Advocates see state legislatures as next frontier for pot legalization

NEW ORLEANS — Marijuana proponents are turning to state legislatures as the next step to expand legalization.

After a run of success at the ballot box, proponents of recreational marijuana are turning their attention to new allies in governors’ offices as they eye new pushes toward legalization in states that will require politicians, rather than voters, to issue the final sign-offs.

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) is pushing his legislature to adopt recreational marijuana in the coming session. Illinois Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker (D) has also said he will ask his Democratic-controlled legislature to legalize marijuana.

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“We want to create businesses owned by people in Illinois. There’s an opportunity to create jobs, dispensaries, production facilities in Illinois, owned by Illinoians, so the profits are staying in Illinois,” Pritzker said in an interview.

He estimated legal marijuana could bring in at least $700 million, and as much as $1 billion, in badly needed revenue for his cash-strapped state.

Pritzker won a powerful ally last month, when state House Speaker Mike Madigan (D) — arguably the most powerful political figure in Illinois — said he would support a push for legalization.

Murphy tried to push legalization through the New Jersey legislature last year, just after he took office. He was blocked by some Democratic legislative leaders, though he said he will try again this year.

“We have to remind folks that we’re not inventing marijuana, that it exists. What we’re trying to do is trying to undo the social injustices, take the business out of the hands of the bad guys, protect our kids, regulate it, tax it,” Murphy told The Hill. “It’s not going away.”

Opponents of legalization have created grassroots organizations in both states to persuade legislators. In both states, those opponents include prominent African American politicians and community leaders who say legalization would be especially harmful to minority communities.

“I contextualize it as big business versus the poor,” said the Rev. Gregory Seal Livingston, a civil rights activist who heads the Coalition for a New Chicago. “I see this as a huge profit-maker. We already have two vices, alcohol and cigarettes. Why add a third vice for revenue?”

The new focus on legalizing marijuana through state legislatures, rather than by ballot initiatives, is an indication of just how much the debate over pot has evolved since the beginning of the century — both for voters and for politicians.

When Colorado and Washington became the first two states to legalize marijuana for recreational use, both Democratic governors opposed the ballot measures. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) opposed California’s legalization initiative when it appeared on the 2016 ballot.

But voter opinions of legal marijuana have evolved quickly. In 2000, the Pew Research Center found 60 percent of Americans opposed making marijuana legal. Today, 62 percent believe it should be legal, according to an October Pew survey.

As voter opinion has changed, so too have politicians adapted their approach.

Pritzker and Murphy are not the only pro-legalization governors. In Colorado, voters elected Jared PolisJared Schutz PolisEight newly elected Dem governors miss meeting with Trump Washington governor plans major climate initiatives New governors plan aggressive climate steps MORE (D) as their next governor; during his career in Congress, Polis was one of the most outspoken defenders of the cannabis industry that has grown up in his state.

The first state to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes through a legislative process, Vermont, did so under Republican Gov. Phil Scott — though that measure does not create the regulatory structure that leads to a recreational marketplace.

This year, voters in Michigan approved a ballot measure to legalize recreational pot. Voters in Utah and Missouri approved medical marijuana. Florida voters elected a state Agriculture Commissioner, Nikki Fried, who has pledged to expand access to medical marijuana in her state.

Other governors have said they, too, will take steps toward increasing the medical marijuana markets in their states, even if legalization is not yet on the table.

“We have a robust medical marijuana program which I would like to expand this year,” Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) told The Hill in an interview. “Then we’re going to take a harder look at legalizing recreational” pot.

Opponents of expanding the legal market say the marijuana industry has evolved into a sophisticated political player in recent years. Pro-pot groups donated to groups like the House Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC that spent heavily to oust anti-legalization Rep. Pete SessionsPeter Anderson SessionsGOP-controlled Senate breaks with Trump on Saudi vote House GOP blocks lawmakers from forcing Yemen war votes for rest of year Advocates see state legislatures as next frontier for pot legalization MORE (R-Texas) this year, and they have begun seeding state political coffers around the country.

“Legalization via legislature is even being talked about because the pot industry is engaging in pay-to-play politics,” said Kevin Sabet, a former senior official in the Office of National Drug Control Policy who now heads the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “They have successfully given money to elected officials to influence legislation.”

Marijuana proponents are also turning to state legislatures because the number of states where they can qualify a citizen initiative is dwindling.

Only eleven states that allow citizens to place measures on the ballot have not yet legalized marijuana. That number includes Ohio, Arizona and North Dakota, where legalization initiatives have already failed, and deeply conservative states like Utah, Wyoming, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas.

Still, supporters point out that voters in Utah, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas have all recently passed new medical marijuana measures.

Pritzker said the fact that so many other states have already moved down the path toward legalization provides Illinois with a blueprint moving forward.

“The ones that did it first, they didn't quite know what they were doing. They figured out, we shouldn't have done this, we should have done more of that,” he said. “By the time you get to the eighth state or so, you've got a bunch of systems, one or two of them seem to work. You can use that as a model.”