Words by Lisa Rough
It’s a new year and there’s a lot to look forward to in 2016, regarding general life and cannabis culture. With the presidential election looming, there is guaranteed to be a massive voter turnout and the initiatives that are poised for inclusion on the 2016 ballot stand a chance to make some big changes. But which states are most likely to legalize next? Here are our predictions for 2016.
Almost a Sure Thing
If you’re searching for a sure bet, look no further than Nevada. It may have taken this state a while to legalize medical marijuana, but now that it’s on that path to legalization, it’s not stopping ‘til the end. Nevada’s was the first state campaign to officially gather the required number of signatures to qualify for the 2016 ballot, submitting 170,000 signatures last December. That’s about 60,000 more signatures than the 101,667 signatures needed, and nearly two years early. Nevada’s already opened a successful medical marijuana program that allows reciprocity without any issues. With any luck, it’s locked in on recreational and won’t stop until next November.
One would think that California has a better chance than Nevada at legalization, considering that the state was one of the first to legalize medical marijuana back in 1996. The problem with California was the complete and total lack of statewide regulations to help keep its medical marijuana system in check. Without regulations, Cali’s cannabis scene exploded like the Wild West, causing friction within the city and county jurisdictions that tried to reign it in.
Luckily, Governor Jerry Brown signed three pieces of legislation this year as part of a broad initiative to quickly regulate the medical market before the big push for legalization. Although there are as many as 16 potential recreational measures, the one that seems to be the front runner is known as the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which is endorsed by Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and several major cannabis advocacy groups.
Maine has one of the best, most stable medical marijuana programs in the country. It offers a limited number of medical marijuana dispensaries (that cater to out-of-state patients, too!), but Maine’s caregiver program is so robust that dispensaries are less of a necessity and more of an obligation to meet patients’ needs.
Not only that, but on a lower jurisdiction level, cities in Maine have already taken it upon themselves to attempt to legalize on a smaller scale. Portland, South Portland, and Lewiston all attempted to legalize the possession and use of cannabis by adults, and although Portland’s initiative passed with flying colors, the idea was not popular with local authorities. The state’s legalization initiative, the Marijuana Legalization Act, would allow anyone over the age of 21 to legally possess up to 2 ½ ounces and grow up to 12 plants for personal use.
Will Maine voters be able to harness some of the support and take it all the way to the end of the line?
Arizona may seem like a logical next state in line to legalize, but it’s got a long road ahead in the fight for legalization. When Arizona voted to legalize medical marijuana in 2010, the initiative won by a measly 4,000 votes, which does not bode well for the state’s recreational legalization initiative, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Arizona. Furthermore, the campaign has already faced some controversy over advertising efforts.
The latest polling from Arizona State University showed that 49 percent of the state supports legalization, while 51 percent oppose. A previous poll from June indicated that 53 percent support legalization, which shows just how wide the margin of error can be and just how close the 2016 race will likely end up. Looks like Arizona will get down to the wire — every vote will count!
Fingers Crossed (But Don’t Get Your Hopes Up)
Connecticut took the plunge for medical marijuana in 2012, and a year after its first dispensaries opened, its program was running smoothly with a patient base of 6,700 registrants and six state-licensed dispensaries. Not only that, but a poll from the University of New Haven found residents overwhelming support cannabis, with 56 percent polled saying they agreed that legalizing marijuana would have a positive impact on Connecticut’s economy. There were two legalization initiatives considered during the 2015 legislative session that stalled eventually, and Connecticut cops are already preparing for legalization as an inevitability, so the real question is will 2016 be the year it happens?
Michigan legalized medical marijuana in 2008, but its relationship with cannabis is strained at best. State legislators go back and forth nearly every session restricting and loosening cannabis laws, even going so far as to outlaw medical dispensaries, essentially forcing business owners to continue operating at risk of prosecution. Additionally, patients in Michigan have dubious legal protection, facing criminal charges for edibles or hash oils due to an oversight in the language of the law.
However, one might argue that Michigan’s muddy cannabis climate has created an environment that is ripe for change. There have been efforts to revise the state’s medical marijuana law, including a bill under consideration right now that would re-legalize medical dispensaries. Several groups have also been trying to make change happen. The Michigan Cannabis Coalition created a legalization initiative but it has not gained traction in several months, while the group MI Legalize is currently on track to collect 252,000 signatures before the June deadline in order to qualify for the 2016 ballot. You can find a location to sign MILegalize’s petition here. May the strongest initiative win!
We all watched Ohio’s swing-and-a-miss this year in its attempt to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes in one fell swoop. The initiative was truly divisive for the cannabis community in Ohio; on the one hand, supporters argued that they were happy to see cannabis in the spotlight and that any forward momentum is good, even if the initiative leaves something to be desired. However, on the other hand, even advocates felt uncomfortable with the proposal overall due to language that would have placed financial control in the hands of just 10 powerful investors, rather than a government agency or medical organization.
It’s amazing that Ohio has lasted this long without any form of legalized cannabis, since it have some of the highest support for medical marijuana (84 percent) of nearly any state polled. Ultimately, however, voters recognized that this was not the best cannabis legalization initiative and so, although it’s back to the drawing board for Ohio, there will be plenty of opportunities to bring legalized marijuana to the Buckeye State. Legalize Ohio 2016 is the foremost campaign at the moment — you can find a petition location here to signal your support!
