Since the beginning of 2023, five new recreational markets have launched, including New York, Missouri and Maryland, where sales began on Saturday. Those states alone added 37 million people to the legal weed column.
But that’s left plenty of holdouts — overwhelmingly in more conservative territory, particularly in the deep South. And there are increasing signs of a legalization backlash in deep red America: Voters in four states — Arkansas, Oklahoma, North Dakota and South Dakota — have rejected adult-use referendums in the last nine months. Every county in Oklahoma voted against a March referendum that would have legalized possession and sales for adults.
“The lower hanging fruit are increasingly picked,” said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at legalization advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project. “It’s going to require moving into states that are in many respects more challenging.”
Here’s a look at this year’s legalization action and what potentially lies ahead:
Adults lined up to buy legal weed on July 1, less than two months after lawmakers sent Democratic Gov. Wes Moore legislation establishing a recreational market. The state sold nearly $10.5 million worth of weed during its first weekend of sales. Making such a tight deadline to launch sales was a feat in itself, in part spurred by policymakers’ concerns that an illicit market could become more entrenched if the rollout took longer. That meant allowing existing medical marijuana operators to be the first to serve the adult-use market, which could make it more difficult for social equity applicants — entrepreneurs from marginalized groups who are prioritized for licensing — to break in when the state issues additional licenses in January.
Lawmakers are sure to return to the issue in next year’s legislative session. Democratic state Sen. Jill Carter — a key legalization advocate — praised a provision that would direct 35 percent of cannabis tax revenues to a fund for community reinvestment for areas that were disproportionately impacted by marijuana enforcement. But she’s concerned that the bill does not get rid of criminal penalties for distribution, nor does it provide a pathway for unlicensed weed sellers to get into the regulated industry.
“They need us to be intentional about bringing them into the fold,” Carter said.
Minnesota has forged its own unique legalization path. The state enacted a medical program in 2014, but didn’t allow smokable flower products to be sold until 2022. Then last July, the state legalized low-potency, hemp-derived beverages and edibles. The launch of that market sparked a boomlet of new cannabis businesses, but also raised public health concerns due to the lack of licensing and testing requirements.
Democrats won full control of the legislature in November, opening a pathway to full legalization. In May, a bill legalizing possession and sales for adults cleared both chambers — by just one vote in the Senate.
“We successfully avoided some of the pitfalls that in other states have led to the continuation of the illicit marketplace,” said Democratic state Rep. Zack Stephenson, the chief sponsor of the House bill, citing lower taxes and tough penalties for illicit sales as two important elements. “We created a lot of incentives to participate in the fully regulated marketplace.”
The recreational market isn’t expected to launch until 2025, although Democratic Gov. Tim Walz has suggested that Native American tribes could start adult-use sales much earlier.
For the past five years, Democratic state Rep. Ed Osienski has been trying to legalize adult-use cannabis in the First State. This year, the indefatigable legalization advocate managed to shepherd a pair of cannabis bills to Democratic Gov. John Carney‘s desk in March: one to legalize marijuana possession for adults and another to set up a regulated market.
While Carney remains opposed to legalization — he vetoed one of Osienski’s bills last year — the governor allowed the bills to become law without his signature.
“My views on this issue have not changed,” Carney said in a statement. “I believe we’ve spent far too much time focused on this issue. … It’s time to move on.”
The licensing process for the adult-use market will begin in the summer of 2024.
Lawmakers overwhelmingly passed legislation in March establishing a medical program after years of failed efforts. The stumbling block had long been the Senate, but both GOP-led chambers backed the bill this year by two-to-one margins. The bill was strongly supported by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who previously issued an executive order legalizing marijuana possession for medical purposes.
However, Kentucky’s program will include some significant restrictions: home cultivation and smokable products won’t be permitted, and there will be potency caps on all products. The program isn’t expected to launch until 2025.
“The legislation is not going to allow the industry to flourish as it should,” said C.J. Carter, director of the Kentucky chapter of Minorities for Medical Marijuana.
Legislation still alive
A familiar story played out this legislative session in New Hampshire: the House passed an adult-use legalization bill, only for the proposal to die in the Senate in May.
Sununu’s newfound support for a marijuana monopoly model spurred lawmakers in the House to briefly consider attaching such a proposal to separate legislation. Though that effort ultimately did not go anywhere, lawmakers ended up sending a bill to Sununu’s desk last week that would create a commission to study state-controlled cannabis sales. The commission is tasked with producing a report that proposes legislation by Dec. 1.
