Anyone thinking that the country’s newfound cannabis acceptance was some kind of fleeting trend must be rethinking things at this point. Last year, support for legalization reached a new all-time record at 61 percent—up from 57 percent two years ago. For the first time, this included a majority of Republicans at 54 percent, up almost ten percent from 2016. Support from Democrats has reached a whopping 76 percent.
A majority of Americans now live in a state where cannabis is legal for either medical or recreational use, and since Michigan’s move to legalize, 78 million now have access to legal recreational cannabis.
Twentieth-century throwback prohibitionist Jeff Sessions is out of office as the nation’s top prosecutor, and President Trump has voiced support for a bill that would protect states that legalize. Last year’s midterm elections gave Democrats, who tend (if only marginally so) to be more supportive of legalization, a majority in the House of Representatives. The elections also ousted some of the most anti-cannabis voices in the House, such as Pete Sessions (no relation to Jeff.)
With neighbors on both our southern and northern borders opting for legalization, it would seem like there has never been a better moment for federal legalization. With six different proposals making their way through Congress, it does that seem that legislators are gradually, carefully, even lethargically, making their way toward either federal legalization or immunity for states that legalize. Increasingly, Leafly reports, the issue is not whether to allow for legalized cannabis, but how.
In the meantime, the largest metropolitan area in the U.S. is eyeing legalization, on both sides of a state border. The greater New York City area is the largest metropolis in the country with a population of almost 24 million. The metropolis spills over the New York border into New Jersey and even Connecticut. If legalization becomes law there, both of America’s largest urban areas (New York and Los Angeles) would have access to legal cannabis.
For me, this one is personal. I grew up in New Jersey right across the Hudson River from New York City and lived in upstate New York before moving to California in 2015. At that point, legalization was just an experiment in smaller states like Colorado and Washington. It was not clear when California would go fully legal, much less my home state. In fact, I never could have imagined it. Even though states like New York are solidly blue in presidential elections, there always seemed to be a traditionalism there, or at least an ambivalence towards change, that I never saw in western states. It is very hard for me to imagine legal cannabis in a place like New Jersey. But with states like Michigan and Massachusetts on board, anything is possible.
Despite ambitious statements from governors Andrew Cuomo and Phil Murphy, both states have now hit bureaucratic roadblocks in their slow-motion race to legalize cannabis. Cuomo said in December that New York would legalize within months, and Murphy said he would legalize within the first 100 days of his term, which began in January 2018.
In New York, hopes are fading for an adult-use bill this year. Many hoped to include it in a larger budget proposal for April 1st. However, it was dropped from the budget earlier in March, according to Cuomo. Cuomo is still hopeful to get it passed this year, but others say that missing an opportunity to put it into a larger budget proposal means New York will not see legal cannabis for a long time.
State senator Diane Savino said last week that without making it into the April budget, it could take as long as another three years. “[We] have a lot of members who represent conservative areas who don’t think they can vote for a freestanding bill to legalize marijuana,” she said, adding that they could have accepted legalization as part of a wider budget but could never get away with supporting a separate measure. Cuomo himself acknowledged it would be a bigger challenge outside of the budget proposal.
To make matters worse, Senator Savino noted that political pressure would be an even larger factor during an election year. “If we can’t pass it in an off election year, we won’t pass it in an election year,” she said.
But the main fight in New York, and the reason even the support of some left-leaning lawmakers isn’t a forgone conclusion, is a debate over the details of legalization rather than whether to legalize. The details include measures to ensure that legalization benefits the communities that were hurt the most by decades of prohibition. This could include reparations for the war on drugs paid with cannabis tax dollars, expungement of criminal records to make those with cannabis convictions eligible for benefits like student loans and public housing, and equity measures to help small businesses with the hefty costs of starting a cannabis business.
However, some leaders in rural New York State counties have said they plan to opt out of cannabis sales and the tax revenue it would entail. In turn, farmers in these rural counties want assurances that they can grow cannabis even in these areas.
In New York City, bodega owners are lobbying to be allowed to sell cannabis as established members of communities who are facing rising rents and gentrification. Bodegas have a history of illegal cannabis sales and permitting preexisting corner stores to participate would be another way to keep some of the benefits within established and increasingly marginalized communities. But it would be entirely unprecedented in terms of other state legalization schemes. New York City has about 13,000 bodegas, while California (with a much larger population) only has a total of around 350 recreational dispensaries.
In New Jersey, prospects were dashed recently when a legalization vote was cancelled after lawmakers determined it would not have the votes to pass. Legislators said it could be reintroduced after state legislature elections in November or could be set forth in a public referendum. Last year, Vermont became the first state to legalize through its state legislature, and notably, did not include provisions for legal sales. Most states have legalized through a public referendum or ballot initiative.
The New Jersey bill would have legalized and taxed recreational sales, expanded the state’s medical program, and expunged cannabis charges from criminal records. Despite enjoying the support of 6 in 10 New Jersey residents in a recent poll, both Republican and Democrat legislators in New Jersey have expressed hesitation, saying the bill’s provisions could detract from public safety and lead to more dangerous drug use.
The struggle for legalization in New Jersey evidences the lingering power of old myths about cannabis and the still substantial divide between lawmakers and the public on the issue. With lackluster results from legislators, the failure in New Jersey and the mixed results in Vermont both suggest that public referendums are still the clearest path toward full legalization.
Meanwhile, in Alaska…
In brighter news, on the opposite side of the country, Alaska will become the first state to implement statewide provisions for social consumption in cannabis lounges in April. Starting mid-month, dispensaries can apply for a license to put a lounge section in a separate part of the store. The lounges will have a limit of one gram or 10 mg edible per customer each day and will need to have security and ventilation measures that meet state guidelines.
San Francisco has seen a similar system locally, and experiments have established cannabis cafes elsewhere. But Alaska is now the first place to establish a statewide system. Attempts to establish a foundation for social use in Maine, Massachusetts, and Las Vegas have all failed.