by Morgan Fox, NCIA Director of Media Relations

The last few weeks have seen quite a bit of excitement for the possibility of comprehensive federal cannabis policy reform being closer than it has ever been, but what about the states?

Historically, the vast majority of progress has been made at the state level, and this year is shaping up to be another one full of victories for legalization advocates as state governments struggle to support their economies, create new tax revenue and job sources, and tackle long-overdue criminal justice reforms.

The overwhelming approval by New Jersey voters of a referendum to make cannabis legal for adults last year has put the spotlight firmly on the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions. With state legislative sessions already underway, a number of states are already prioritizing legalization much more heavily than in years past even as New Jersey lawmakers struggle to pass enacting legislation to carry out the will of the voters in a fair and equitable manner. It is pretty clear that New Jersey’s neighbors don’t want to be left behind when it starts reaping the benefits of regulated cannabis markets.

Early this year, New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo released a statement outlining his plan to make cannabis legal in the state, and just recently added amendments that would allow delivery, clarify the tax system, and reduce penalties associated with some cannabis activities. There are still some concerns with this plan, including the amount of funding that would actually go toward repairing the disparate harms caused by prohibition and the lack of legal home cultivation. Regulated cannabis in New York could be worth more than $3.5 billion and create more than 60,000 jobs, making it one of the largest state cannabis markets in the country.

Meanwhile, in Delaware, a legalization bill that was approved in the state House in 2019 is slated to be reintroduced by the sponsor in the coming weeks. This bill would come on the heels of a report released last month by the state auditor which estimated that Delaware could take in $43 million annually with a 20% excise tax, and create more than 1,400 jobs over a five year period. In what seems to be a disturbing trend in some state legislatures this year, this bill is not expected to initially include home cultivation either.

In Connecticut, however, a new adult-use bill has been introduced that would center on restorative justice and social equity in the industry and would allow adults to grow limited amounts of cannabis in their homes. This bill has strong support in the state legislature but may soon have to compete with Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposal, which is expected to be released soon.

Nearby Pennsylvania is likely to consider adult-use legislation this year, with Gov. Tom Wolf (along with the incredibly supportive and newly internet-famous lieutenant governor) urging lawmakers to address the issue and – earlier this month – calling it a priority for his state’s annual budget proposal. Rhode Island lawmakers are expected to consider legalization again this year as well, and with the departure of Gov. Raimondo, it is more likely that the emphasis will shift away from a state-run model and back to regulating private businesses.

Farther South, Virginia made headlines this month by becoming the first state in 2021 to have both chambers of its legislature approve adult-use bills. Lawmakers are committed to ironing out the differences between the two bills this month during an extended session. With Gov. Ralph Northam in full support, Virginia stands poised to become the 16th state overall to make cannabis legal for adults and the first state to do so in the South, and it would be only the third to regulate cannabis through its legislature.

Adult-use legislation has also been introduced in Maryland, with supporters and cosponsors optimistic that it could be passed this year, though lawmakers there are not as far along in the process as their neighbors in Virginia. And in medical news, advocates in South Carolina are taking another shot at passing a medical cannabis bill there.

There are signs of progress from elsewhere in the nation as well. After running out of time in an emergency session last year, New Mexico’s governor and lawmakers wasted no time in getting back to legalization efforts this year. There are currently several bills being considered, and it appears very likely that some form of adult-use will be approved there this year.

This is just a snapshot of the momentum and positive movement we are seeing at the state level this year. If you are interested in up-to-date information about all cannabis-related state legislation in the U.S., please consider subscribing to Marijuana Moment’s bill tracker.

Unfortunately, the news isn’t all good.

In South Dakota, where voters approved both medical and adult-use initiatives in November by wide margins, advocates have suffered a temporary setback on the adult-use front. After a pair of law enforcement officials sued to have the adult-use bill thrown out because it addresses too many issues for a constitutional amendment, a circuit court judge ruled in their favor earlier this month. This situation is extremely disheartening and outrageous: the will of the people was overturned by a judge who was appointed by a governor who not only actively campaigned against the ballot initiative but also paid for the lawsuit to overturn it with taxpayer money! However, supporters have appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court.

In Montana, where voters also passed an adult-use initiative in November, supporters are faced with another lawsuit on similar grounds that was filed by opponents. However, observers are skeptical of that suit being successful, and lawmakers are moving ahead with developing enacting legislation.

And in Idaho, where a medical cannabis initiative was prevented from getting on the ballot last year, prohibitionist lawmakers are moving forward with a bill that would prevent any future legislation to make cannabis or any other currently illegal substance legal. If passed, this bill would be put before the voters in 2022, where it could very well be on the same ballot as a medical cannabis referendum.

Despite efforts to overturn progress and maintain failed and harmful cannabis policies, things are generally looking up and we expect several states to pass laws to stop arresting cannabis consumers and establish legal, regulated marketplaces in the near future.

One last item, so as not to totally leave out federal news: this week, NCIA joined members of Congress, advocates, and other industry leaders in calling on Pres. Biden to pardon all non-violent cannabis convictions and commute the sentences of anyone currently serving time.

Stay tuned for further developments!


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