This year has been momentous for cannabis reform, from the Illinois General Assembly becoming the first state legislature to pass a bill to regulate cannabis like alcohol to the U.S. House of Representatives passing the SAFE Banking Act and forging ahead with the MORE Act.
It’s important to celebrate these victories, but with the end of 2019 comes the beginning of 2020, which is already shaping up to be the biggest year ever for marijuana-policy reform.
Next year, a handful of state legislatures will seriously consider cannabis legalization, and voters in up to 10 states could face a question about the legalization of cannabis for medical or adult use on their November ballots. Some of these campaigns are well-funded and well-organized efforts that will almost certainly make it to the ballot and have a great chance at passing, while others are grassroots campaigns operating on a shoe-string budget—but as demonstrated by voters in North Dakota in 2016 and Oklahoma in 2018, smaller campaigns can still win big when the voters’ appetite for cannabis reform is so strong.
Here are the states to watch in 2020, with a focus on the top contenders, along with a quick overview of the underdog campaigns.
LEGALIZATION BY LEGISLATURE
Vermont’s state legislature was the very first to legalize marijuana back in 2018, but that law only legalized possession and home cultivation for adults, while keeping sales and production illegal. Activists have kept pushing to expand the law to regulate marijuana like alcohol, including commercial cultivation and sales to people over 21. The Vermont Senate even passed a tax-and-regulate bill this year, and while the House didn’t follow suit, it’ll have another opportunity when the two-year legislative session picks back up in early 2020. The House Majority Leader has said this is a priority, so Vermont could become the second state legislature to tax and regulate cannabis like alcohol.
New Mexico is another state to watch in early 2020, with an incredibly short 30-day legislative session starting in January. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is a supporter of legalization, and established a Cannabis Working Group that has been putting in significant legwork between sessions. Since the New Mexico House has passed a legalization bill before, and the Senate president has signaled openness to the concept, the Land of Enchantment could give the Green Mountain State a run for its money in the race to tax and regulate cannabis.
New York got close to taxing and regulating cannabis in 2019, but efforts stalled when Gov. Andrew Cuomo disagreed with legislative leaders on important details like taxation and social equity. But those debates laid the groundwork for legalization in the state, which should make the debate in 2020 much more productive. That was also before Illinois became the first legislature to tax and regulate cannabis, so being the second legislature (or third, or fourth, depending on how things go in Vermont and New Mexico) to act might make some legislators more comfortable voting yes.
Other states to watch:
CANNABIS AT THE BALLOT BOX
New Jersey is an unusual case, as it’s the only state where a blend of legislative action and voter approval could combine to legalize marijuana in 2020. After the effort to pass an adult-use marijuana bill through the legislature failed this year, pro-reform lawmakers decided to send the issue directly to voters rather than try again in 2020. This ballot measure, known as a “legislatively referred constitutional amendment,” is like the ballot initiatives used to pass marijuana laws in other states except that the drafters are the legislators rather than a group of concerned citizens, which means there’s no signature-gathering step and it’s sent straight to the ballot. This means New Jersey residents will get to vote for or against legalization in November 2020. However, there will still need to be an active independent campaign to educate voters, but approval seems highly likely with the issue already polling at 62% support.
Arizona voters narrowly rejected adult-use legalization in 2016, with 48.7% voting in favor of that ballot initiative, but they’ll be getting another shot in 2020. There’s a well-organized campaign, Smart and Safe Arizona, leading the effort, and they’re in a good position to build on national and regional momentum. In addition to growing national support for legalization, neighboring California and Nevada are now selling cannabis to adult consumers, and that pressure will only grow if New Mexico follows suit in January. The latest polling shows it at 50% support, so it will be close either way, but 2020 could finally be the year Arizona regulates marijuana like alcohol.
Florida has two competing campaigns to put adult-use legalization on the ballot, and if either of them qualifies, it would be the most populous state to vote on cannabis reform in 2020. Both Regulate Florida and Make It Legal Florida (which I wrote about in September) have made it to an important stage in the process called judicial review, which is triggered by collecting just under 77,000 valid signatures. They will both need to submit 766,200 valid signatures by Jan 1 to get on the ballot, and if both qualify, they’ll need to simultaneously make the case for legalization while differentiating themselves from the other initiative. We’ve only seen multiple pro-cannabis measures on a single ballot once before, when Missouri had three (!) such initiatives in 2018. Florida also requires 60% approval for constitutional amendments (which is why its 2014 medical marijuana initiative failed with “only” 58% support). This could be achievable for either campaign, with generic legalization currently polling around 64%, yet it is still a major challenge as no legalization initiative in any state has yet to pass the 60% threshold.
Ohio passed a medical marijuana law through the legislature in 2016, but only because the Marijuana Policy Project was backing a ballot initiative that would almost certainly have passed otherwise. 2020 is another opportunity to run a ballot initiative in a presidential election year, when youth turnout is highest and success much more likely. Since signatures are not due until July 1, 2020, no one has officially filed any marijuana-related initiatives, but it’s a near-guarantee that there will be a serious campaign for adult use next year. As a majority of Ohioans have supported legalizing marijuana since at least 2015, it’s likely that it would pass if on the ballot in 2020.
Montana is another state that’s ripe for adult-use legalization by ballot measure. Voters in this solidly red state passed a medical marijuana initiative with 62% in 2004, and passed another initiative broadening the medical program in 2016. A slim majority of voters support regulating marijuana like alcohol, so it would need a strong campaign to win, but running a campaign is relatively cheap in a state with only about one million residents. Like Ohio, Montana has a late signature deadline (June 17, 2020), so no marijuana initiatives have yet been filed, but keep an eye out for one soon.
Other states to watch:
- Arkansas – There are currently two groups trying to get adult-use initiatives on the 2020 ballot. Since medical marijuana was only legalized in 2016, with 53% of the vote, it will be an uphill battle if either measure qualifies.
- Idaho – Activists are collecting signatures for a medical marijuana initiative, and need 55,057 by May 1, 2020, to make it onto the ballot.
- Missouri – A group has filed to gather signatures for an adult-use…