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Where Cannabis Legalization efforts stand across the Country
Gains in state legislatures slowed down in 2022, but advocates still have the ballot. State lawmakers are still wary of weed.
Last year, four states legalized marijuana through their legislatures. So far in 2022, only one — Rhode Island — has managed to legalize recreational marijuana, even though public support for liberalizing cannabis laws remains at an all-time high.
With most legislative sessions across the country already wrapped up for the year, the results are clear: “Elected officials remain far behind the times,” said Karen O’Keefe, state policy director for Marijuana Policy Project. If it were left up to voters, O’Keefe believes, every state would have some form of legal cannabis by now.
As it stands, 19 states have embraced full legalization, while 19 others have enacted medical marijuana programs. But many of the remaining holdouts are staunchly conservative states where legalization skepticism runs deep among lawmakers.
Perhaps the biggest setback for industry advocates this year was Delaware, where a bill to remove penalties for possession passed with supermajorities in both chambers, only to be vetoed by the Democratic governor, John Carney. Recreational legalization efforts also came up short in Ohio, Hawaii and New Hampshire, while medical bills failed in Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky.
Some legislative efforts were doomed from the outset, particularly Democratic-sponsored adult-use bills introduced in GOP-dominated state legislatures such as Louisiana, Wisconsin and Indiana.
But not all hope is lost for pro-legalization advocates. At least a half dozen states could have legalization questions on their November ballots. If all of those campaigns succeed, half of the states in the country would allow adults to possess — and eventually purchase — weed legally.
Here’s a look at where legalization efforts stand across the country:
In January, the Mississippi Legislature passed legislation establishing a medical marijuana program by overwhelming margins after spending months haggling over the details. Republican Gov. Tate Reeves bashed the measure repeatedly for allowing patients to purchase too much cannabis, but ultimately signed the bill after changes were made to make it slightly more restrictive.
The Legislature took action after Mississippi voters overwhelmingly backed a medical marijuana legalization referendum in 2020, only to have it struck down as unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. Mississippi’s fledgling medical program is the latest sign that marijuana legalization is making inroads in even the most staunchly conservative swaths of the country. The application process for patients and businesses is underway, with sales potentially starting by the end of the year.
In May, Rhode Island became the 19th state to embrace full legalization. The Democrat-dominated Legislature overwhelmingly passed legislation after hashing out agreements on how to automatically scrap old marijuana-related criminal convictions and the best approach to regulating the industry. The bill allows for 33 dispensaries spread across six regions of the state, with sales slated to start Dec. 1.
At least one dispensary in each of those six regions must be a worker-owned cooperative. Rhode Island lawmakers were spurred in part by a growing frustration that they’re forfeiting tax revenue to neighboring states, with Massachusetts implementing recreational sales in 2018 and Connecticut poised to launch its market later this year.
“The reality is that cannabis is here in Rhode Island already,” Sen. Joshua Miller, the chief sponsor of the bill, said during the floor debate. “We already have all of the challenges of cannabis but we have none of the safeguards and resources.”
After trying (and failing) to pass comprehensive legalization legislation in prior years, Maryland lawmakers backed a measure kicking the question to voters. The measure would legalize cannabis possession and use for adults over 21, and instructs the Legislature to pass a regulatory framework for sales. Given strong public support for the issue, the referendum is all but guaranteed to pass.
While pro-legalization senators had hoped to pass enabling legislation this year, an effort to do so failed to make it across the finish line before the session adjourned. That likely means recreational sales won’t begin until 2024.
In 2020, South Dakota voters became the first in the country to back both medical and recreational legalization at the same time. But the state Supreme Court struck down the adult-use referendum as unconstitutional. The Republican-dominated Legislature considered a recreational marijuana legalization bill this session. While the legislation made it out of the Senate, it didn’t have enough votes in the House. So legalization supporters are once again turning to voters, submitting enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot.
It’s the first citizen-driven marijuana legalization initiative to be certified this year, and cannabis advocates are confident it has the votes to pass. If approved, adults over 21 would be allowed to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana and grow up to three plants if there are no dispensaries in the county or city where they live.
