The 2020 election proved once again that marijuana legalization is a winning issue at the ballot box. By contrast, history has shown that it is much more difficult to advance similar measures legislatively, as many lawmakers — and Republican legislators especially — still remain reluctant to embrace adult-use legalization proposals.
Of the 15 states that have now enacted adult-use legalization, 13 have done so by voter initiative. (Illinois and Vermont are the exceptions.) Many states, however, do not offer a citizens’ initiative option — meaning that the only way to enact substantive marijuana reform is through the legislative process. Here is a look at the states most likely to debate adult-use legalization legislation in 2021.
With Democrats now holding nearly two-to-one majorities in both chambers, the incoming House Speaker has publicly estimated the chances of lawmakers legalizing marijuana in 2021 at “50-50.” Lawmakers have previously debated adult-use legalization measures in prior sessions, and Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont has recently promoted the issue, acknowledging: “Right now, [Connecticut is] surrounded by states — New Jersey and Massachusetts — where marijuana is already legal. I don’t need a lot of people driving back and forth across the border. We’re trying to keep people close to home as best we can right now. I think legalizing marijuana — doing that safely and making sure that no poison is laced in — I think is one to keep people closer to home.” Most recently, Speaker Ritter committed to having lawmakers place the issue before voters as a ballot referendum should legislators failed to pass legislation next year. He said: “[I]f we do not have the votes, and I’m not raising the white flag, I want to be very clear: We will put something on the board to put to the voters of the state of Connecticut to amend the state constitution to legalize marijuana.”
Members of a legislative working group in October issued recommendations to Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham urging lawmakers to legalize the adult-use cannabis market in 2021. They estimated that enacting legalization will create an estimated 11,000 new jobs and yield some $620 million in sales within five years. The Governor backs the effort, tweeting, “I look forward to working with the Legislature to get a bill to my desk next year.” Last session, House lawmakers passed adult-use legalization legislation through the chamber, but the proposal ultimately stalled in the Senate.
Following the decision of voters in neighboring New Jersey to legalize marijuana, Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo has acknowledged that the “pressure will be on” New York lawmakers to advance similar adult-use legalization legislation next year. According to a just-released statewide survey commissioned by Sienna College, 60 percent of registered voters endorse legalizing marijuana — the highest level of support ever identified in their polling. Earlier this week, state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said that “it’s not so much a matter of if, it’s a matter of when and it’s a matter of how” the state legalizes cannabis for adult use.
State lawmakers last week held a hearing to discuss the prospects of legalizing the adult-use marijuana market in 2021. The incoming Chairman of the state Senate Finance Committee predicted that lawmakers will formally debate the issue as early as January. In the other chamber, incoming House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi has indicated that members are “very close” to having majority support for legalization and acknowledged that he’s “absolutely” open to the idea. For her part, Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo has affirmed that favors a plan of state-run cannabis retailers, and will likely once again seek to address the legalization issue in her forthcoming budget proposal.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam publicly announced his support for adult-use legalization last week, stating: “It’s time to legalize marijuana in Virginia. Our Commonwealth has an opportunity to be the first state in the South to take this step, and we will lead with a focus on equity, public health, and public safety. I look forward to working with the General Assembly to get this right.” Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring also recently voiced his support for legalization, tweeting, “Virginia needs to allow legal, regulated adult use of marijuana as a matter of public safety, justice, equity, and economic opportunity.” House Majority Leader Charniele Herring recently predicted that a legalization bill has “a good chance” to clear that chamber in 2021, while Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw placed the odds of Senate passage at “slightly better than 50-50.”
For real-time information and updates on state legislative efforts, visit NORML’s ‘Take Action Center.’