2020 is an election year in the United States, and naturally, cannabis legalization has become an important policy talking point. With Canada having legalized recreational pot in 2018, the question is being raised as to whether the US will follow suit on a federal level. Donald Trump has been rather inconsistent on the issues, choosing instead to leave it up to each state to decide on their own policies, while the man likely to be facing him in the polls come November, Bernie Sanders, has promised to legalize cannabis on his first day in office.
However, November is still a long way off, and until then, the choice remains firmly in the hands of state legislators. According to most cannabis activists, there are at least 16 states that could put legalization to a ballot in 2020—some leaning more towards medical cannabis while others are considering full-scale recreational legalization.
"Since the first adult-use legalization ballot initiative victory in 2012, the marijuana reform movement has successfully maintained its momentum,” Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said. “For four elections in a row there has been a legalization victory at the ballot box, and the upcoming election could deliver more victories in one day than ever before.”
The actual process of voting on the issue differs from state to state, with some jurisdictions requiring citizen-led voter initiatives in which activists collect signatures to qualify a measure for the ballot, while others would be referendums presented to voters by lawmakers.
On January 1, Illinois became the most recent state to legalize cannabis and the first to do so by passing legislation through the state's houses of government. For the first month of the year, the Prairie State saw US$39.2 million in adult-use recreational marijuana sales, the second-highest per capita in the US. Legalization clearly has massive economic upside, providing employment the whole way through the supply chain and giving customers access to a product in high demand. So, which states will look to the success of Illinois and become the next to follow suit?
The Garden State will most likely be the next to legalize cannabis after lawmakers voted in December to put the question on the ballot. An initial push for legalization was made last year, although this was scuppered due to low support in the state senate, just hours before senators were due to vote on the proposal. This is despite NJ's Democratic governor Phil Murphy campaigning in favor of the issue with the backing of Democratic lawmakers.
The question put to voters will ask if they’ll approve recreational cannabis for people 21 and older. All sales of marijuana products would be subject to the state’s 6.625% sales tax, and towns could pass ordinances to charge local taxes as well. Over 60% of New Jersey adults support legalizing cannabis, meaning it looks likely to pass when the vote is held later in the year.
Bernie Sanders' home state is right with him on his cannabis stance. Just this week, the aptly named Green Mountain State followed Illinois in becoming the second state to legalize cannabis through its legislature after approving the cannabis bill by 90 votes to 54, although it will return to House in the next few days for lawmakers to vote on any amendments.
Vermont's bill says cannabis sales will be charged a 20% tax, with some of that revenue going to after school and summer learning programs. The bill establishes a license for current medical dispensaries to start selling marijuana in 2022, but also bans flavored cannabis vapes and sets a cap on the potency of the cannabis to 30% THC while one amendment up for debate could ban the advertising of cannabis products. Should it pass the second debate, the bill will go to a committee to address differences between the House and Senate versions.
New York fell agonizingly short of legalization in 2019 after The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act was shot down by Governor Andrew Cuomo over disagreements with legislators relating to taxation and social equity, although pot was decriminalized last year. Senator Liz Krueger and Crystal Peoples-Stokes, the two lawmakers who sponsored last year's bill, said they will put forth refined legislation, and Cuomo has reportedly teamed up with Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont to draft a joint approach to legalization.
New York state's legislature is controlled by the Democrats, making the possibility of legalization even more likely. The debate in New York also took place before Illinois and Vermont legalized pot through the state legislature, so the success of those markets and the increase in tax revenue for those states could boost the chances of legalization in NY.
Cannabis legalization has become a focal point of the mainstream political discourse, which is undoubtedly a positive sign for activists who have been fighting for pot policy for decades. The discussion has moved from college dorm daydreams to the stages of presidential debates as people wake up to the fact that the benefits may actually outweigh the consequences. Legalization is not inevitable but is now more likely than ever.
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