying to hammer out the details. Voters even in a Republican state like South Dakota voted for legalization, and New York still doesn’t have it.”
There is still a lot of space between the governor’s proposal and what’s pending in the legislature.
“Many advocates are pushing social equity, and the key aspect will be the ability to reconcile those,” Carly Wolf, advocacy group NORML’s state policies manager, told The News Station.
Wolf also noted that New Jersey has now passed its rules and regulations, which puts financial pressure on New York to pass something.
It’s Not Just New York
Rhode Island and Connecticut are each now hemmed in by neighboring states that allow recreational marijuana use for adults. The obvious fact that adults in both states are venturing across their border lines to buy marijuana hasn’t evaded legislators.
“Like it or not, legalized marijuana is a short drive away in Massachusetts, and New York is soon to follow,” Gov. Ned Lamont (D-Conn.) said last year.
Right now, do you realize that what you can buy legally in Massachusetts right across the border can land you in prison here in Connecticut for up to a year?Gov. Ned Lamont
This year, in his budget proposal for 2021, which includes cannabis reform and social equity measures, Lamont noted the loss of state tax revenue during the 2020 coronavirus shutdown. But, NORML’s Carly Wolf said, “There’s also a similarity to New York’s inability to get anything passed,” Wolf said. “There’s still a lot of disagreement and a lot of pushback from advocates on the governor’s bill.”
After a day-long hearing at the end of February during which Jason Ortiz, the head of the Minority Cannabis Business Association and chair of a working group convened by Gov. Lamont. said that the current version would create a white-only market in Connecticut, the bill is expected to be amended to address equity concerns.
In Rhode Island, now former-Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo had been promoting legalization — until she was just confirmed as Biden’s Commerce Secretary — but one tenet of her plan would only allow cannabis products to be sold through state-run stores.
Raimondo introduced the concept, which many Democrats who are still in power favor, in her budget proposal last year and has called it “the safest way to maximize state revenue.” Under the plan, no one would be allowed to personally cultivate plants, which would also mean all adults would be forced to buy from the state.
With Raimondo in the cabinet, “it’s up in the air now,” NORML’s Carly Wolf said.
“Lt. Gov. Daniel J. Mckee prefers the entrepreneurial model,” MPP’s O’Keefe said.
Speaker of the Rhode Island House Joe Shekarchi is open to it as well.
Over in Pennsylvania, back in 2016, the state legislature passed a bill which allowed patients to access medical marijuana for 17 different conditions. Sales have exceeded all expectations so far, with patient visits rising from 70,000 a week in February 2020 to 120,000 each week in August.
Democratic leaders Gov. Tom Wolf and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman have been pushing legislators to legalize recreational marijuana for adults for some time now. And the first legalization bill in Pennsylvania to have a Republican state senate co-signer, Dan Laughlin, from Erie, was introduced last month.
Fetterman has been a longtime advocate. Besides trying to make purchasing marijuana like buying a six pack of beer for people 21 and over, he also wants to issue mass pardons for prior cannabis convictions. He explained to CBS News recently that marijuana is a plant, not a drug. He is considering a run for the US Senate seat being vacated by Pat Toomey in 2022.
For his part, Sen. Toomey — currently the top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee — told The News Station at the Capitol that he doesn’t support legalization measures.
“I don’t think they’ve taken into account the negative effects,” he said.
That’s ridiculous to advocates who say, in the end, his opinion doesn’t matter that much anymore.
“The state already has two strong allies,” NORML’s Wolf said. “The first legal bipartisan bill was announced, and it’s the first that has a Republican co-sponsor. The dichotomy in Pennsylvania is that there’s a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature.”
Lil Ole New Hampshire
Perhaps the most difficult Northeastern state to consider legalization is New Hampshire, where Republican Gov. Christopher Sununu and some in the GOP remain adamantly opposed.
A bipartisan bill to legalize recreational marijuana for adults has been offered in the current session, but like many earlier bills, it faces an uphill battle.
“New Hampshire is sad,” Marijuana Policy Project’s Karen O’Keefe admitted to The News Station. “The House has passed bills many times, but the Senate always bottles it up in committees. Unless he (Sununu) evolves, it will take a super majority to get it done. I’m not optimistic they’ll take that up.”
Next in this four-part series: Virginia might be the first Southern state to legalize recreational marijuana for adults, though the South has already begun to thaw on medical marijuana.