Marijuana advocates hit unexpected roadblocks

Marijuana advocates hit unexpected roadblocks
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Advocates of legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes scored their most significant legislative victory of the year Friday when the Illinois state House gave final approval to a measure allowing residents over the age of 21 to purchase and use cannabis products.

But their win in Springfield comes at the end of a string of defeats in what was supposed to be a banner year for legalization. Even supporters of recreational use acknowledge their legislative agenda has run into more roadblocks than they expected.

Legislators in New Jersey, Connecticut and New Mexico hit the brakes on legalization bills this year, even though Democratic governors in all three states made clear their support. A New Hampshire bill stalled in the state Senate when it became apparent the legislature did not have the votes to override a likely veto from Gov. Chris Sununu (R).

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's (D) effort to legalize recreational use through his state budget stalled, though the legislature is considering a separate bill.

"Some progress has happened slower than we would have liked, of course," said Karen O'Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group.

Opposition groups have mounted surprisingly strong campaigns against legalization bills, in many states led by minority legislators who worry that increased access to marijuana will disproportionately impact their communities. Black caucuses in New Jersey and Connecticut have emerged as fulcrums  in the debate over legalization.

"These communities in many ways across the country are marginalized, but when it comes to this specific policy issue they have a major say," said Luke Niforatos, a senior policy advisor at Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an anti-legalization group.

At the same time, those minority groups say their communities are not profiting from the booming marijuana industry, which remains overwhelmingly white.

"For Big Tobacco and Big Marijuana, black addiction is a big-money hustle," said Rev. Gregory Seal Livingston, a civil rights advocate who opposed the Illinois legislation. "It is not a business opportunity for blacks and other minorities because blacks and other minorities are the target."

Proponents have said that legalization would help mitigate the disparities of the war on drugs, which fell hardest on communities of color. A black man is almost four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as a white man, according to an American Civil Liberties Union study, though usage rates are virtually the same across racial groups.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) "has repeatedly said that he believes legalization of adult-use marijuana is critical to eliminating disparities in the criminal justice system. Each week that marijuana remains illegal, approximately 600 people in New Jersey will be arrested for low-level drug crimes, with the majority of those being people of color," Alyana Alfaro, a Murphy spokeswoman, said in an email.

States that have already legalized marijuana have made efforts to increase the number of minority-owned businesses in the nascent industry, to mixed results. California's legislature approved $10 million to help low-income and minority-owned businesses open pot shops. Massachusetts prioritized minority-owned businesses as it began distributing licenses after voters there approved a legalization ballot measure.

Maryland is working on plans to award new marijuana cultivation licenses to minority-owned businesses, though some of the firms that own the 15 existing licenses have sued to stop the expansion plans.

"There was hope that passing legalization would help with all the inequalities that have plagued the drug war," O'Keefe said. "A lot of people, including us, have been disappointed that there hasn’t been as much diversity in the industry as there could be."

Legalization opponents publicly support some efforts to end elements of the war on drugs, even if they don't support recreational use. North Dakota and New Mexico this year became the latest states to decriminalize marijuana possession, an approach those legalization opponents say more adequately addresses the root problem.

"If we’re having concerns about incarceration, let’s look directly at incarceration and decriminalization and expungement," Niforatos said. "It is a way to precisely address the concerns of these communities that are disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs."

Marijuana backers have had some success around the margins this year. Iowa's Republican-led legislature approved an expansion of low-grade medical cannabis, though Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) vetoed the bill. Georgia legislators approved a measure to allow in-state cultivation of medical marijuana. Legislators in Guam this year legalized marijuana for recreational use, the second U.S. territory to do so after the Northern Mariana Islands.

And the Illinois bill is significant: If Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) signs it as expected, Illinois would become the first state to legalize recreational sales of marijuana through its state legislature, rather than through a ballot measure approved by citizens.

Vermont's legislature approved the use, though not the sale, of recreational marijuana in 2018, a compromise between the Democratic legislature and Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican.

The disappointing year for marijuana backers is only a prelude to what is expected to be a series of difficult fights in 2020. Legalization proponents will try again in states such as New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and ballot measures are likely in states such as Florida, Arizona and Ohio, three states where earlier efforts fell short.

"There could be serious, viable efforts to legalize marijuana in as many as a dozen states next year," O'Keefe said. "While it’s hard to predict how many will pass, it’s all but certain that the number of legalization states will continue to grow with each passing year."