Pro-Marijuana Candidates Were Big Midterm Winners but Now They Need to be Prodded
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After more than a week of sifting through the results it is increasingly clear that what initially appeared to be a good election for expanding legal marijuana access in the US was actually a very, very good election. Voters in Utah and Missouri approved medical marijuana programs in midterm voting, while voters in Michigan (which already has a large and growing medical marijuana program) gave landslide approval to full legalization.
But if there is one lesson cannabis advocates ought to have learned by now, electing pro-marijuana candidates is just a step in the right direction. While it’s likely many more states will be legalizing marijuana, don’t be surprised if it takes until the 2020 elections. Why will it take so long? Consider New Jersey. The Garden State has long had a medical marijuana program, but former Gov. Chris Christie kept it as small as he legally could. In 2017 (for whatever reason, New Jersey and Virginia elect their governors in odd numbered years) Christie was replaced by Phil Murphy, a Democrat who made marijuana legalization a big part of his campaign.
Despite the lack of any committed opposition to legalization and with Democratic majorities in both houses of the Legislature, marijuana is still illegal in New Jersey. Between the routine complexity of running a large state government, staffing a new administration, infighting between Democrats and, currently, a Legislature investigating a Murphy campaign aide for a state job despite sexual misconduct allegations, a legalization bill that has been pending since before Murphy’s inauguration is still pending.
The midterm elections put cannabis-friendly politicians into important jobs in many states, but nobody ran exclusively on a platform of legal weed. Here is a look at the prospects and the priorities ranked higher than legalization in three big states, with a combined population of 38.3 million people, that seem poised to legalize.
Republicans have dominated the state Senate almost without interruption since the end of World War II but when the votes were counted last week, Democrats -- many of whom ran on platforms that included legalizing marijuana -- won a resounding majority.
Democrats already held a majority in the Assembly and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat, has signaled support for full legalization, both as a new source of revenue and because of gross racial disparities in marijuana arrests. Cuomo embraced a study by his Department of Health calling for legalizing recreational marijuana. The department estimated the current illegal marijuana market in the Empire State at $3.5 billion annually. On top of that, a report by the New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer estimated legalization would be a tax windfall of $336 million for the city and $435.7 million for the state.
Despite all that, the Empire State has a host of urgent problems from rusted and unreliable bridges, roads and mass transit to criminal justice reform and, just in the past few days, an uproar over lavish incentives for Amazon to move into New York City. The official list of priorities published by the New York Democratic Party doesn’t mention marijuana legalization. You can smoke a joint on the streets of New York without being arrested but you can't yet roll that joint with legal pot.
For at least the past two years Democrats have been pushing for marijuana legalization in Illinois, a state with severe budget problems. Their chances of success, and of the state reaping an estimated $300 million up to $750 million in new revenues , improved significantly with the election JB Pritzker, a pro-pot Democrat.
Pritzker’s election means Democrats now control both house of the Legislature and the governor’s mansion. A study by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute estimated a legal marijuana market would total $1.6 billion in annual sales, generating 23,600 new jobs and a revenues for public schools and other pressing needs.
Illinois can use the money and the jobs but that is no guarantee of fast action. The biggest obstacle the Chicago Tribune sees to legalization is a protracted struggle over how to divvy up new revenues between the state and local governments. Illinois has already decriminilized marijuana, which relieves a major social justice motive for legalization, negotiations over tax rate and revenue split are probably going to be drawn out, and Republican lawmakers are not onboard.
“I will never support legalization,” House Republican leader Jim Durkin said to the Chicago Tribune. “I don’t like how quickly we are moving. Illinois should not be part of this lab experiment. I see no societal value.”
Marijuana played a big, albeit roundabout, role in getting Democrat Keith Ellison elected the new Minnesota attorney general. Ellison, who was a high-profile member of Congress, was dogged by allegations of sexual abuse. A poll before the election showed Ellison with a small lead over his Republican opponent. The same poll found, Noah Johnson, the Grassroots-Legal Marijuana Now party nominee for Minnesota attorney general, with 5 percent support.
In a remarkably candid interview, Johnson stopped just short of promising to drop out of the race and endorse Ellison if Ellison explicitly embraced marijuana legalization.
“It’s possible that Ellison could sap some of my support just by coming out on this common sense issue,” Johnson said. “If he came out supporting legalized recreational marijuana, not just saying, ‘Well, it’s probably better than opioids,’ or ‘We’d think about it’ or ‘We should definitely have stronger medical,’ but if he switched to legalize recreational marijuana, my campaign would have to consider.”
Ellison apparently got the message. He endorsed legalized marijuana, Johnson endorsed him (though only after it was too late to remove his name from the ballot) and Ellison won, as did the Democrat running for governor, Tim Walz. Cannabis advocates were cheered but they have lots of work left. Legal marijuana was not mentioned on a list of “high-profile Democratic proposals” that includes increasing the gas tax for roads, a big spending boost for schools and a public health insurance option.
The momentum favoring marijuana legalization is formidable -- the public is clamoring for both an end to mass incarceration driven by pot arrests and alternatives to opioids. State and local governments want economic development and new tax revenues, while entrepreneurs (including former politicians who had entire careers opposing marijuana) are eager for new opportunities. Legalization is probably inevitable but only if advocates keep pressuring the politicians they have helped elect.