5 states rapidly moving toward marijuana legalization

The legislative season is in full swing across the country, and pot is hot -- especially in New England

Published March 22, 2015 12:00PM (EDT)


This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet The legislative season is in full swing at statehouses around the country, and pot is hot.  And we're not even talking about medical marijuana or decriminalization bills, we're talking about outright legalization bills.

Early this month, the General Social Survey, the "gold standard" of public opinion polls, reported that for the first time, a majority nationwide favor legalization. Other recent opinion polls, including Gallup and Pew, have reported similar results. And all have reported rather dramatic increases in support in recent years, with the trend still continuing upward.

While Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and DC have already legalized weed via the initiative process, it's taking a few years for state legislatures to notice. There was a similar political dynamic with medical marijuana. Californians voted to legalize medical in 1996, but it took four years for Hawaii to become the first state to do so legislatively.

It's now nearly three years since Coloradans and Washingtonians voted to legalize marijuana. Isn't it time for some state legislature somewhere to get around to legalizing it? Well, maybe. But getting controversial, paradigm-shifting policy changes through such bodies is notoriously difficult and time-consuming. And while polls are reporting majorities for legalization, those are slim majorities. That means there are still a whole lot of people in this country who don't want to see pot legalized.

Still, legalization appears to be the wave of the future. Legalization bills have been or will be filed in at least 15 states this year (see below). Here are five states that are most likely to be the first out of the box when it comes to legalizing pot at the statehouse.

1. Maine. Rep. Diane Russell (D-Portland) has previously sponsored legalization bills and is doing the same this year. While her bill has yet to be assigned to a committee and one chamber of the legislature is dominated by Republicans, the threat of legalization via voter initiative next year if legislators don't act this year could be enough to concentrate their minds.

2. Massachusetts. Earlier this month, Rep. David Rogers (D-Belmont), Sen. Pat Jehlen (D-Somerville), and 13 bipartisan cosponsors introduced House Bill 1561, which would legalize marijuana for adults and establish a system of taxed and regulated marijuana commerce. As in Maine, legislators have the threat of a voter initiative next year if they fail to act.

3. Rhode Island.Also earlier this month, Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairman Joshua Miller (D-Cranston) and House Finance Committee member Scott A. Slater (D-Providence) introduced legislation to make marijuana legal for adults 21 and older and to establish a system in which marijuana is regulated and taxed similarly to alcohol. The bills are House Bill 5777 and Senate Bill 510. The state has been tagged as one of the more likely ones to legalize it through the legislature.

4. Connecticut. Rep. Edwin Vargas’ HB 6473 and Rep. Juan Candelaria's HB 6703 would each replace Connecticut’s prohibition of marijuana with sensible regulations for adults’ use, and both are currently before the Joint Judiciary Committee.

5. Vermont. Sen. David Zuckerman has filed Senate Bill 95, which would legalize the possession of up to an ounce by adults, establish a regulatory system for marijuana commerce, and impose a $40 an ounce excise tax on marijuana sold in the state. Whether the bill will go anywhere remains to be seen; key legislative leaders said they did not plan to hold hearings on it this year, but if the issue starts moving in neighboring states, that could change.

These five states all have some things in common: They have all decriminalized small-time pot possession, they have all enacted medical marijuana laws, and they are all in New England, one of the most liberal regions of the country.

A Special Case

And then there's Nevada. Just last week, it became the first state to have alegalization initiative approved for the November 2016 ballot. This was not a case of the legislature acting, but of the legislature failing to act. Nevada legalization advocates have already gone through all the steps to get an initiative on the ballot—drafting the measure, getting its language approved, gathering the required number of signatures—and the legislature had until last week to avoid taking the issue to the voters by simply approving it itself. It chose not to do that, and now, Nevadans are set to vote on legalization next year.

Serious marijuana legalization initiative efforts are also likely next year or campaigns are already underway in Arizona, California, Michigan, Missouri, and Ohio, as well as Maine and Massachusetts (if the legislatures don't act first).

More States With Legalization Bills

Although the New England states look to have the best shot at being first to legalize via the legislature, they have no monopoly on interest in the topic. Marijuana legalization bills have also been filed this year in Arizona HB 2007, the District of Columbia (to tax and regulate), Georgia (SB 198), Hawaii (SB 383), Illinois (possession and cultivation, SB 753), Maryland (SB 531), Missouri (would allow a legalization initiative, HJR 15, New Mexico (would approve a constitutional amendment,  SJR 2; a straight legalization bill, HB 160, was already defeated), Pennsylvania (SB 528), Tennessee (possession and casual exchange, HB 0873), and Texas (HB 2165).

It's going to happen somewhere, maybe this year. The most promising prospects are in New England, but who knows? Will a pot law be signed in Austin before one is signed in Boston?

By Phillip Smith

Phillip Smith is a senior writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug policy journalist for the past two decades. He is the longtime author of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the non-profit StopTheDrugWar.org, and has been the editor of AlterNet’s Drug Reporter since 2015. He was awarded the Drug Policy Alliance’s Edwin M. Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

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