This was supposed to be the big year for marijuana legalization. But in many state capitols across the country, efforts have stalled or collapsed as Democrats clash over everything from race and criminal justice to how to divvy up a gold mine of pot-tax revenue.
Legalization of recreational marijuana seemed all but inevitable in at least a half-dozen states when the year began — including New York, New Jersey and Illinois, which all have Democratic legislatures.
But in state after state, proposals encountered significant turbulence, and the clock is running out on the legislative season.
New Jersey’s top lawmaker declared the state’s legalization drive dead and will instead support a 2020 ballot referendum. New York Democrats are trying to rekindle efforts to pass a bill that would permit recreational use after negotiations stalled out during the budget process in March. And in New Mexico, a legalization bill got pushed aside for more pressing priorities, most notably boosting education funding.
Disputes over addressing racial and economic justice issues, home cultivation of cannabis plants and marijuana-related state revenue have splintered Democrats as they seek to corral enough votes for passage.
“The legislative process is difficult, it’s complicated and it’s really challenging to get agreement on a large-scale social reform,” said John Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and author of “Marijuana: A Short History,” noting that marijuana advocates often overestimate its salience. “While cannabis reform is very popular, it’s not something that most Americans feel passionately about.”
Marijuana advocates point to some unlikely victories in parts of the country that had been hostile. The Alabama Senate, for example, recently approved medical marijuana legislation, and the Texas House has advanced bills that would reduce penalties for marijuana possession and expanding its medical program.
But overall, the year has not lived up to their expectations.
At this point, Illinois appears to be the best bet for getting a full legalization bill across the finish line, but it’s still iffy with two weeks left until adjournment. Freshman Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s budget plan is counting on pot to generate an estimated $500 million for the cash-strapped state.
“We think we’re getting close,” Illinois state Sen. Heather Steans, chief sponsor of the legalization bill told POLITICO recently. “We’ve been working on this two years. It’s been a collaborative process with many stakeholders at the table.”
One key sticking point in Illinois — particularly with law enforcement — is whether to allow people to grow cannabis plants at home. Steans said she expects the bill’s final language would allow only medical marijuana users to grow their own plants.
“We think there’s a strong rationale for that since it can’t be covered by insurance or Medicaid,” Steans said. “And that makes it easier for law enforcement.”
But some top Illinois Democrats, including outgoing Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, are worried that lawmakers are trying to jam legalization through too quickly in order to reap the financial windfall.
“Don’t go head first into this just because we’re thirsty and hungry for revenue,” he told POLITICO.
Across multiple states, one of the thorniest issues is how to address equity concerns raised by the war on drugs; minorities have been subject to disproportionate financial and criminal penalties for drug possession for decades.
In New York, some Latino and African American lawmakers have withheld support for legalization because they say criminal justice reform and provisions designed to ensure minority participation in the newly legalized — and potentially very lucrative — market don’t go far enough to redress historical inequities.
On Thursday, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Illinois Capitol to demand that a dedicated funding stream from marijuana sales go toward violence reduction and programs that boost communities disproportionately affected by the enforcement of low-level drug offenses.
By contrast, in New Jersey, some elements of the three-bill package rankled conservative and moderate Democrats from the powerful South Jersey voting bloc. One sticking point: a provision that allowed for expunging third-degree distribution convictions, which covers up to five pounds of marijuana.
Those fractures derailed the New Jersey legislation. Senate President Steve Sweeney instead is backing a 2020 ballot referendum on full legalization.
“I know the governor tried. We would speak two or three times a week when we were trying to get it done, but there were never a list of votes provided to me to show they were close,” Sweeney said at a news conference on Wednesday. He added that Gov. Phil Murphy “didn’t listen to the advice that legislators gave him” on how to shore up support for legalization.
The rocky path that legalization bills have encountered in state legislatures isn’t surprising, given the lack of past success. Of the 10 states that have full legalization, just one — Vermont — enacted it through the legislative process. And there, possession was legalized but recreational sales remain prohibited. All of the others were passed through ballot referendums, a much cleaner process because voters can only approve or reject the proposals as written. Medical marijuana bills have enjoyed more success in state capitols, with 16 states enacting laws.
“It’s hard to do it legislatively, I admit,” Murphy said at a recent news conference, adding that he considered the expungement and social justice elements to be the most important reasons for legalizing cannabis through legislation rather than via referendum. “We’re a lot more complicated than Vermont. It’s always been default to go to a referendum and ask the people.”
Marijuana advocates point out that they are making progress, including in parts of the country that had been hostile, even if this year didn’t live up to their hopes.
Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, noted that it took yearsto garner support for medical marijuana bills in New York and Illinois.
“I’ve worked in marijuana policy for 15 years, and having Democratic majorities in both chambers hasn’t even made it easy to pass medical marijuana,” O’Keefe said. “Elected officials tend to be way behind the public on this issue.”
But legalization opponents argue that lawmakers inevitably turn against the proposals when presented with public health concerns, particularly around driving on drugs and childhood marijuana use. They insist that the legalization movement is waning.
“Each year, well-paid pot lobbyists come to state capitols promising marijuana legalization bills are a panacea to state budgets and social justice,” Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which has worked to defeat legalization bills across the country, said in a statement to POLITICO. “The fact is, marijuana legalization is a failed policy that is having disastrous effects in every state that legalizes.”
Legalization advocates scoff at such assertions. They point to polling data that shows strong bipartisan support for legalization as evidence that, whatever the setbacks, progress will continue. Even if the legislative efforts in Illinois and New York collapse this year, they’ll be pushing bills again in 2020, and Connecticut’s push to pass full legalization this year is making steady progress. In addition, marijuana-legalization referendums are likely to be on the ballot in states beyond New Jersey, possibly including the presidential battlegrounds of Florida and Ohio.
“In the grand scheme of things, our reform movement is just beginning to crest after all these years of prohibition,” said Carly Wolf, state policies coordinator for the marijuana advocacy group NORML. “It comes down to managing expectations and thinking realistically. … It’s not realistic to expect that five state legislatures are going to approve legalization bills in a single year.”