The State of the Union
How does 2019 look for marijuana legalization?
Support for legalizing marijuana is at unprecedented levels, not unlike last year when a record 70 cannabis-related pieces of legislation were introduced to Congress. It sounds good—except none were debated. Now that Democrats have taken control of the House of Representatives, that’s likely to change, but getting pro-marijuana bills through the Republican-controlled Senate is another matter. But it’s a different story among the states, where just about anything can happen.
Making any definitive predictions is an exercise in futility, but Paul Armentano, deputy director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, can prognosticate from a better vantage.
Pols ignore polls at their peril
Both Fox and Armentano pointed out that marijuana policy reform is a tenet of the Democratic National Committee’s platform. “It would be a matter of political malfeasance for the Democratic Party to not move this issue forward in 2019,” says Armentano. Both agree that debating marijuana bills in Congress is a big step forward. “I would expect to see many of the same bills that are languishing in committee today reintroduced in 2019, and for the first time, these pieces of legislation will likely be the subject of hearings in the House Criminal Justice Committee,” says Armentano, adding that the bills are also likely to move out of committee to the floor of the House for debate.
Fox says that the STATES Act—which would prevent federal interference in states that have legalized marijuana—is likely to get a hearing in 2019, but it’s not clear whether it will garner enough support for a vote. He believes, however, that less comprehensive bills have a better chance. He’s confident that legislation allowing banks to do business with the cannabis industry will pass.
Fox says the increasing support for legalization will eventually force politicians to fall in line. “The winds are changing on this issue. Politicians that ignore it do so at their peril.”
Wait for the states
The same bandwagon mentality also applies at the state level. Individual states, such as Illinois and some in the Northeast, are poised to become recreationally legal. However, precedent for marijuana legalization enacted legislatively isn’t common. Vermont offers the only one and it doesn’t include a regulated market (the state allows personal possession and home cultivation of marijuana for adults). “The reality is, passing legislation is difficult—and passing legislation on a topic as polarizing as marijuana policy is exceedingly difficult,” says Armentano. “It’s going to take a great deal of political pressure, and it’s going to take a great deal of political will.”
He does have some ideas, though. “I think many are anticipating rightly that the next states in line to legalize adult use are going to be in the Northeast,” he says. “New Jersey has leadership already in place—including the governor—that has pledged to move legislation on this issue. Connecticut now has a governor who has campaigned in favor of legalization. In New York, the governor has changed his opinion significantly in favor of legalization over the last few months.”
Then there’s Illinois, where new governor J.B. Pritzker made legalizing marijuana a part of his platform (the state already allows medical use). Last fall, Michigan became the first state in the Midwest to fully legalize cannabis after voters approved a proposal to allow adult use—and while Fox says that won’t necessarily affect how nearby states choose to regulate marijuana, it could set an example. “I hope it will show (Michigan’s) neighbors what can happen when you regulate cannabis in a legal marketplace in terms of tax revenue, law enforcement savings, job creation—even though it’ll be a while before Michigan’s program gets up and running, once it does, I think the evidence will be pretty much irrefutable,” he says.
Regardless of which states legalize marijuana, change is more likely to happen at a state level than the federal one. “While it’s easy to focus on Congress, the real battlegrounds for marijuana policy reform in 2019 are going to be the states,” says Armentano.
After all, that’s what happened with prohibition: “By the time the federal government finally got involved in the marijuana prohibition business in 1937, virtually every state in the country had already passed their own statewide prohibition on marijuana,” he says. “Just as the states 100 years ago led us into the era of prohibition, the states today are leading us out of it.”
By Julia Thiel
Photography by Frank Lawlor