While most marijuana policy reform victories to date have been achieved at the ballot box via voter initiatives, lawmakers are increasingly taking action to change cannabis laws. Here are a few key upcoming state legislative developments to watch:
By a vote of 17-12, the Vermont State Senate gave final approval to a bill to legalize marijuana on Thursday. The legislation now heads to the House of Representatives, where advocates say it faces a harder road to passage. The first stop is likely to be the Judiciary Committee. Gov. Peter Shumlin supports legalization and is likely to sign the bill into law if it reaches his desk. If that happens, Vermont will become the first state to legalize marijuana through the action of lawmakers rather than via a voter initiative.
Pennsylvania’s State Senate passed a medical marijuana bill last year by a strong vote of 40-7, but the issue has stalled in the House of Representatives — until now. This week, Majority Leader Dave Reed announced that the chamber will finally take up medical cannabis legislation when it returns to work the week of March 14. If the House approves a bill and can work out a compromise with the Senate version, the important presidential swing state could become the 24th state in the U.S with a comprehensive medical marijuana program. Gov. Tom Wolf is a strong supporter of medical cannabis and is likely to sign any legislation on the issue that reaches his desk.
While Vermont seems most likely to become the first state to legalize cannabis via the legislature, Rhode Island appears to be not very far behind. In recent years, lawmakers there have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana and legalized medical cannabis. Now, they are weighing legislation to end prohibition altogether. The Senate version of the bill has 15 co-sponsors, including Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio and Judiciary Committee Chairman Michael McCaffrey. If Rhode Island doesn’t get around to ending prohibition this year and neighboring Massachusetts approves a legalization initiative that is expected to appear on its November ballot, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello says the state could take “nimble” action “early in the next legislative session.” Gov. Gina Raimondo, while not a supporter of legalization, says she’s keeping an open mind.
Utah could beat Pennsylvania to being the 24th state with a fairly comprehensive medical marijuana program if legislation passed 17-12 by the State Senate on Thursday gains the approval of the House and Gov. Gary Herbert. The proposal would allow for patients with doctors’ recommendations to legally use marijuana edibles, extracts and oils. But like existing programs in Minnesota and New York, it would not allow them to obtain raw cannabis flower for smoking or vaping. The legislation faces an uncertain road in the House, where its sponsor estimates that a third of his colleagues are in support, a third oppose and the remaining third are still undecided. A separate bill that is more narrowly focused on cannabidiol-rich extracts also recently passed the Senate and is now under House consideration.
While not as groundbreaking as the proposals discussed above, legislators in a number of other states are weighing marijuana reform bills. Lawmakers in Alaska and Oregon, for example, are considering various tweaks to their states’ voter-approved legalization laws, in some cases to reconcile them with existing medical cannabis programs. Florida and Georgia legislators are considering expansions of their states’ limited CBD medical cannabis laws. Additionally, lawmakers in Connecticut, Michigan and New Mexico are considering full legalization bills, but advocates don’t expect them to be seriously considered or enacted this year.