By Alexandra Hutzler
USA — Following a year of huge advancements in marijuana policy reform, experts predict that 2019 would be a “real game-changer” in terms of the conversation surrounding cannabis legalization at both the state and federal level.
“In 2019, I think that we can expect to see more of the same type of change, but maybe at a more rapid pace,” Jolene Forman, senior staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Newsweek.
“The train has left the station. Americans of all political affiliations and almost all demographics support marijuana legalization,” Forman added.
In 2018, advocates for legal weed saw two more states adopt expansive laws decriminalizing the drug for recreational use and a handful of states approve measures allowing for medical marijuana. To date, 33 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws legalizing cannabis in some form.
One of the most notable trends in cannabis reform over the past year, according to experts, was more conservative states jumping on board to decriminalize the drug.
Michigan was the first state in the Midwest to legalize marijuana for recreational adult use in November’s midterm elections. More than 55 percent of state voters approved a ballot measure that would allow residents over the age of 21 to purchase and possess cannabis for recreational use.
Oklahoma, Missouri and Utah, some of the most conservative states on the issue of cannabis legalization, approved measures allowing medical marijuana use for qualifying patients.
Another significant advancement for cannabis reform was Vermont becoming the first state in the country to legalize recreational marijuana through a state legislature rather than a ballot initiative. The action would provide a path to legalization for states where ballot initiatives are more difficult to create or occur less frequently, such as New York and New Jersey.
“Those are significant steps in a social and policy movement that is still relatively young. I think it builds momentum for further actions at the state and federal level moving forward,” John Hudak, deputy director at the Brookings Center for Effective Public Management, told Newsweek. “I do expect 2019 to be a real game-changer for the conservation about cannabis.”
In Congress, bipartisan cannabis legislation was introduced for the first time in 2018 through the States Act. Introduced by Democrat Elizabeth Warren and Republican Cory Gardner, the legislation would protect states that already legalized marijuana from federal interference. President Donald Trump said he would likely support the bill if it were to pass in the House and Senate.
Plus, this year’s farm bill included unprecedented language allowing farmers to grow hemp, a crop from the same cannabis family as marijuana.
“It’s been another banner year for the movement to repeal marijuana prohibition,” Mason Tvert, a spokesperson at the Marijuana Policy Project, told Newsweek. “We saw more progress on marijuana policy reform measures than any other year.”
Experts have said that marijuana legalization would continue to become more of a mainstream issue in Congress in 2019, especially with Democrats regaining control in the House of Representatives in January. House Democratic leaders will likely begin to hold hearings on cannabis legalization, and schedule multiple votes on marijuana legislation in the coming year.
If a bill were to pass both houses of Congress, experts believe that based on his previous statements, Trump would support the legislation. Trump has had some of the “most pro-cannabis reform rhetoric in the history of presidential politics,” Hudak said.
“Based on that rhetoric one would expect if the president had a cannabis reform bill on his desk he would sign it,” Hudak added. “And then [Trump] can label himself as the president who transformed cannabis policy and I think superlative titles like that appeal to the president in a way that goes beyond the typical appeal for most presidents.”
In terms of marijuana legalization at the state level in 2019, Hudak said that most advocates would focus on the Northeast. “Most eyes are going to be there in terms of looking at the next wave of policy change,” he said.
New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are expected to be the next states to pass measures legalizing marijuana for recreational use this year. But many states across the U.S. are likely to expand existing marijuana policies or create new ones.
“There are likely to be marijuana-related bills in just about every legislature in the country,” Tvert added.
Here’s a look at the states working to legalize marijuana in 2019:
Connecticut’s new governor-elect, Ned Lamont, is a vocal supporter of marijuana legalization for recreational adult use. On the campaign trail Lamont said that legalizing weed was “an idea whose time has come” and on Election Day, he pledged to decriminalize the drug in the first 100 days of his administration.
State Representative James Albis, a co-chair of the progressive caucus, has recently said that regulating the sale of weed for adults would boost Connecticut’s economy. Neighboring state, Massachusetts, has already seen the financial benefits of legalizing the drug. In the first five days after marijuana was legalized, Massachusetts generated $2.2 million in income for the state.