A bill to legalize medical marijuana is stuck in the North Carolina House. The bill passed the state Senate by a vote of 36-10 earlier this year — as it did last year — and now is running into procedural hurdles in the House.
House Speaker Tim Moore (R) told local news that he won’t bring the bill to the floor until a majority of Republican lawmakers say they’ll vote yes, something he says he does with every bill. Senate Rules Committee Chairman Bill Rabon (R) — the lead sponsor of the legislation — in retaliation added an amendment to an unrelated bill not allowing it to become law unless the medical marijuana legislation is also enacted.
If the bill can make it through the House, it will likely be signed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who supports medical marijuana legalization.
Connecticut launched recreational weed sales in January after legalization was approved in 2021. Existing medical marijuana dispensaries were the first to be able to serve customers over age 21, while social equity businesses were able to follow soon after through partnerships and joint ventures with established businesses.
Before the adult-use market could launch, Connecticut’s law required that there be a total of at least 250,000 square feet of approved grow space to ensure medical marijuana patients would have enough supply. Adult-use cannabis sales have been growing every month, while medical marijuana sales started falling in March. The state saw nearly $23 million in cannabis sales in May.
Missouri’s new adult-use marijuana market is off to a robust start, with sales skyrocketing after the launch in February. The state surpassed $1 billion in marijuana sale this May.
The state also saw a 350 percent increase in cannabis industry jobs over the past year, surpassing all other state markets in job growth, according to a recent report from cannabis recruitment firm Vangst.
However, Missouri has not yet awarded microbusiness licenses, which were included in the legalization framework as a way to help small entrepreneurs and people harmed by disproportionate drug enforcement. The framework faced criticism from grassroots advocates during the legalization campaign because it bars microbusiness licensees from doing business with other licensees.
The Magnolia State’s much-anticipated medical market launched in late January. The relatively wide-open licensing rules have enticed lots of weed entrepreneurs to set up shop. More than 300 businesses have received licenses, including roughly 180 dispensaries.
But those businesses will be competing for a pretty small group of customers, owing to relatively stringent enrollment rules.
Lawmakers made changes to the program this year in hopes of making it easier to enroll. Among the adjustments: The Mississippi Department of Health will only have 10 days to approve a patient’s application, down from 30 days previously; and health care providers will be permitted to assist their patients in filling out the necessary paperwork to get a medical card.
Alabama is still working on implementing its medical program after lawmakers passed a bill to legalize medical cannabis last year. The state has the distinction of offering the most difficult application process of any state, according to industry officials with experience applying for licenses in restrictive medical programs.
As has become expected in any merit-based, limited license cannabis program, regulators have run up against legal challenges from applicants who lost out on the potentially lucrative licenses. It’s unclear whether the program will be able to launch sales by the end of the year as expected, after a judge enjoined state regulators from issuing final licenses amid litigation.
Potential future referendums
All eyes will be on the Sunshine State in 2024. Florida already has the largest medical program in the country, with more than 830,000 patients enrolled and nearly 600 dispensaries statewide.
An effort to put a recreational use referendum on the ballot next year is being almost entirely bankrolled by Trulieve, the state’s largest cannabis operator. If successful, it could have significant political ramifications for next year’s presidential election as well, potentially reshaping turnout in a massive state that’s always crucial in national votes.
The legalization campaign has already collected in excess of 1 million signatures, surpassing the threshold needed to make the ballot. But Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody has asked the state Supreme Court to reject the legalization petition, arguing that it misleads voters in several ways, including by failing to point out that the drug remains illegal at the federal level.
The Buckeye State has two potential avenues to legalize adult-use marijuana: Voters could have a chance to weigh in on a ballot initiative in November, or the state legislature could pass a bill. But legalization bills have gone nowhere in previous sessions, and a ballot initiative was rejected by voters in 2015.
Still, things have changed since then.
For one, the group leading the push — the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol — has learned from the failed 2015 initiative, which proposed a marijuana monopoly of 10 cultivation licenses for the campaign’s wealthy backers. This year’s initiative does not create a monopoly and would impose a relatively low 10 percent tax rate on adult-use sales. The campaign expects to turn in more than enough signatures to make the November ballot on July 5.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan pair of lawmakers introduced a bill to legalize recreational marijuana, which could serve as another avenue for legalization if the ballot initiative does not succeed.
Advocates are aiming to get adult-use marijuana on the ballot in South Dakota in 2024, after a question failed at the polls in 2022. They’re also working to get medical marijuana questions before voters in Nebraska, Idaho and Wyoming — the latter two states could also see decriminalization initiatives at the ballot box in 2024.
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