By Reid Wilson – 01/13/17
Legislators in more than a dozen states have introduced measures to loosen laws restricting access to or criminalizing marijuana, a rush of legislative activity that supporters hope reflects a newfound willingness by public officials to embrace a trend toward legalization.
The gamut covered by measures introduced in the early days of legislative sessions underscores the patchwork approach to marijuana by states across the country — and the possibility that the different ways states treat marijuana could come to a head at the federal Justice Department, where President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general is a staunch opponent of legal pot.
Some states are taking early steps toward decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. In his State of the State address this week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said he will push legislation to remove criminal penalties for non-violent offenders caught with marijuana.
“The illegal sale of marijuana cannot and will not be tolerated in New York State, but data consistently show that recreational users of marijuana pose little to no threat to public safety,” Cuomo’s office wrote to legislators. “The unnecessary arrest of these individuals can have devastating economic and social effects on their lives.”
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) said during his campaign he would support decriminalizing marijuana. Legislation has passed the Republican-led state House in recent years, though it died when Sununu’s predecessor, now-Sen. Maggie Hassan (D), said she did not support the move.
Several states are considering allowing marijuana for medical use. Twenty-eight states already have widespread medical marijuana schemes, and this year legislators in Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah have introduced bills to create their own versions. Republicans in control of state legislatures in most of those states are behind the push.
Legislators in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Delaware, New Mexico and New Jersey will consider recently introduced measures to legalize marijuana for recreational use.
There is little consensus on just how to approach legalization: Three different bills have been introduced in Connecticut’s legislature. Two have been introduced in New Mexico, and three measures to allow medical pot have been filed in Missouri.
In 2016, voters in four states — Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and California — joined Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Colorado in passing ballot measures legalizing pot for recreational purposes. Those efforts, marijuana reform advocates say, have lifted the stigma legislators might have felt.
“Now that voters in a growing number of states have proven that this is a mainstream issue, many more lawmakers feel emboldened to champion marijuana reform, whereas historically this issue was often looked at as a marginalized or third-rail issue,” said Tom Angell, chairman of the pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority.
Just because measures get introduced does not mean they will advance. In many cases, Angell said, it is governors — Democrats and Republicans alike — who stand in the way.
Though Democrats control the Connecticut legislature, Gov. Dan Malloy (D) has made clear he is no supporter of legalized pot. Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) has not said he would veto a legalization bill, though he is far less friendly to the idea than his predecessor, Democrat Peter Shumlin.
In New Mexico, Gov. Susana Martinez (R) has called decriminalizing marijuana a “horrible, horrible idea.” Democratic legislators are considering a plan to put legal marijuana to voters, by proposing an amendment to the state constitution. If New Jersey legislators advance a legalization law, they would run into an almost certain veto from Gov. Chris Christie (R).
While 14 state legislatures have legalized marijuana for medical use, no state legislature has passed a measure legalizing pot for recreational use.
“Every year, we’ve seen legalizers throw everything at the wall to see what might stick,” said Kevin Sabet, who heads the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “I’m not surprised by any means. I don’t think there’s much appetite to legalize through the legislature.”
Sabet conceded that efforts to stop legalization movements in Vermont and Rhode Island may be difficult. He said decriminalization measures can be smart and effective, if they include provisions boosting funding for treatment and prevention, but he warned that decriminalization bills can be a first step toward looser rules.
“The kind of decriminalization that legalization folks want is a stepping stone,” Sabet said. “Their prize is certainly full legalization. I don’t think they’re going to stop at decriminalization.”
In Washington, the incoming Trump administration has sent signals that encourage, and worry, both supporters and opponents of looser pot rules. The Obama Justice Department issued a memorandum to U.S. attorneys downplaying the importance of prosecuting crimes relating to marijuana in states where it is legal.
Trump’s nominee to head the next Justice Department, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), has been sharply critical of states that have legalized marijuana. In his confirmation hearings this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions said current guidelines, known as the Cole memo, are “truly valuable.”
Marijuana industry advocates seized on those comments in hopes of locking Sessions into maintaining the status quo.
“The current federal policy, as outlined by the Cole memo, has respected carefully designed state regulatory programs while maintaining the Justice Department’s commitment to pursuing criminals and prosecuting bad actors,” said Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association.
Congress in recent years has passed a rider to appropriations bills that has blocked the Justice Department from taking action against states where pot is legal. But that could change, now that Republicans control the House, Senate and White House.