Rhode Island is an example of a successful medical marijuana program with reciprocity for out-of-state certified patients, but does it have what it takes to legalize? A poll by Marijuana Policy Project from April 2015 shows some promising numbers, with 57 percent of respondents saying that they would support legalizing marijuana to be regulated like alcohol. Not only that, but Rhode Island also took the prize of highest consumption rate for cannabis two years running, no small feat for the unassuming, 1200-square-mile state. Regulate Rhode Island, the state’s legalization leader, pushed unsuccessfully for 2015 legislation and is ready for its fight to carry over into the next year.
Vermont represents another small, unassuming state that is not to be underestimated. Although its medical marijuana program is smaller, the curiosity for legalization runs through the entire community, all the way up to the governor’s office. Governor Peter Schumlin admitted that he’s been watching Colorado very closely, even going so far as to organize meetings on the logistics of legalizing cannabis for recreational purposes from a regulatory perspective.
With a February 2015 poll registering 54 percent of Vermonters in support of legalization, it’s a very likely possibility we’ll see legalization legislation from Vermont’s General Assembly next year. Advocates with the groups Vermont Cannabis Coalition and Vermont Home Grown called a meeting with State Senator Jeanette White (D-Putney), who runs the Government Operations Committee, to discuss the regulatory realities of a functional recreational cannabis system in Vermont.
Probably Not (But Nice Effort!)
Delaware is certainly a curious case for cannabis. Although the state is slightly larger than Rhode Island, when drafting its medical marijuana program, the state health department restricted the number of dispensaries and now, four years after medical marijuana became legal, there is only one dispensary operating to serve the entire state. Admittedly, there are only 700 patients registered, with requests for other dispensaries to open in other counties, and the program has had nothing but positive feedback, particularly regarding the lack of tax and low-income discounts available.
Earlier this year, Delaware Governor Jack Markell went a step further in decriminalizing the possession of cannabis for personal use. As a result, although there has been a lot of talk about possible legalization in the state, the cannabis decriminalization was enough to appease the masses for now.
Ah, Maryland, home of “The Wire,” delicious blue crabs, and, coming soon to a county near you, medical marijuana dispensaries. Maryland Governor and Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley played the good guy by decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of cannabis, and he’s been an instrumental part of implementing the state’s emerging medical marijuana market, which is slated to be quite extensive. All told, there will be nearly 100 dispensary licenses issued, along with 15 cultivator licenses, upping the ante for Maryland to become a major contender jumping into the MMJ realm.
The question now is whether or not Maryland is ready to contend with recreational cannabis yet. Earlier this year, state lawmakers introduced the Marijuana Control and Revenue Act of 2015, a pair of companion bills in the House and Senate, but there hasn’t been any action on them since October. A March 2015 poll puts support for legalization at 52 percent, but it would probably be wise to work out the kinks of a functioning medical program before opening up a new can of worms with recreational legalization.
Oh, Massachusetts, we had such high hopes for you. Along with 13,000 medical marijuana patients, we watched the Massachusetts Department of Health bungle the licensing process, the lawsuits that followed, and the realization that your own criteria for selecting distributors was literally impossible for organizations to meet.
Well, the Bay State might be down, but it’s not out. There’s solid support for legalization, showing 53 percent of respondents from early 2014 saying they favor legalizing cannabis. With two competing legalization measures, The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Massachusetts submitted more than the required 64,750 voter signatures, while a countermeasure from Bay State Repeal was still scrambling to garner support.
The Empire State has been under the microscope since passing legislation to legalize the production of medical cannabis, and everyone’s been waiting and watching as the program has slowly developed. New York has chosen the five producers to cultivate medical marijuana and sales are scheduled to begin in January, but the success or failings of an emerging medical marijuana market could be a defining predictor as to whether the state will be able to follow through with an additional push for recreational cannabis.
With that being said, Senator Liz Krueger (D-NY), cosponsor and author of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, will continue to push for an end to prohibition in New York. Does it have a chance? Yes, but a slim one.
Missouri is the last on our list for a reason. While most of these states have a fighting chance due to support, emerging medical marijuana programs, or cannabis-friendly politicians, the sad truth is that Missouri is sorely lacking in all of those things. Okay, that’s not entirely true. Missouri was able to pass a cannabis extract law for epilepsy and seizure patients whose symptoms are resistant to conventional treatment. The Missouri Department of Agriculture even issued licenses for two non-profit organizations, BeLeaf and Noah’s Arc, to produce low-THC cannabis oil. It’s not quite a patient-accessible statewide system of medical dispensaries, but it’s definitely a big step for the Midwestern state.
With that in mind, it’s fairly implausible that Missouri will be able to successfully transition from a severely limited CBD program to full recreational legalization. Maybe someday, but for now, the Show-Me State can show us stronger support than just 36 percent in favor of legalization. Do I sense, perhaps, an expanded medical marijuana program in Missouri’s future?
Which state do you think is most likely to legalize in 2016?