Josh Miller found this as an indication that his time had finally arrived, when Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure in November to legalize recreational marijuana.
The Rhode Island state senator has a standing among colleagues as a cannabis crusader — a battle that, to date, he’s lost. For the past three years, Miller introduced legislation to legalize recreational marijuana, and for the past three years, his efforts have died in committee hearing rooms.
Now, however, in a turn-around, some of Miller’s colleagues are indicating an interest in legalized marijuana — and raking in the tax dollars which come with it.
“We now have the wind at our backs,” said Miller, who introduced his latest pro-marijuana bill last week. “Seeing our next door neighbor legalize it should help us — a lot.”
In the fall, three other states joined in passing recreational marijuana ballot measures: Maine, California and Nevada, Massachusetts. Four other states — Colorado, Alaska, Oregon and Washington — have also legalized marijuana through ballot initiatives.
However, this year lawmakers in 17 states — Hawaii, Minnesota and Connecticut among them — have become emboldened enough to introduce more than two dozen measures to legalize recreational marijuana for adults and tax its sale. The experiences of Washington and Colorado state — the first two states to legalize the drug still considered illegal under federal law — drive the trend.
Colorado officials released a report revealing the state brought in $200 million in tax revenue this past year. Washington raked in even more — about $256 million. The majority of the money goes toward public school systems.
“Our focus is on revenue and bringing in cash to the state as legalization becomes increasingly more widespread” said Mary Washington, a state delegate from Maryland who introduced a bill recently that would tax cannabis like alcohol. She estimates the state could net $165 million a year. (California estimates that legalized recreational marijuana will bring in about $1 billion a year in state tax revenue.)
Washington, whose district is in Baltimore hasn’t sponsored marijuana legislation previously, but has been a patron of legalization. She’s viewed the problem from a criminal justice standpoint after witnessing young black men in her community constantly arrested for low-level possession.
Now, with people able to carry as much as an ounce of marijuana legally in certain states, together with the cash generated from sales, she believed that it’s time to join the more comprehensive legalization movement. The success of Maryland lawmakers in passing medicinal marijuana legislation in 2014 makes her confident.
“These conversations need to be happening now,” Washington said, adding that even with voter- approved ballot measures, lawmakers in many cases are tasked with hashing out laws that regulate sales. “Why not get it done now? We’re elected to do a job. More and more states are moving in this direction.”
A similar course was taken by the legalization of medical.
Six states passed ballot measures approving medicinal marijuana from the mid-1990s until 2000. It wasn’t until that year when Hawaii became the first to do so through the Legislature. Since 2004, almost two times as many states have enacted medical laws through legislatures — 13 — compared to even passed through ballot initiatives.
Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, a group dedicated to stopping cannabis prohibition nationally, said voters led the way on legalizing cannabis for medicinal use before lawmakers woke up.
“Voters saw through the government’s reefer madness and led the way on medical marijuana. Those laws inspired citizens in other states to demand action from their elected officials, who could now see that such laws were not just popular, but possible,” Tvert said. “The same thing is now happening with broader legalization.”
For cautious lawmakers, polling is useful as public approval of legal marijuana is raising, much like the nation’s rapid shift in favor of same-sex marriage through the years.
A Pew Research Center survey from October revealed that 57% of Americans think marijuana should be legalized, compared to 37% who think it should stay prohibited. By comparison, a similar Pew survey in 2006 revealed practically the opposite — 60% think it should be illegal, compared with 32% who supported legalization.
And a survey released this month by Public Policy Polling revealed that legalization is supported by 59% of Rhode Islanders, compared to 35% in opposition. In Rhode Island, where a motorist can drive out of the state in half an hour or less, lawmakers fret about losing millions of dollars to Massachusetts. So do lawmakers in Connecticut and New York, where legalization measures are likewise being debated.
The polling of Rhode Islanders, combined with the Massachusetts vote, became enough to change the view of Rhode Island state Sen. Ryan Pearson.
He staunchly opposed Miller’s previous efforts, because he believed, among other things, that edible marijuana, for example biscuits and sweets, would be enticing to children.
“Then, I saw this shift throughout the country with other states. It’s crept into New England and we see it legal right next door,” he said. “Now it’s not a matter of if, but when, for legalization in this state. … We should take the initiative to get this done right.”
The problem of edibles is a prevalent concern and Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado has warned lawmakers in other states, including California lately, to regulate them attentively.
Nevertheless, resistance to legalization can frequently be viewed in the hallways of state capitols.
In Rhode Island, law enforcement agencies have expressed worries about enforcing and prosecuting individuals driving under the influence. Furthermore, Rhode Island Atty. Gen. Peter F. Kilmartin remains staunchly opposed, saying it’s “a complex policy decision that’s long-lasting effects and unintended consequences, much of which are still unknown.”
“This isn’t a decision that should be made lightly,” he said in an e-mail. “It must be made with a full understanding of the complications of regulating a new industry, its effect on our youths’ development, what impact it will have on our future workforce, the public health implications.”
For Miller, despite every one of his previous efforts faltering in committees, he’s seen momentum because of his cause through the years.
“One member of legislative leadership would back it, then another. It was a slow trickle,” said Miller, who in recent years has met with representatives from Colorado to talk about the ups and downs of legalization.
Rhode Island state Rep. Scott Slater, Miller’s House sponsor for the legal pot measure, said pressure is on the state.
“We see legalization moving into the New England area and out here it’s a very regional economy,” he said. “Why give Massachusetts all the benefit?”