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Momentum on marijuana moves to statehouses

With Congress stalled and state ballot initiatives scarce, legislatures will become main arena for debates

President Joe Biden announced that he would revisit the classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug, but states are pushing ahead with legalization efforts.
President Joe Biden announced that he would revisit the classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug, but states are pushing ahead with legalization efforts.

Marijuana legalization campaigns will increasingly run through state capitols as Congress remains stalled, advocates say.

A bill in the House to legalize marijuana faces an uncertain future, and the Senate has not moved legislation that would allow marijuana businesses to bank. Meanwhile, opportunities to legalize marijuana through state ballot initiatives have winnowed; while nine other states and the District of Columbia approved commercial sales through ballot initiatives, just 23 states and the district allow such initiatives.

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The result is state legislatures will be the main arena for legalization debates. This year, commercial sales began in Illinois, the first state to approve them through legislation. Pro-marijuana advocates will have to adapt their strategy accordingly to persuade state lawmakers.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group that opposes legalization, views the movement toward statehouses and the lengthier legislative process as an advantage.

“Our message takes some time to explain in this environment” of increasing popularity for marijuana legalization, said Kevin Sabet, president of SAM.

Sabet said it can be difficult to defeat marijuana businesses and advocates in a messaging battle.

“We like working with state legislatures. It’s still not cheap, it still takes up a lot of time and it’s a long-slog effort, but a contemplative body that we can have a discussion with is preferable to a ballot initiative and competing catchphrases,” he said.

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Legalization advocates acknowledged that targeted lobbying can gum up action on marijuana bills but argued that growing interest in their cause will ultimately compel legislators.

“It’s interesting to hear the opposition acknowledge what they are doing flies in the face of public opinion,” said Melissa Moore, deputy state director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New York.

Nationally, 59 percent of people support both medical and recreational marijuana legalization, on top of another 32 percent who support its medicinal use alone, a 2019 Pew Research Center survey found.

“We know that the perspectives of state legislators can lag behind public opinion. It’s disheartening to think you can convince a relative handful of legislators, and through a few votes on a few committees the will of the people can be thwarted,” said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project.

[Legal pot makes it harder to recruit truck drivers, industry leader says]

New Mexico, New York and Alabama could be states to watch on legalization issues in 2020. New York has sought out collaboration with three neighboring states, recognizing that interstate travel could render major policy differences irrelevant and cultivate black markets.

New Mexico on the verge 

New Mexico appears poised to legalize adult recreational use in a swift 30-day session that began Jan. 21.

“The dialogue has shifted to not if, but when,” said Emily Kaltenbach, an organizer with the Drug Policy Alliance advocacy group.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham voiced support for legalized adult-use sales in her State of the State address — with caveats that the state’s existing medical marijuana program be protected and law enforcement receive a funding boost.

The push stalled last year in a Democrat-controlled Senate committee.

“This bill is stronger than last year’s bill,” Kaltenbach said. “We’re focused on individuals in the Senate in particular who were on the fence.”

The governor in June 2019 appointed a cannabis working group, whose members included both advocates like Kaltenbach and a county sheriff. The group issued a 16-page report detailing its recommendations.

State Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, who introduced the bill last year, said in local interviews that he plans to introduce a bill that draws from the working group’s recommendations.

The bill would immediately expunge cannabis possession convictions. It also would direct some tax revenues to a so-called “Medicaid for marijuana” program to subsidize medical marijuana purchases for low-income patients. The bill would also seed small businesses, fund substance abuse treatment, and direct 35 percent of tax revenues to a new fund for public health programs, job training and housing subsidies.

The New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association has not announced opposition to the bill. The measure would create a new fund for state law enforcement underwritten by 16.5 percent of the revenue from taxes on cannabis sales. The bill also would direct 10 percent of the fees the state collects from licenses and penalties from life, general casualty and title insurance business to the police’s new fund.

Northeastern states’ cannabis coalition

New York Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo threw his weight behind a push for legal cannabis in his State of the State address coinciding with the legislative session’s Jan. 8 start. Cuomo has said he wants legalization incorporated into fiscal 2021 budget negotiations in March.

“We’re heading into session in a different place,” said Moore. Cuomo convened a summit of Northeastern governors on the issue last fall, so negotiations in New York will be closely watched, as they could set a standard for other states.

“New York has an opportunity to set a national model that looks responsive to the tremendous harms of criminalization,” Moore said, pointing to statistics showing that New York led the nation in marijuana-related arrests and incarcerations.

Cuomo’s speech was months in the making after a legalization effort dissolved last session. Proponents grumbled Cuomo didn’t push hard enough. Competing stakeholder interests in part led to the clock running out on last year’s bill, advocates say.

Sabet concedes defeating legalization in New York “will be tough” this year, but he also said the defeat of last year’s legislation gives the opposition momentum. The last session proved the assembly’s Democratic majority does not guarantee passage.

“We’re closer to Democrats than Republicans in New York,” Sabet said. For example, Assembly member Jaime Williams said at a news conference with SAM last year that more research on marijuana is needed, according to local reports.

The governor’s office said it wants to work in tandem with three nearby states: Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Advocates are also watching initiatives to end penalties for marijuana possession in New Hampshire and introduce commercial sales in Vermont, where homegrown plants are already legal.

Medical marijuana faces test in Alabama

Republican supermajorities in both chambers will likely take up a bill to create a medical marijuana program in Alabama. Proponents head into the state’s session on Feb. 4 armed with draft legislation by the Alabama Medical Cannabis Study Commission.

Last month, a majority of the commission, made up of medical professionals, attorneys and farmers, concluded that “there is strong public interest for a medical cannabis program in Alabama.” The commission grew out of an unsuccessful effort to pass medical marijuana last year. A House committee did not act on a Senate-approved bill. Republican state Sen. Tim Melson, the commission chairman, plans to introduce the bill next month.

The tide toward medical marijuana was roiled earlier this month when Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, a Republican, announced his opposition, arguing it would conflict with federal law and drawing a parallel between marijuana and opioids.

Annual congressional appropriations grant a legal safe harbor for state medical marijuana programs. Proponents of the Alabama bill said they would continue to support it when the session starts in February.

“I don’t think this is going to change that many minds because there is a lot of compelling evidence,” Republican state Rep. Mike Ball said in a radio interview. “I do think the people that were opposed to it will remain opposed to it, and this will give them a little extra political cover.”

Alabama would join more than 30 states and the District of Columbia that have a medical marijuana program. Tennessee and Kentucky, which started their sessions this month, are also expected to weigh medical marijuana bills this year.

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