Americans look west for signs of what marijuana policy reform will be like. Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon boast legal cannabis and coalitions in California, Nevada and Arizona are working on promising ballot measures campaigns. The next big victories, however, may come from the country’s Northeast.
While the world watched Colorado and Washington, New England’s six states made more progress on marijuana policy reform since 2011 than any region in the country. Advocates from the Marijuana Policy Project played an important role in these changes.
Over the next two years, MPP tells Marijuana.com the group will be leading the charge for the next stage of policy reform in New England: legalization.
“There’s been a lot of groundwork done in the Northeast,” said Deputy Director of State Policies Bob Capecchi in a phone interview. “I think that’s going to start bearing some fruit here.”
The groundwork started with Maine’s decriminalization of marijuana 38 years ago. Lawmakers expanded the policy in 2009, but Maine has treated possession of less than 35 grams as a civil violation since the 1970s.
Between 1975 and 1981, eleven U.S. states passed decriminalization bills. Maine joined as the third state to pass in 1975 with the policy going into effect the following year. Federal pressure from the Reagan Administration and its “Just Say No” campaign put an end to decriminalization efforts.
It took Maine voters 23 years to make history again in 1999 as the first Northeastern state to adopt medical marijuana, only three years after California passed its own groundbreaking law. The legislature passed a decriminalization bill nearly a quarter century before, but medical marijuana took a ballot initiative.
The millennial decade saw few Northeastern reforms. Lawmakers created medical marijuana programs in Vermont in 2004 and Rhode Island in 2006. The most promising development came from Massachusetts, which started a trend of ballot initiatives that may end with legalization two years from now.
After Massachusetts voted to decriminalize marijuana while electing Obama in 2008, they used 2012 to both re-elect the president and approve medical marijuana. While state regulators wrestle with a medical dispensary system, advocates look to a planned 2016 ballot initiative to legalize the plant.
The region hit a tipping point when Connecticut lawmakers decriminalized marijuana possession in 2011. Rhode Island and Vermont quickly followed as the fourth and fifth Northeastern states to decriminalize in 2012 and 2013. Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire adopted medical marijuana during the same period.
MPP plans to use the region’s momentum toward marijuana acceptance to push for a tax and regulate strategy to legalization. New England Political Director Matt Simon broke down the situation for Marijuana.com.
“Massachusetts and Maine are initiative states.” Simon said during a phone interview. “That makes them obvious targets.” He believes they can win through the ballot process. Vermont and Rhode Island, on the other hand, need to legalize marijuana through lawmakers, but Simon isn’t worried. “We’ve been lobbying in those states for years and we know the legislatures.”
New Hampshire remains the lone holdout for New England decriminalization after five legislative attempts in six years. Lawmakers in the state’s House introduced and passed bills each time, but the Senate refused to consider them.
Still, Simon is optimistic about New Hampshire decriminalizing simple possession in 2015 and full legalization not long after.
“Probably going to take a different governor,” Simon said. “Fortunately, our governor is going to run for another office in 2016.” He added, referring to speculation that prohibitionist Gov. Maggie Hassan plans to run for a U.S. Senate seat.
The only New England state not included in MPP’s push is Connecticut, so we asked the logical question: What’s different there?
“Connecticut’s just a little bit further behind in its legislature and it doesn’t have a ballot initiative process,” Simon replied. He says they would love to see legalization there, but are not optimistic in the near future.
Jared Moffat, MPP Rhode Island Political Director, explained the difference between lobbying politicians instead of convincing voters.
“We’ve taken a different track,” Moffat said. “Making sure our legislators hear our arguments and hear the facts.”
State lawmakers introduced marijuana legalization in Rhode Island each year since 2011, so the information isn’t new to lawmakers, Moffat said. He hopes to see a tax and regulate bill pass next year.
With Maine’s history of policy reform, including voters passing legalization in the city of Portland, the state seems ready for the next step.
“We are currently drafting the initiative and are seeking input from the public on how they think marijuana should be regulated,” MPP Maine Political Director David Boyer told Marijuana.com by email.
Boyer says that the measure they propose will tax and regulate like alcohol, but allow for home cultivation. It would give priority to people who are part of the state’s medical marijuana industry.
MPP faces pressure from two sides in Maine where some legalization advocates fear the corporatization of marijuana. One group has already announced its opposition to MPP and proposed its own measure.
The Marijuana Policy Project is not the only organization working on New England legalization. They formed and joined with local groups in most states. Still, the infusion of professional lobbying and national exposure that MPP can provide may just be the key.