Midterm elections and marijuana: Part II, US governors’ races
Part II of Pot Network’s look at some of the dynamics of the midterm election as they relate to the legalization of marijuana. Today we’ll take a look at how the gubernatorial races are shaping up and why the results matter as much or more as those of ballot initiatives.
Arguably, the most influential political post in U.S. politics when it comes to marijuana reforms is state governor. Regardless of voter initiatives or legislative action, a governor’s stance on the issue can make or break cannabis-related legislation. And this year’s gubernatorial elections will play a big role in the progression of cannabis reform in a number of states.
There are 36 governors' races this year. Incumbents in 26 states are Republicans. Nine are headed by Democrats, with one independent governor in Alaska.
Why Governor Races Matter, a Lot
To illustrate the point of how powerful a force a governor can be one need only look at states such as Maine, Vermont, Hawaii, and even California where governors have applied substantial friction to cannabis reform by vetoing hard-won legislation.
In Maine, Governor LePage, a staunch opponent of marijuana, vetoed legislation that would have added a recreational cannabis program to the state’s medical program. LePage took issue with the whole idea of the state operating two different marijuana programs with different tax rates and different rules. On a much more overarching concern, LePage also said in his veto letter that he could not “in good conscience” support a law that violates federal law.
In May of 2017, Vermont, Governor Phil Scott (R) vetoed legislation that would have legalized marijuana for recreational use. In a press conference, Scott iterated that he is not strictly opposed to legalization, and would welcome working with the legislature to make changes to the bill. A partially reengineered bill was signed by Scott in early 2018 making Vermont the first state in the U.S. to legalize recreational marijuana by an act of a state legislature. The measure does not create a regulated and taxed market. However, the state’s legislature is expected to develop a system in the not-too-distant future. As with Maine, had the state been led by a pro-cannabis governor, perhaps a system would already be in place.
In New Jersey, former Governor Chris Christie (R) has been staunchly opposed to cannabis reform. The state’s medical marijuana patient count has soared since the state’s new governor, Phil Murphy (D) began working to expand an existing medical marijuana program. Murphy has also been instrumental in pushing lawmakers to develop an adult-use program. Lawmakers were expecting to take a vote on the new legislation at the end of October, but being shy of the required support, the vote was delayed, and the governor was called in to help sway the issue. Had Murphy lost the election the state would be nowhere near as close to having a recreational cannabis program as it is today.
Just recently, in Colorado, citing health and safety concerns, Governor John Hickenlooper (R) vetoed a progressive bill that would have provided for the licensing of marijuana “tasting rooms” in Colorado.
And in one of the country’s most progressive states when it comes to marijuana, California Governor Jerry Brown (D) vetoed multiple cannabis-related measures including a bill granting financial leeway to cultivators, and another that would give students the right to use medical marijuana in the state’s public schools.
And, finally, in Hawaii, back in July of 2018, Governor David Ige vetoed a number of bills which would have allowed the use of medical marijuana as a substitute for opioids.
Although cannabis is quickly becoming a bipartisan issue, it’s Democrats who have, en masse, taken up the mantle of ending prohibition and earning states the right to regulate cannabis free of federal interference. However, more and more prominent Republicans are joining the chorus of governors and Washington lawmakers advocating for cannabis reforms.
Interestingly, the issue of legal cannabis puts Republican candidates in a Catch 22 situation. In some cases, in order to appeal to their conservative base, Republican candidates must express opposition to cannabis reform. But by doing so, they might very well be taking the less popular side of the issue causing some voter churn in independents who might otherwise vote red.
So, yes. The governor’s races matter. A lot.
Governor’s races that matter for marijuana in 2018
With 36 governorships at stake, as you can imagine, there are numerous races which bode well — or not — for cannabis reform progress. Here are previews of some of the more interesting races.
In Connecticut, Democrat Ned Lamont is in favor of legalizing adult-use marijuana while his Republican opponent, Bob Stefanowski is opposed. During an election debate, Lamont stated, “[marijuana] is another source of revenue for the state. All of our neighbors have legalized marijuana.” Estimates put tax revenue from recreational marijuana in Connecticut at over $30 million in the first year alone.
