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State-by-State: The Next Big Moves For Legal Marijuana

legal marijuana

Reform bills and ballot initiatives are moving in twenty states. 2015 and 2016 will prove to be pivotal years for legalization.

Although there are several pieces of legislation active at the federal level it is local measures that see the swiftest success.

So far only ballot measures – approved directly by voters in Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Colorado and Washington DC – have resulted in a complete end to prohibition. But not all states have that option. The next level of success will be realized when politicians finally recognize the will of the people and make the change through the legislative process.

Below are where full regulation is being most actively pursued in State Houses or at the polls.

Nevada – The only state with legal brothels and the nation’s most robust gambling industry is looking to add recreational marijuana to the mix of tax revenue. A ballot initiative will go before voters in the 2016 general election. The Nevada legislature ha the option to pass the bill, but declined. Now the citizens will decide. Under the proposal the Division of Taxation will oversee the cannabis industry with a flat 15 percent excise tax on wholesale supply. All of the tax revenue would go directly into K-12 education. Nevada voters approved their medical marijuana law by 65 percent.

California – The first state to approve medical marijuana will try again for full legalization in 2016. The Golden State may already have the nation’s largest cannabis economy. In 2010 voters decided on an initiative called “Prop 19” that would have made California the first regulated state. But it was a close election and Prop 19 was defeated with 53 percent saying “no” and 46 percent saying “yes.” Contentions within the medical cannabis community led to some longtime advocates campaigning against the measure. This time around organizers are going around the state to hold “listening sessions” as the language is crafted to ensure it is more inclusive. Recent polling suggests that voters are ready to make the move with 55 percent saying they would support regulated cannabis in the voting booth.

Massachusetts – Bay State voters have shown their solid support for reform by decriminalizing marijuana possession in 2008 and approving medical marijuana in 2012. Advocates are promising to put full legalization on the ballot in 2016, but state lawmakers are trying to beat them to the punch. House Bill 1561 was introduced by more than a dozen legislators from both parties. It would allow for home cultivation and create a retail industry, similar to Colorado. Rather than a percentage, MA will impose a flat excise tax on each once: $10 per ounce in the first year rising to $50 ounce in the fourth year the law is in place. In addition there will be specific taxes on edibles and oil products starting at $2.50 for every 10 milligrams of THC rising to $10 for every 10 milligrams of THC. However, Governor Charlie Baker outright opposes legalization leaving any legislative effort vulnerable to a veto. So, once again, it may be the citizens of Massachusetts who lead the way.

Texas – The Lone Star State has become a hotbed of activism, thanks to the work of many NORML Chapters working there. Bills for decriminalization, medical marijuana, industrial hemp and full legalization have garnered support among lawmakers. There is no ballot initiative process in Texas so any change must be made by legislators in Austin.

Mississippi – A major effort is underway in the deep south to get full legalization on the ballot in 2016. Organizers in the Magnolia State need to collect 110,000 valid signatures by December to qualify. The campaign was recently given a boost when Jeremy Bufford, the President of Medical Marijuana United in Florida, pledged $2 for each certified signature collected. Prohibition laws are harsh in Mississippi where possession of 30 grams or more can result in up to three year sin state prison. The ultimate irony is the fact that the federal government just supplied the University of Mississippi more than $68 million to grow marijuana. The federal garden at Ole Miss is the single source for cannabis used by approved researchers across the country.

Pennsylvania – The Keystone State has a flight of legislation active in Harrisburg. A medical cannabis measure, Senate Bill 3, has gained the most traction but it has been significantly watered down since last year. What started as a whole-plant, broadly worded safe access bill turned into a very limited cannabis products bill that excludes smoking. Sponsoring legislators are promising amendments that could bring the bill back into shape. Governor Tom Wolf has come out in support of both medical marijuana and decriminalization. An Industrial Hemp Farming Act has also gained a lot of support and could see passage in 2015. The full legalization bill (SB 528) would put cannabis in the state-operated wine and spirits stores. Pa. is one of only two states that continue to operate state liquor stores. Wine and spirit sales generate more than $560 million in taxes annually. Marijuana could bring in an equal amount.

Ohio – Two separate groups are offering different plans for a legalization ballot initiative. Ohioans To End Prohibition are offering a broad retail structure and home cultivation while allowing larger limits for medical patients. The other group, Responsible Ohio, is proposing a more limited plan with just 10 retail producers and stricter limits on home cultivation. Both groups are gathering signatures to place the ballot questions during the 2016 election and have been trying to win over the public to their distinct vision. Comedian and game show host Drew Carey, an Ohio native, weighed in via Twitter adding to the vocal debate. «I’m not sure I like ResponsibleOhio’s plan for legalizing pot in Ohio. Sounds like they’re creating their own monopoly like the casinos did,» Carey tweeted on March 3rd. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 84 percent of Ohio voters support medical marijuana and 52% support full legalization.

Rhode Island – Bills are now active in both houses of the General Assembly for full legalization. The plan would allow home cultivation of just two plants but create a statewide system of retail stores. The Ocean State’s decriminalization went into effect in 2013 and a medical marijuana program was approved in 2006. Federal data suggests that Rhode Island has the highest per-capita rate of marijuana consumers in the country.

Vermont – A landmark study on legalizing marijuana was commissioned by The Green Mountain State and performed by the Rand Corporation. It was released earlier this year and took the novel approach of trying to quantify the existing underground market. The report stated, “during 2014, Vermont residents likely consumed between 15 metric tons and 25 metric tons of marijuana, and spent between $125 million and $225 million on marijuana.» Legislators filed bills on the heels of the report and have promised swift and serious discussions on the issue in 2015. Given the study and the rhetoric many are hinting that Vermont could be the first state in the country to fully legalize through legislative action rather than via ballot proposal.

Maine – The state with one of the most robust medical marijuana programs in the country may have another chance at fully legal cannabis. Rep. Diane Russell has been the champion of the effort in the Pine Tree State. Her bills have steadily gained more support over the last 5 years. The current incarnation creates a retail scheme that follows tax models in other states by directing revenue toward schools and education.

On the march – Full legalization bills have also been introduced in Maryland, Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri, New York and New Jersey.

It is important to note that the common theme of the bills is to allow adults age 21 and over access to the legal market. Most laws include minimal personal cultivation from 2 plants to 6 plants.

Decriminalization bills are active in Delaware, New Hampshire, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Tennessee. Similar to existing laws in 19 states and more than dozen large cities, this would remove criminal penalties for personal possession, eliminate the possibility of jail time and impose a fine.


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