So far this year, West Virginia legalized medical cannabis and New Hampshire decriminalized marijuana, but it appears that no state will fully end cannabis prohibition in 2017.
However, at least two — and possibly three — states are creating study commissions to officially examine the implications of legalizing marijuana this year, the resulting reports from which could provide a boost to reform efforts in 2018.
But leading marijuana legalization advocates aren’t participating in the commissions and, in one case, are actively boycotting the process.
In Rhode Island, where activists hoped that the state could become the first to legalize marijuana through the legislature this year (as opposed to via a ballot initiative), Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) and leading lawmakers were much more interested in slowing things down and taking a careful look at how to regulate legal cannabis, if at all.
While an earlier version of the bill set aside seats for members of the pro-legalization Regulate Rhode Island coalition, such as the local NAACP branch, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation and Direct Action for Rights and Equality, those advocates announced that instead of participating in what they saw as a delay tactic undermining the real fight to end prohibition, they would boycott the commission.
“I appreciate the thought of including the NAACP in the study commission, but I cannot participate in and thereby legitimize this flawed process,” Jim Vincent, Rhode Island NAACP’s president, told the Providence Journal.
The legislation was amended to remove those seats, and then passed. It retains representation from leading anti-legalization organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana, the prohibitionist state attorney general and the Substance Use Mental Health Council of RI. And there is still one seat designated for an unnamed “proponent for the legalization of marijuana,” to be appointed by legislative leaders.
The commission’s recommendations are due by next March.
Meanwhile, advocates say they will find other ways to advance the debate about legalization before lawmakers reconvene next year.
“Even some of our opponents agree that the real question is not if marijuana should be legalized — which is what the legislature’s study commission is supposed to address — but how and when,” Jared Moffat, director of Regulate Rhode Island, told MassRoots in an interview. “While the General Assembly is adjourned, we plan on reaching out to various stakeholders to create a more useful discussion on that how question and use that to inform the debate in the State House next session.”
Calling the official commission a “a farce and abdication” of lawmakers’ duty to truly grapple with legalization via the legislative process this year, Moffat said, “It’s clear that the leadership of the legislature is not interested in fostering a constructive conversation.”
In New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu (R) signed two bills of note for cannabis reformers this week: One making the state the last in New England to finally decriminalize marijuana possession, and another creating a study commission to examine possible future legalization.
Advocates there, too, opposed the commission, at least in its final form. Whereas the initial version of the bill introduced by Rep. Renny Cushing (D) set aside seats for the Marijuana Policy Project and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, it was later amended in the Senate to remove their representation. That left the proposed panel largely stacked with opponents such as the state attorney general and representatives of law enforcement.
As a result, MPP, alongside other legalization supporters such as Cushing himself, urged Sununu to veto the legislation.
“The commission envisioned by the final bill includes numerous vocal opponents, such as the Association of Chiefs of Police and New Futures, but it does not include any known supporters,” they wrote in a letter to the governor. “If HB 215 is signed into law, the resulting commission’s credibility will be in question from the outset.”
Matt Simon, MPP’s New England political director, said the state “should absolutely study marijuana legalization, but this isn’t the way to go about it.”
But Sununu signed the bill anyway, and the commission is due to issue a report by November of 2018.
It is easy to see why legalization advocates view the commissions as delay tactics. There is already enough evidence, they point out, that shows how legalization is working in other states.
But without their participation, by choice or otherwise, it is much more likely that the commissions’ reports will reach anti-legalization conclusions.
While the panels haven’t yet been officially formed or announced the process by which they will conduct their studies, advocates may still be able to influence their outcomes from the outside by providing testimony at public forums or by meeting with members behind the scenes.
Also, in both New Hampshire and Rhode Island, several commission seats are reserved for state lawmakers. It is possible that legislative leaders empowered to appoint members will select colleagues who support legalization and who have sponsored bills to that effect.
In Vermont, legislation to legalize low-level possession and home cultivation of marijuana, which fell just short of being enacted this year, would have also created a commission to study the possible future legal regulation of cannabis sales.
Gov. Phil Scott (R), who vetoed the bill but then supported a similar revised version that was nearly enacted, says he will move to create a study commission by executive order.
But legalization activists in the state say they don’t need a commission. In 2014, the state hired the RAND Corporation to compile a comprehensive report on options for ending prohibition. And the legislature has spent significant time debating legalization bills in recent years.
“We’ve had literally hundreds of hours of legislative committee hearings on regulation,” Dave Silberman, a Vermont-based attorney and pro bono drug policy reform advocate, told MassRoots in an interview.
It is unknown when Scott intends to create the commission or what its composition and mandates will be.
Polling in all three states — New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont — already show majority voter support for legalizing marijuana.