Unlike the 2020 initiative, which was a constitutional amendment, this year’s effort is a statutory amendment that would allow lawmakers to change or repeal its provisions.
At one point there were three different efforts to put recreational legalization on the ballot in Arkansas this year. But ultimately just one campaign — Responsible Growth Arkansas, primarily backed by the state’s medical marijuana businesses — submitted signatures to make the November ballot. The group collected more than twice as many signatures as required to qualify.
“Having that kind of cushion really assures us that after all is said and done with the secretary of state we should be well in excess of 89,000,” said Steve Lancaster, an attorney and spokesperson for the campaign.
The secretary of state’s office said the campaign collected sufficient signatures, but the proposal still needs signoff from the Board of Election Commissioners to make the ballot. The board is expected to review the measure Aug. 3.
But the business-backed effort has sparked opposition from some legalization advocates who argue that it’s primarily designed to help bolster their bottom lines. Arkansas’ existing medical shops would be allowed to add sales to anyone at least 21 years old on March 8, 2023, and would also be eligible to open an additional location solely serving the recreational market. A lottery would allocate 40 additional licenses for adult-use dispensaries.
“This isn’t marijuana reform. This is greed,” said Melissa Fults, a longtime Arkansas legalization advocate.
A bipartisan push to legalize adult-use marijuana fell short during the Legislature’s regular session this year. But an effort to put legalization on the November ballot submitted signatures to the secretary of state’s office in May. It’s unclear whether the initiative will qualify for the ballot. That’s in large part due to concerns that the campaign might not fulfill Missouri’s requirement that signatures be culled from all six of the state’s congressional districts.
The latest unofficial tally from the secretary of state’s office shows the campaign falling short of signatures in two congressional districts. An official decision is due Aug. 9.
Supporters of the legalization bill and the petition campaign are at odds with each other. The bill backers are arguing that the ballot measure hands over a monopoly to existing medical marijuana operators.
Voters are likely to decide whether to legalize recreational sales, after advocates submitted nearly twice as many signatures last month as required to make the November ballot.
“The campaign right now is looking ahead to the election,” said Ryan Kiesel, senior campaign adviser for Oklahomans for Sensible Marijuana Laws, the group behind the legalization campaign. “We’re beginning to ramp up fundraising, ramp up our voter registration efforts, our campaign outreach efforts. We are not taking a single vote for granted.”
However, voters could potentially face three different legalization ballot measures in November. Oklahomans for Responsible Cannabis Action is pushing a pair of petitions that would enshrine the right to use marijuana for medicinal or recreational purposes in the state constitution, rather than simply changing state law as under the competing referendum. Supporters of those petitions, however, face a tough task to make the ballot: collecting 178,000 valid signatures for each by Aug. 24.
Whichever petitions ultimately end up on the ballot, legalization advocates will have to overcome a backlash that’s been building in the staunchly conservative state over its booming medical marijuana program. Since voters legalized medical sales in 2018, nearly 10 percent of the population has enrolled and more than 11,000 weed businesses have been licensed. But dozens of raids against illegal grows over the last two years have sparked an outcry, particularly in rural parts of the state.
The state made history when its House of Representatives passed a recreational legalization bill in 2021 — the first Republican-dominated legislative chamber to do so — but the legislation failed on the Senate floor. That led legalization advocates to pivot to the ballot box. Last month, they turned in roughly 25,700 signatures — more than 10,000 above the threshold required to make the November ballot.
Voters approved a medical marijuana referendum in 2016. This would be the second time that North Dakotans will vote on whether to authorize possession and sales for anyone at least 21 years old: In 2018, voters rejected an adult-use legalization referendum by an 18-point margin, 59-41 percent.
A campaign to legalize medical marijuana in Nebraska — one of three states in the nation without any form of medical cannabis access on the books — ran into major turbulence after the loss of a major donor. What advocates planned as a $1 million effort with paid canvassers was transformed into a largely volunteer undertaking. They still turned in more than the nearly 90,000 signatures required to make the ballot, but just barely.
“The practical impact is that ourselves and the secretary of state’s office is somewhat in limbo until they rule,” said Democratic state Sen. Adam Morfeld, one of the leaders of the medical campaign.
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