Batter Up: The Next States to Legalize

More than a dozen states could seriously weigh medical, recreational marijuana measures next year

by John Schroyer

Hold on to your seats – 2016 is going to be a wild ride.

This year could prove to be a banner one for the marijuana industry’s expansion on both the medical and recreational fronts. Roughly 14 states could legalize MMJ, adult-use cannabis or possibly both, either at the ballot box or through state legislatures.

No other single year has seen such incredible promise in terms of the sheer volume of states that could legalize, thanks to other pioneering marijuana states and growing support for cannabis in general. The movement has gotten so big that it’s become a recurring topic in the presidential race, with most candidates being forced to stake out a position on marijuana.

Here’s a cursory roundup of which states may end up taking action, and how. There may very well be additional states that jump into the conversation as the year progresses, while others might enact further reforms (such as legislatures revamping CBD-only programs into full-scale MMJ systems).

Arizona

Home to a thriving medical cannabis industry already, Arizona is a prime target for advocates. A ballot initiative campaign has been underway since early 2015, backed by the Marijuana Policy Project. As of early December, the campaign had collected nearly a third of the 230,000 signatures it needs to get the initiative in front of voters this fall.

Most observers say the Arizona measure is a shoo-in for the ballot. But whether it will pass is more uncertain, as polling in 2015 showed only a slight majority of voters backing the idea. Additionally, medical cannabis legalization passed by an unbelievably slim margin in 2010, and recreational marijuana is much more controversial. So Arizona may be still a coin toss.

California

This is the big fish. Home to roughly 39 million people and the largest MMJ industry in the country, California is a ripe market for recreational cannabis. The state could easily generate billions of dollars in sales if adult-use cannabis passes.

That said, California already failed to legalize rec once already, back in 2010, and many fear that could happen again despite changing attitudes on cannabis. At one point there were two leading contenders for the ballot. But as of press time, one of them – led by Oaksterdam University’s Dale Sky Jones – appeared ready to throw in the towel. The other major legalization effort is led by billionaire Sean Parker. That measure has strong support from several influential cannabis-related advocacy and industry groups. If legalization supporters rally around Parker’s initiative, there’s a strong chance it will pass in the fall.

Polling backs that viewpoint up: As of June 2015, just 54% of California voters supported legalization. That’s not exactly a comfortable margin even with just one measure on the ballot, let alone two. Regardless, many advocates expect the state to pass rec legalization.

Florida

Considered a leading contender to legalize medical cannabis this year, Florida promises to be an expensive but energetic campaign.

Led by the colorful Orlando trial attorney John Morgan (also listed in our “People to Watch” feature), the campaign nearly succeeded in passing MMJ legalization at the ballot box in 2014. The measure gained 57.5% of the vote, coming in just short of the 60% needed.

This year could be much different. With turnout in the presidential election expected to be much higher than it was in 2014, and with a vast majority of voters in the state saying they support legalizing MMJ, Florida seems set to legalize medical cannabis. If that happens, Florida could become the second-largest MMJ market behind California, and there will likely be a host of business opportunities for cannabis entrepreneurs.

Kentucky

The Kentucky Legislature legalized CBD oil in 2015, and advocates believe lawmakers are poised to push through a broader medical cannabis system in 2016. If that happens, it could beat Florida to the punch as the first southern state to join the MMJ fold.

Medical cannabis was a hot topic during the 2015 gubernatorial campaign, and the new Republican governor has already gone on the record saying there is “unequivocal medical evidence” that cannabis benefits many patients, especially those with cancer and epilepsy. The speaker of the state House of Representatives is also already reportedly on board with MMJ.

Maine

The northeastern-most state in the country is among the low-hanging fruit for recreational legalization advocates, with a 2015 poll putting support at roughly 65%. At one point it looked as though there might be two competing campaigns – with MPP on one side and a grassroots group on the other – but the two united in October, giving rec a much better chance to succeed.

Maine wouldn’t be the biggest cannabis market in the country, but it would be yet another feather in the cap for the legalization movement in general and a step forward for the industry as a whole.

Massachusetts

This one could be a tough nut to crack. There will almost certainly be at least one attempt in the legislature to legalize rec by a group of pro-cannabis lawmakers, but Gov. Charlie Baker has said he “vigorously” opposes such a move, so that will likely be a dead end.

The other possibility is a ballot initiative, and as of press time, it looks as though only one of two competing campaigns gathered enough signatures to make the 2016 ballot: the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which is backed by MPP. But polling in the state indicates that the campaign will have its work cut out for it, with support for rec legalization over the last two years fluctuating between the low 50s and mid 40s.

