While eight states have already legalized marijuana — with others considering enacting similar laws this or next year — a number of states are advancing bills that would create commissions to study ending prohibition in preparation for possible future legislation.
On Thursday the New Hampshire Senate Judiciary Committee, for example, voted 4-1 to amend and advance a bill to create a commission that would “examine the possible impacts of changing state policy to treat marijuana in a manner similar to the way the state deals with alcohol.”
The bill, an earlier version of which was already approved by the House in March, directs a commission to “study the experiences of New Hampshire and other states regarding the use of marijuana for medical purposes and for recreational purposes” and issue a report on or before November 1 of next year.
(Separately, both chambers of the legislature approved a bill this year to make New Hampshire the last state in New England to finally decriminalize marijuana possession; Gov. Chris Sununu (R) has pledged to sign it.)
In Rhode Island, where advocates are still hoping to get an actual legalization bill over the finish line this year, leaders in the legislature and in the administration of Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) seem to prefer the study commission approach.
This week, the House Judiciary Committee amended and approved a bill that would ask a panel of experts to “conduct a comprehensive review and make recommendations regarding marijuana and the effects of its use on the residents of Colorado and Washington to the extent available, and to study the fiscal impact to those states; and thereafter the potential impact on Rhode Island.”
Its report would be due to lawmakers by March 1 of next year, in time for the legislature to consider and enact legalization before that session’s adjournment.
The full House is expected to vote on the study commission bill on Wednesday.
And in Vermont, the legislature approved a bill that would legalize low-level cannabis possession and homegrow, but not immediately allow taxed and regulated sales — instead creating a study commission that would examine options for legal marijuana commerce and present lawmakers with legislation they could consider enacting in the future.
Earlier this week, however, Gov. Phil Scott (R) vetoed the bill but said that he would be willing to sign a slightly amended version that included tougher penalties for driving under the influence and providing marijuana to minors, among other changes.
If the New Hampshire and Rhode Island study commission bills are enacted, and Vermont lawmakers come to an agreement with the governor, that would mean that three New England states would be officially studying joining neighboring Massachusetts and Maine, which have already ended prohibition.
(In Connecticut, the Senate president and House speaker recently included legalization language in their revised budget proposal, but it is unclear if those provisions have enough support to be enacted.)
The various study commissions will give marijuana legalization advocates plenty of work to do over the summer and in the fall when most legislatures are out of session.
Much of the membership of the bodies would be made up of law enforcement personnel, drug treatment professionals and other traditional opponents of cannabis law reform. But reformers would have official seats at the tables, and would also be able to shape the commissions’ findings by providing official testimony and encouraging members to seriously consider evidence demonstrating the positive impacts of legalization in states that have already enacted it.
But even while the commissions can move the issue forward, at least compared to doing nothing at all, many advocates see them as as unnecessary at best or a devious delay tactic at worst.
“A ‘study commission’ sounds fair and even-handed. After all, who can be against studying something before making a decision?” wrote Sen. Josh Miller and Rep. Scott Slater, the Democratic Rhode Island lawmakers who are sponsoring full legalization bills this year. “The data and evidence are already available to study. We have had decades to see that prohibition is a failed policy that does not reduce the availability or use of marijuana. How many more millions of dollars will we waste trying to arrest our way out of the problem? How much longer will we ignore the majority of our constituents who want reform?”