Northeast 2019 Legalization Notebook: Wait ‘Til Next Year
This article was originally posted on May 19. It has been updated.
While Western states tweak their marijuana legalization programs, Northeast states face a quagmire with legislatures reluctant to move in a sensible direction regarding recreational cannabis. Massachusetts has set the trend for tax and regulation and Maine is finally following their neighbor’s lead with plans for commercial sales soon. Both states did so via the ballot initiative process. Here’s what’s happening in the other five Northeast states:
After Senate Bill 2703 was tabled for lack of votes in the Democrat-controlled legislature in late March, there were hopes of finding the votes and getting the New Jersey Marijuana Legalization Act on the floor in Trenton. But despite support from Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, that didn’t happen in the spring legislative session.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney now says the best chance for legalization in the Garden State is a voter referendum in 2020. The legislature has to pass measures in 2019 and 2020 to allow such a popular vote.
The good news is, on June 20, the legislature agreed to expand the state’s medical marijuana program, opening the door to six more providers and upwards of 50,000 more patients.
Again, despite a Democrat-controlled legislature and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, prospects for the passage of the Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act by the end of the current session by June 19 didn’t look promising. In a May 13 article, the New York Times declared the “push for legal recreational marijuana in New York… appears all but dead,” and said proponents are “seemingly resigned to waiting until next year.” Like New Jersey, the votes may not be there to pass the MRTA (an amended version is due any day).
Short by at least two Senate votes, the bill didn’t get to the floor as the session concluded. However, an alternative revision of the state’s 1977 decrim bill did pass. The highly restrictive medical-marijuana program was not amended.
For awhile, there was better news in the Nutmeg State, where House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz and Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney were working to combine multiple bills, send it to the Democratic caucus and then get a floor vote before the session ended on June 5. That didn’t happen. Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont said he would sign a legalization bill if it came to his desk.
Now the plan is to allow a popular vote like in New Jersey. “Let the voters vote on that,” Aresimowicz said before the session ended. “Then we’ll come back and do the regulations afterwards.”
The Green Mountain State’s legislature legalized recreational marijuana in 2018, but declined to allow for a commercial market. In March, the State Senate moved to rectify that with plans for sales to begin in 2021. However, on May 14, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said there weren’t enough votes for the bill to pass and pushed it off until January.
In April, the State House voted 200-163 in favor of an amended version of recreational legalization legislation, HB 481. But, on May 9, the Judiciary Committee voted 5-0 to delay a floor vote until January. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said he wouldn’t sign it anyway.
Plans to include adult-use legalization in the state budget didn’t materialize after Gov. Gina Raimondo proposed removing recreational home grow and limiting which medical patients can. She also asked for a restriction on cannabis products containing more than 50% THC, which would rule out concentrates, and wanted workplace and highway testing to be included.
Rep. Scott Slater, who supports legalization, explained: “It wasn’t that legalization wasn’t warmly received. It was [Raimondo’s] proposal to change a lot of the dynamics that are already going on.”
Passing marijuana legalization via legislation is difficult, to say the least, even in Democrat-controlled states. The two exceptions are Vermont and Illinois, which moved ahead earlier this month with a bold measure that includes a commercial market. Northeast states will eventually come around, it’s just a matter of when. Like the old saying goes: Wait ’til next year.