Michigan

Michigan has a good shot at legalizing recreational legalization at the ballot this year. A poll conducted last summer found support for legalization at 56% and opposition at just 36%. But again, the recurring question is whether or not cannabis advocates can unite under a single proposal. As of late 2015, there were still at least two differing camps working on their own initiatives.

The campaign also comes at a time when the legislature is attempting to finally approve some sort of MMJ industry regulations that would cover the entire state, since dispensaries in Michigan are still technically illegal and operate only under the good graces of towns or counties. So the legalization campaign could push lawmakers to finally take action, in the same way the anticipated rec campaign in California persuaded legislators in 2015 to approve statewide MMJ rules.

Missouri

Another possible, though perhaps unlikely, target for legalizing MMJ at the ballot box this year is Missouri, where advocates are attempting to do just that. While most national marijuana groups haven’t paid much attention to the state – there hasn’t even been any scientific polling to gauge support levels for medical marijuana – informal news organization polling has seen overwhelmingly positive results in favor of legalizing MMJ.

The legalization campaign also in September announced the hiring of a veteran political operative to spearhead the effort, which it said it hopes will revitalize its efforts. Missouri is another state with a working CBD program, even though it requires two licensed cultivators to use industrial hemp instead of marijuana. So voters there could be ready for MMJ.

Nebraska

Nebraska could be a dark horse on the legalization front this year, and it’s another state that MPP has its eyes on. The legislature there has already approved a medical cannabis bill twice in the past, and the key for the coming year is whether or not advocates will be able to flip two more state senators to get a veto-proof majority to override Gov. Pete Ricketts.

The bottom line in Nebraska is that medical cannabis is still far from a done deal, but there’s a decent chance that it’ll happen this coming year. It likely wouldn’t be a huge market from a business perspective, but it would push the legalization movement forward in general.

Nevada

Like Maine, Nevada is considered an easy target for recreational legalization. The home of Sin City is already catering expressly to out-of-state MMJ patients with a policy that lets medical marijuana cardholders from other states purchase cannabis while visiting Nevada. And several public officials, including Nevada Congresswoman Dina Titus (who even delivered welcoming remarks at the 2015 Marijuana Business Conference and Expo in Las Vegas), have gotten behind the cannabis industry in general, viewing it as an economic boon and a draw for tourists.

The campaign has even already qualified for the 2016 ballot, so one thing is for certain: voters will get to have their say.

Ohio

Marijuana legalization might be back on the ballot this year after an ill-fated attempt in 2015 that failed by a huge margin. But legalization efforts already face some headwinds, it seems.

For one thing, there are two competing campaigns – Ohioans to End Prohibition and ResponsibleOhio (which ran the 2015 ballot initiative) – and it’s not clear if either will have the resources necessary to run a full-scale statewide campaign in a presidential year. At the same time, both are attempting to legalize medical and recreational cannabis with a single measure, which hasn’t been done yet. While polls have consistently found overwhelming support for MMJ, backing for rec is much more tepid, meaning that combining the two is a major gamble. Should either make the ballot and pass, it would represent a huge new market for the industry and create thousands of business opportunities.

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania lawmakers went back and forth for months in 2015 on more than one MMJ legalization bill, with most officials – including the governor – eager to legalize. But some anti-cannabis lawmakers in key positions were able to hold up the process with a variety of legislative maneuvers, including bottling up a MMJ bill in committee for months.

Still, some activists think 2015 set the stage and that a growing number of lawmakers now realize how much public support is behind medical marijuana, which means 2016 could see Pennsylvania join the cannabis club.

Rhode Island

One of just two states that advocates believe could legalize recreational cannabis via the legislature in 2016, Rhode Island has a good chance of pushing something through this year. In 2015, a bill was introduced in the legislature to legalize rec, but the session adjourned without seeing a vote on the measure. Backers believe it will return this year, giving Rhode Island a chance to become the first state east of Colorado to legalize recreational marijuana. Although Rhode Island is tiny, it is well-positioned to attract marijuana users from across the East Coast. That means the market could be sizable, especially if no other states in the region legalize rec.

Vermont

Similar to Rhode Island, Vermont saw the introduction of a recreational marijuana legalization bill in the legislature last year. It didn’t get much attention, but one of the measure’s key sponsors has already said he intends to resurrect the issue. Gov. Peter Shumlin has also voiced support for legalizing recreational marijuana. The local market for recreational cannabis would likely be somewhat small – especially compared to states like Colorado. But the industry could draw lots of customers from nearby states without rec laws.