Independent candidate Oz Griebel is also in favor of legalization. Although Republican candidate Bob Stefanowski is not opposed to debating the issue, he says cannabis reform is certainly not a priority.
In 2016, in a state where razor-thin electoral margins are common, more than 71 percent of Florida voters backed a measure that broadly expanded the states limited medical marijuana program. But sitting Governor Rick Scott has been less than enthusiastic about the implementing the will of the voters.
It has been two years since the passage of Amendment 2, and Scott's administration is still fighting in court to block attempts to give medical patients the right to use smokable forms of marijuana.
Scott is on his way out, and the competitors stand on opposite sides of the issue.
Gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum (D) has expressed willingness to legislate an adult-use marijuana market in the state. Democratic candidates for key positions such as attorney general and agriculture commissioner are also calling for the full legalization of marijuana for adults.
Republican Ron DeSantis, although he is not in favor of legal recreational cannabis says he plans to "implement the will of the voters."
The race is currently in a statistical dead heat.
In Illinois, almost two-thirds of voters support legalization. Illinois has allowed the medical use of cannabis since 2015. However, the law is one of the strictest of its kind in the nation.
In the state of Illinois, because there is no provision for binding referendums, it’s completely up to lawmakers to implement cannabis policy reforms.
Hotel magnate J.B. Pritzker (D), a proponent of adult-use marijuana, has a double-digit lead over incumbent Governor Bruce Rauner who has said publicly that he’s “very much opposed” to legal marijuana.
If Illinois were to legalize marijuana, it would create one of the largest cannabis markets in the nation. Pritsker claims that taxes on legal cannabis sales could generate $350 million to $700 million in annual taxes.
Pritsker has also made an issue of racial justice and says he intends to ensure that minorities are heavily involved in the new industry.
Libertarian candidate Kash Jackson is not only in favor of legalizing marijuana, but also wants to see anyone with non-violent cannabis convictions pardoned.
On a side note, this past August, incumbent Governor Rauner signed a bill which allows the use of marijuana in place of prescription opioids and eliminated fingerprinting and background checks for patients.
In Michigan, Republican Governor Rick Snyder has reached his term limit. Gretchen Whitmer (D), the former Senate minority leader who beat a progressive Bernie Sanders-style challenger in the Democratic primary, enjoys a comfortable lead over her opponent, sitting Attorney General Bill Schuette (R).
Marijuana is already legal in Michigan for medicinal use. Although we’ll cover state initiatives in greater detail tomorrow, ballot Proposal 1, should it pass, would legalize marijuana for adult recreational use and provide for the regulation and taxation of production and sales.
If an adult-use initiative which made it onto this year’s ballot passes, as is expected, frontrunner Whitmer will be fully on board in implementing the measure.
Other governors’ races that matter
In New Mexico, sitting governor, Susana Martinez, has resisted expanding the state’s medical program. Gubernatorial candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) advocates legalizing adult-use marijuana. Challenger Steve Pearce (R) is opposed. According to polls, voters are leaning Democrat in this race.
In Maine, Democrat Janet Mills favors legal marijuana but would like to see changes in the voter-approved law. Republican Shawn Moody is opposed to marijuana. The Maine gubernatorial race is currently a toss-up.
In Maryland, Front-runner Larry Hogan ®, who enjoys a comfortable lead, is willing to consider proposals for legalization, while his opponent Ben Jealous is in favor of legal marijuana.
In Minnesota, both candidates are in favor of adult use measures. Democrat Tim Walz has a slight advantage over Republican Jeff Johnson.
In Ohio, another toss-up state, Richard Cordray (D) says he will support the will of the voters on the matter, while Mike DeWine (R) opposes legal cannabis.
In Wisconsin, cannabis reform supporter Tony Evers (D) is challenging incumbent, Republican Scott Walker who is opposed. Wisconsin is also a toss-up.
Tomorrow we’ll take a look at how things are shaking out for the major ballot initiatives appearing on midterm ballots in Michigan, North Dakota, Utah, and Missouri.