New Jersey and Virginia are holding gubernatorial elections this year, and every major Democratic candidate in both states is supporting changes to marijuana policy.
Leading contender Phil Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany, endorsed legalization early last year and said in a recent debate that he supports “comprehensive reform of our criminal justice system.”
Assemblyman John Wisniewski said, “We have to make sure we are ending the war on drugs. We have failed. We have lost it. We need to decriminalize marijuana and create legal framework for sale and taxation.”
Senator Raymond Lesniak and former U.S. Under Secretary of the Treasury Jim Johnson also support legalization.
The primary is on June 6.
(On the Republican side, both major candidates — Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli — are open to decriminalizing possession but not ending prohibition altogether.)
And in Virginia, where the primaries will be held on June 13, both Democrats seeking to replace outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) actively support marijuana decriminalization and medical cannabis, with one also looking ahead to full legalization.
Ralph Northam, the state’s lieutenant governor, made waves earlier this year by authoring a blog post championing the removal of criminal penalties for cannabis, framing the issue in stark racial justice terms.
“We need to change sentencing laws that disproportionately hurt people of color,” Northam wrote. “One of the best ways to do this is to decriminalize marijuana. African Americans are 2.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Virginia. The Commonwealth spends more than $67 million on marijuana enforcement — money that could be better spent on rehabilitation.”
Northam, a medical doctor, also wrote that he’s become “increasingly convinced by the data showing potential health benefits of marijuana,” suggesting he’d sign a comprehensive medical cannabis bill into law.
That spurred former Congressman Tom Perriello to say that he, too, supports decriminalization and medical cannabis. But he has since gone a step further, telling the Marijuana Policy Project in a candidate survey response that he thinks the state should “eventually” fully legalize marijuana.
“I believe there is an opportunity to tax and regulate marijuana production and sales for adults in Virginia in much the same way that we currently treat alcohol,” Perriello wrote. “Staggering the legalization of marijuana to come after a period where a medical marijuana program is rolled out will permit our state and local tax departments to design an effective mechanism for marijuana tax collection. A staggered process for legalization will also allow for the accreditation of labs that can test for mold, pesticides, and tetrahydrocannabinol potency, as well as more time for the development of a breathalyzer-like test for drugged driving.”
(Leading Republican candidate Ed Gillespie opposes decriminalization but does support a review that the state’s Crime Commission is currently undertaking on the topic.)
Looking ahead to gubernatorial elections that will be held next year, candidates in a number of other states are also supporting legalization.
In Illinois, for example, where several Democrats are facing off for the chance to run against incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner (R), most say they’d sign legislation to end prohibition if elected.
Candidates Ameya Pawar, J.B. Pritzker, Daniel Biss and Bob Daiber all recently told the Chicago Reader that they support legalization, though Chris Kennedy said elsewhere that he’s skeptical that marijuana revenue can help to solve budget problems.
Rauner, for his part, says he’s “hearing some pretty bad stories” about how legalization is working in states that have tried it.
In California, current Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is term limited and the Democrats running to replace him mostly favor legalization.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, for example, empaneled a blue ribbon commission whose findings last year largely informed the drafting of Amendment 64, the state’s successful cannabis initiative, which he actively campaigned for. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villagairosa endorsed the measure shortly before election day. And John Chiang, the state’s treasurer, has been pushing the federal government to reform prohibition laws that make banking difficult for the marijuana industry.
In Vermont, where gubernatorial terms are only two years long, incumbent Gov. Phil Scott, who recently vetoed a legalization bill, is up for reelection. Ending marijuana prohibition polls well in the state, however, which may be why Scott has suggested small changes he wants legislators to make to the proposal so he can sign it into law, either this summer or early next year.
No Vermont Democrats have yet declared a run against Scott, but if he fails to reach a legalization deal with the legislature his veto of the legislation would likely become a key campaign issue.
In total, 36 states are holding gubernatorial elections next year. The growing number of Democrats who are campaigning on pro-legalization platforms speaks to the issue’s growing prominence and its support among voters, particularly those who participate in Democratic primaries. And since governors often go on to become U.S. senators or run for president, the growing support among rising party stars also suggests that the push for marijuana law reform on the federal level will continue to gain momentum in coming election cycles.