As Mass. begins recreational cannabis sales, seven more Northeast states hope to follow
Recreational cannabis is officially on sale in Massachusetts in two stores. Although a number of East Coast states have functioning medical marijuana programs, the two Bay State shops are the first to sell recreational marijuana east of the Mississippi. Customers hoping to be among the first Massachusetts residents to enjoy the fruits of the state’s labor began queuing up long before the shops opened with many waiting in line for hours on a cold, damp day.
Sales are expected to top $1 billion in Massachusetts before 2020 comes to a close. According to a study released by the Department of Public Health, the state’s recreational marijuana market is expected to produce $216 million in tax revenue in these first two years, with up to $3 million of that earmarked for local municipalities.
Yet, as the picture in Massachusetts becomes clearer, based on actual demand, some are thinking those projections are too low. The report is based on the assumption that around ten percent of adults use marijuana. However, a recent survey of marijuana usage by residents shows that it could top 20 percent.
The question remains on how the end of prohibition in Massachusetts could affect the rest of the Northeastern states.
Both Vermont and Maine have legalized adult use of marijuana, but neither has set up a regulated market at this point. Vermont is looking at the idea while Maine is working to implement legislation and come up with rules for their program. New Hampshire is behind, but advocates are working diligently. Rounding out New England, Connecticut, and Rhode Island are also fumbling around with potential recreational measures. In both New York and New Jersey legalization seems imminent.
To the north and east of Massachusetts, in the state of Maine, a prohibitionist governor has done all he can to slow the progress of developing a recreational marijuana program. In fact, he has gone as far as vetoing both bills submitted for his approval. However, state lawmakers, having had enough of Governor LePage’s obstructionism, sided with the state’s voters and overrode the second veto.
It has been two years since voters in Maine approved the legalization of adult-use cannabis in the state, but they still can’t purchase it legally. In Nevada and California where voters approved the legalization of recreational marijuana the very same day as Maine, residents have been able to buy marijuana for months now, and business is booming.
After the passage of the bill, the state decided that it hadn’t a clue as to how to create a legal, regulated adult-use marijuana market and began soliciting bids from consultants. Five have submitted bids, and one of those five is expected to be awarded the contract by January after which it could take as long as nine months to develop the rules, pushing the start of the program into fall 2019 or later.
Although cannabis was decriminalized in 2017 In New Hampshire, efforts to legalize pot have been slow going.
A bill was passed in July 2013 legalizing medical cannabis for patients with chronic, debilitating, and terminal medical conditions. The measure allowed doctors to prescribe cannabis only after all other treatment methods have failed. It was then modified by then-Gov. — Maggie Hassan to expressly prohibit patients from growing their own cannabis.
Not long after that, in 2014 New Hampshire’s legislature passed a recreational cannabis bill which was based on Colorado’s legendary Amendment 64. It was the first time a chamber of a state legislature approved legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana. However, the bill was stymied by a debate over taxation.
The prospects of a cannabis legalization bill passing in New Hampshire at some point in the future improved significantly as a result of the midterm election. Although prohibitionist governor Chris Sununu won re-election, New Hampshire’s Democratic party ousted some top cannabis reform detractors gaining control of both chambers of the state’s legislature.
State Sen. Gary Daniels, who voted against every cannabis reform bill during his stints in both the House and Senate was defeated by State Rep. Shannon Chandley, who is in favor of legalization. Chandley is a member of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
Additionally, State Sen. Kevin Avard, a prohibitionist who voted against a 2018 bill that would have allowed patients to grow their own cannabis, was replaced former Democratic representative Melanie Levesque. And Sen. Bill Gannon, who strongly opposed marijuana policy reforms throughout his time in the House and Senate was replaced by legalization supporter Jon Morgan.
Four consecutive University of New Hampshire polls have shown that over 60 percent of the state’s voters favor legalization. Look for a big push by legalization advocates in the coming year.
Vermont was the first U.S. state to legalize marijuana via an act of the legislature rather than a voter initiative. However, the measures did not put in place a regulated market. Still, the licensing and taxation of cannabis cultivation and sales are in the works.
In fact, the Governor's Subcommittee on Taxation and Regulation released the first draft of a 90-page report on the matter which includes an extensive plan. Among other matters, the report details the costs and impacts on various state agencies as well as revenue projections. The subcommittee estimates sales at between $53 million and $83 million.