“We are talking about creating a brand new industry, taking something off the black market, creating jobs. Frankly, I can’t think of a bill that would create more jobs in a short amount of time as a bill to regulate marijuana. So I think it’s one of the most important job bills we can do,” Albis said.
If the state legislature does not pass a marijuana reform bill in 2019, pot advocates can try to legalize it through a ballot measure in the next election. In order for an amendment to be placed on the ballot, it needs to get a super majority in both the House and Senate in one session or be passed by simple majorities in two successive sessions.
Illinois is eyeing marijuana reform and regulation after its Midwest neighbor, Michigan, legalized cannabis during the midterm elections in 2018.
The state’s governor-elect, J.B. Pritzker, made cannabis reform a key pillar in his gubernatorial campaign this past year. After being elected in November, Pritzker said that he wanted to legalize the drug immediately once the new state legislature convened after the new year.
“I want to protect our citizens while we’re also looking at creating jobs and expanding opportunity for people with the legalization of marijuana,” Pritzker told NBC shortly after being elected.
A new report by the Economy Policy Institute says that if Illinois were to legalize pot, the state could see up to 23,000 new jobs and as much as a $1 billion economic boost annually.
Top New York Democrats are making marijuana reform a top priority in early 2019.
Governor Andrew Cuomo, who as recently as February 2017 referred to cannabis as a “gateway drug,” said in a speech in December that the state should “legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana once and for all.”
Shortly after Cuomo’s proposal to end cannabis prohibition, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his support of legalizing the drug. He called it a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to get a historic issue right for future New Yorkers.”
De Blasio also released a nearly 80-page report from a marijuana task force, which outlined recommendations for state and local licensing and how to regulate businesses. Cuomo will be revealing his 2019 budget plan sometime in January and that plan is expected to detail his marijuana legalization proposal.
Experts consider New Jersey to be at the top of the list in terms of states that are moving closer to passing marijuana reform policies.
In November 2018, committees in the state’s Assembly and Senate approved a marijuana bill that would legalize adult recreational use of the drug. They also passed two other bills that would expand New Jersey’s medical marijuana program and expedite expungements for those previously arrested for cannabis-related crimes.
The legislation has to pass in the Democratic-controlled state legislature before it could be given to Governor Phil Murphy for a final vote. Murphy indicated that he was likely to support the measures.
In a Facebook Live town hall event in October 2018, Murphy said that New Jersey would have legal weed “sooner than later.”
“People have got to remember: We’re not inventing marijuana,” Murphy added. “This exists right now. It’s not regulated. It’s in the hands of the bad guys. Kids are exposed. It’s not taxed. And the inequities, particularly along racial lines, continue.”
The state’s Democratic governor, Gina Raimondo, has started to come around on marijuana policy reform as neighboring states like Massachusetts begin opening regulated cannabis markets.
Just before Christmas, Raimondo told a local radio station that she’s not sure it’s “practical to say we’re not going to legalize and regulate” after opposing reform policy for years.
Rhode Island’s House speaker, Democrat Nicholas Mattiello, also said that he had come around when it came to legalizing cannabis. “We’ll take a good look at it in light of what’s happening around us and we’ll come up with a conclusion after collaborating with all my colleagues and the citizens of the state. This is not a decision I’m going to make. I’m open. I recognize the issues, I know the issues. But we’ll make the decision together,” Mattiello told the radio station.
Other States To Watch in 2019:
Minnesota: A newly elected Democratic governor and a Democratic House will likely boost Minnesota’s odds of legalizing marijuana. The state’s incoming Governor Tim Walz has previously authored cannabis reform legislation and has said that “the time is here” for legalization.
New Hampshire: With multiple New England states legalizing marijuana, including Vermont and Massachusetts, New Hampshire is likely to consider cannabis reform in 2019. While Chris Sununu, the state’s Republican governor, said he was opposed to full-scale marijuana legalization, the Democratic-controlled legislature could override his veto and pass legislation.
New Mexico: Governor-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham is pro-marijuana legalization, arguing that it would bring millions of dollars to the state’s economy. State lawmakers expect that if a vote on marijuana reform were to happen, it would likely pass.