The political turmoil over marijuana comes as five northeastern Democratic governors announced last month that they had reached an agreement to fully legalize marijuana. Three of the states — New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, where Democrats are in complete control of the government — already have spent months squabbling over the specifics of complex legislation that would legalize cannabis sales.
The sharp divisions among rank-and-file lawmakers are unlikely to recede simply because the states’ governors reached a handshake agreement on broad guardrails for legalizing marijuana.
“There are a lot of details that need to get resolved and different viewpoints on the details,” said New York Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried, who represents Manhattan.
“Last year there were a lot of big complex issues eating up a lot of time that, I think, made resolving marijuana legislation more difficult.”
Just one state — Illinois — has passed legislation establishing recreational sales. The other nine states that allow adults to buy weed for any reason have done so through ballot referendums. The legislative process has proven much messier. Instead of a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down from voters, every single lawmaker has an opportunity to weigh in on what legislation should look like.
The prospects for passing legalization anytime soon in Pennsylvania look particularly bleak. While Gov. Tom Wolf is a recent convert to the cause, both chambers of the state legislature are controlled by Republicans, and they’ve shown little interest in pursuing recreational marijuana sales.
“The reality is they don’t have the votes,” said Kevin Sabet, CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which has been fighting legalization efforts around the country. “This is definitely not a slam dunk in any of these states. Pennsylvania — it’s a complete pipe dream that they would get this done in the legislature.”
What’s in the agreement?
The five governors only agreed on broad principles to guide their efforts. Chief among the policy recommendations is setting a similar tax rate on cannabis sales as a means of leveling the market across the region. The five governors also pledged to limit the number of licenses for cannabis businesses, craft policies to prioritize the inclusion of small business owners, develop criminal justice reform programs to improve the lives of ex-offenders and develop uniform law enforcement and public health standards for policing the industry.
Most lawmakers who support legalization praised the governors for leading on the issue. The summit was prompted in part by concerns about the vaping crisis, which has sickened more than 2,000 people and led to at least 39 deaths, according to the CDC. Most of the lung illnesses have been tied to THC vapes, primarily from the black market.
“People realize the time has come,” said New York Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a top legalization advocate. “The fact that it hasn’t been legalized and regulated allows the black market to put products out there that we know are hurting people.”
But the broad framework agreed to is unlikely to make it much easier to reach accord on specific policy details.
“We are going to be losing serious economic activity,” added Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), the lead sponsor of legalization legislation, pointing out that New York state residents are already buying weed from legal dispensaries. “If you go to a cannabis store in the Berkshires — a half hour from Albany — you can’t help but notice all of the license plates are from New York in the parking lot.”
Current legislative proposals diverge on policy details
The cannabis legalization proposals that have emerged from each state are unique. New Jersey’s legislation, agreed to by each of the state’s top Democrats after months of negotiation, would tax cannabis at $42 per ounce at the cultivation level. Local municipalities could impose their own taxes as well. Legislation advanced in Connecticut, which was never voted on, would have imposed a $35 per ounce tax on cultivators, plus local fees and a sales tax. Recent legislation introduced by Pennsylvania lawmakers would levy a 17.5 percent tax at the point-of-sale.
“In terms of setting a goal of being as unified as possible, that is a worthwhile exercise,” said Connecticut state Rep. Steve Stafstrom, who co-chairs the House Joint Committee on Judiciary. “Do I suspect, at the end of the day, that there will be certain pieces of this that one state wants to do one way, and other states want to do another way?
A half-dozen Democratic lawmakers and staff members in Connecticut who spoke with POLITICO indicated it would be an uphill battle just to get a cannabis legalization measure over the finish line, regardless of whatever agreement Gov. Ned Lamont hatched with his counterparts in the Northeast.
A package of three bills that would have legalized cannabis, designated new programs for marijuana-related tax revenues and blazed new criminal justice reforms collapsed after facing resistance from the state’s black and Latino faith leaders. And while lawmakers briefly floated the idea of moving a bill that would have created a ballot question on adult-use, that also stalled.
“I confess, and this is probably a good example probably of white privilege, I didn’t appreciate the ingrained resistance to legalization from communities that have been battling [with] it for so long,” said state Rep. Mike D’Agostino, a Democrat committee chairman who represents the New Haven suburbs. “We need to do a good job of going out and listening. And also saying, ‘Here’s what’s in our bills. Here’s how we’re trying to address the social justice concerns and the economic concerns.’”
Perhaps just as importantly, efforts to legalize adult use in other states require some level of common understanding between lawmakers and the chief executive.
Pennsylvania‘s Wolf publicly announced his support for cannabis legalization in September, a little less than a month before the multi-state framework was released. His appearance on the dais alongside Cuomo, Lamont and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Oct. 17 was a surprise to state Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat who introduced an adult use bill earlier this year.
“Was the Legislature consulted? No,” Leach told POLITICO, adding that he supported any effort on the part of Wolf to “move the ball forward.”
“There may be places where things fit together, and places where they don’t,” Leach said. “Each state needs to concentrate primarily on getting a law passed that works for our state.”
If the five northeastern states are able to overcome the formidable hurdles they face and create a sprawling five-state marijuana marketplace, it could create a tipping point in the legalization debate nationwide, said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project. That would mean nearly half the country would be living in states where anyone over the age of 21 can buy weed for whatever purpose they choose.
“It becomes increasingly untenable,” O’Keefe said, “to have all of this conduct be federally illegal when you have nearly 150 million people living in states where it’s legal and regulated.”