The report outlines a plan to develop and launch a recreational marijuana market within 18-24 months putting a potential launch date somewhere in the neighborhood of the summer of 2020, give or take. Although Vermont is behind New Jersey in this effort, quick action by lawmakers in the state could make Vermont not only the first state to legalize marijuana by an act of the legislature, but also the first to create a regulated and taxed recreational marijuana market.
Bordering Massachusetts to the south, the effort to legalize cannabis in Connecticut has yet to develop any steam, but that’s not for lack of trying. Unlike Massachusetts, Connecticut does not have a mechanism to legalize marijuana with a ballot question. That leaves the issue up to state lawmakers. In a concerted effort to present a recreational marijuana bill to the House or Senate, four committees have taken on four separate bills each focused on a different aspect of legalization.
One of the four committees rejected a bill regulating marijuana. Two other committees have held votes on their respective bills. One bill made it out of committee and is headed to the full General Assembly for consideration. However, there is no indication the House or Senate will take up the issue.
Republican senator John Kissel is on three of the four committees and has publicly stated that he believes that when it comes to cannabis legislation there “isn’t a will in the legislature to move forward.” However, the official launch of recreational sales in Massachusetts all but assures that the issues will be getting more attention and focus in 2019. However, Gov.-elect Ned Lamont stated that legalization measures would be a priority for his incoming administration.
According to a Sacred Heart University poll done in October, 70 percent of Connecticut residents either “strongly” or “somewhat” support legalization.
Legalization seems imminent in Rhode Island. In June, the General Assembly voted to create a 19-member commission to conduct a comprehensive review of the potential impact of marijuana legalization on the state and is expected to issue a final report by March of 2019.
According to Matthew Schweich, deputy director for the Marijuana Policy Project and a member of the Regulate Rhode Island coalition, “It’s only a matter of time before more states in the region follow [Massachusetts’] lead.”
Schweich believes that it’s time for Rhode Island’s legislative leaders to allow a vote on the issue or forfeit significant economic opportunities including substantial tax revenue and good jobs to neighboring states.
More than one poll has shown that voters in Rhode Island are in favor of legalization measures.
New York, which covers Massachusetts’ eastern border, and which currently operates a limited medical cannabis program, is also on the brink of legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Earlier in 2018, New York governor Andrew Cuomo ordered a study to determine the potential benefits and consequences of legalizing marijuana. A panel created by Cuomo came back with positive recommendations.
Bolstered by the report, as well as widespread support for the idea among state lawmakers, State Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes proposed a comprehensive legalization bill which she expects will receive attention when the state legislature reconvenes in January of 2019.
In mid-November, members of the state Assembly gathered in Binghamton, New York to discuss the issue. The hearing featured testimony from law enforcement, public health experts and others on both sides of the debate.
In recent months, there’s been a notable surge in interest to expand the state’s marijuana reform efforts. Recently, the Health Department moved to allow medical marijuana use for conditions that are normally treated with opioids.
Also, last week, the state Department of Financial Services published a statement encouraging banks to do business with licensed cannabis businesses. Just recently, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered the NYPD to stop arresting people for smoking marijuana in public. And several borough district attorneys said they would stop prosecuting such cases.
Furthermore, during its May convention, the state’s Democratic Party adopted a resolution calling for full legalization and a reduction in arrests of minority residents, who are disproportionately affected by the enforcement of current marijuana laws.
A Quinnipiac University survey from early 2018 showed that nearly two-thirds of voters in the state are in favor of legalizing marijuana. Advocates of legalization are optimistic that a bill will be passed in 2019 in time to implement a statewide taxed and regulated market some time in 2020.
New Jersey, a state which currently has a working and growing medical marijuana program, has been inching toward recreational marijuana legalization in recent months. As this article is being written, the state’s legislature has unveiled a legalization bill entitled, “New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Aid Modernization Act.”
If a proposed legalization bill passes, New Jersey may beat Vermont to become the first state in the country to create an actual regulated marijuana market through an act of legislation. A companion bill is expected as well which will attempt to create a criminal record expungement process for low-level cannabis crimes.
New Jersey is a small state with big stakes. Experts estimate the combined medical and recreational cannabis market will be worth $1 billion a year and will create thousands of jobs and bring in millions in tax revenue. It could save the state $130 million a year on law enforcement and criminal justice costs associated with enforcing current marijuana laws.
The proposed legislation builds on the state’s existing medical marijuana program. Gov. Phil Murphy who made legalization a major plank in his platform had hoped to have legislation signed by the end of the summer, but votes have been delayed over unresolved taxation issues.
Still, advocates are optimistic that it’s only a matter of time before both sides come to an agreement and a recreational cannabis bill is passed in New Jersey.