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Record number of states considered marijuana legalization in 2019
More than half of all state legislatures considered legislation in 2019 to legalize the possession or use of marijuana, a new record that illustrates a normalization of an issue that lawmakers once saw as a third rail.
Only a few states actually passed legislation dealing with marijuana this year, and just one - Illinois - legalized its recreational use among adults. But backers of legal marijuana point to the broad debate itself as evidence that a once-niche issue has gone mainstream.
"Virtually every legislature in the country is taking a close look at its marijuana policies, and many have adopted significant reforms in 2019," said Karen O'Keefe, who directs state policy at the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, which released a report Monday on marijuana's legislative progress.
In all, 27 states considered legislation that would have legalized commercial sales, recreational use or possession of marijuana, according to the Marijuana Policy Project. Legislators in Iowa, Tennessee and Virginia - all states in which both chambers are controlled by Republicans - considered their first marijuana legalization bills, though none of them passed.
At the beginning of the year, several Democratic-controlled states looked poised to advance recreational marijuana laws, but those bills - in states like Connecticut, New York and New Mexico - stalled as well.
New Mexico legislators did, however, vote to decriminalize marijuana possession, and legislators say they will try again in the next session to pass a legalization bill. Lawmakers in Hawaii also voted to decriminalize the drug, and Republican-dominated Georgia expanded the use of marijuana for medical reasons. North Dakota, another red state, ended jail time for those convicted of marijuana possession.
At the national level, the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time held a hearing on whether to end or reform federal marijuana prohibition. The Democratic-controlled House also passed an appropriations rider that could pave the way for Washington, D.C., to begin legal commercial sales of marijuana.
Opponents of loosening marijuana laws said the legislative losses, especially in blue states, showed that momentum for legalization has slowed.
"This report is an attempt to mask what was by far the worst year for legalization advocates since 2011," said Kevin Sabet, who heads the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. "Parents, teachers and public health practitioners defeated bills in more than half a dozen states, including New York and New Jersey, despite being outspent by an average of 30 to one."
"When we are able to discuss the failures of legalization, such policies get rejected," Sabet said.
Public opinion polls show that legalizing marijuana has become more politically popular over the years, especially after Washington and Colorado became the first states to do so in 2012. A Marist College poll conducted for NPR and PBS NewsHour released Monday shows 62 percent of registered voters, including two-thirds of independents, say legalizing recreational marijuana is a good idea.
As recently as 2010, a majority of Americans told Gallup pollsters they opposed making marijuana legal.
Recreational marijuana use is legal in 11 states and the District of Columbia, after Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) signed the bill in his state this year. Medical marijuana is legal in some form in 33 states, and possession of small amounts of marijuana has been decriminalized in 26 states.