Will these 10 states be next to legalize pot?

September 9, 2013

Fast Eddy Aki’a of Hawaii smokes a joint to celebrate the state’s medicinal marijuana laws. (Marc Piscotty/Getty Images)

If you’re trying to figure out which states will be next to relax restrictions on marijuana, it makes sense to keep tabs on the people most interested in seeing it happen.

The Marijuana Policy Project, which was active in helping pass Colorado’s legalization law last November, announced Monday that it would support similar efforts in 10 additional states by 2017.

MPP’s Director of State Policies Karen O’Keefe said the group breaks its 10 priority states into two general groups: the five states that have a voter-initiative process and the five states where only lawmakers can introduce such rules and laws. The group’s basic point is an economic one: States are throwing away money by not legalizing and taxing pot like alcohol, they argue.

Here are the five so-called legislative states — the ones where MPP expects change to come through the state legislature — and why the group is focused on them:

Rhode Island tops the list of legislative states. “We’re actually very hopeful that it might be the first state” whose legislature decides to legalize marijuana, O’Keefe says. Earlier this year, state House Judiciary Chairwoman Rep. Edith Ajello introduced legislation to legalize and tax marijuana. The House’s top Republican, minority leader Brian Newberry, co-sponsored the bill with Ajello, a Democrat. “There just seems to be a great coalition of support and a lot of momentum in the legislature,” O’Keefe says.

Vermont is another state that offers up reason for hope. That state became the 17th this summer to decriminalize pot, according to Reuters. And Gov. Peter Shumlin just last week said he’s open to considering legalization. “Supporters say this could be a political win for Shumlin — pleasing constituents who want to smoke pot and providing a possible revenue stream for the state,” local station WCAX reported.

In July, New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan signed into law a bill that legalized marijuana for medicinal use. The House this year also passed a decriminalization bill, though it was later killed in the Senate.

Hawaii passed a medical marijuana law 13 years ago and expanded it this summer. The state’s House speaker also sponsored a legalization bill this January.

Maryland’s Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a law legalizing medicinal marijuana in May, as well. MPP has been encouraged by a strengthening coalition there, O’Keefe says. “The NAACP is supportive, the ACLU, and it seems that there’s a real willingness to take a serious look at reconsidering marijuana policy there,” she says.

The Marijuana Policy Project is supporting Alaskan activists in their drive to place an initiative on the August 2014 ballot, and plans to support similar initiatives in Arizona, California, Maine and Nevada in the 2016 election.

That the 2016 election is a presidential one is important for legalization advocates, O’Keefe points out. Youth turnout tends to be higher during presidential elections and young Americans are most likely to support legalization, she says. Nearly 2 in 3 supported legalization in a March Pew poll.

The Justice Department recently made clear it wouldn’t challenge state-level laws. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday afternoon exploring the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws.

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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