3 US States that are Preparing to Legalize Weed in 2020

We take a look at the US states most likely to legalize recreational cannabis in the coming year, along with the underdogs and unlikely contenders.

The cannabis legalization movement took several huge strides forward in the US during 2019, which saw Illinois introduce the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, while Michigan kicked off recreational weed sales and the US House of Representatives successfully passed the SAFE Banking Act.

And things are set to get even hotter in 2020, which is already shaping up to be a watershed year for global cannabis policy-reform.

Up to 10 US states will vote on the issue of cannabis legalization during the November ballot—for both medicinal and recreational use—while several others are expected to pass similar reforms at the legislative level.

Unfortunately, while several of these initiatives have a serious shot at passing—thanks to well-funded and expertly-organised grassroots campaigns—others have little hope due to their lack of resources and manpower.

However, it's important to remember that smaller campaigns can still pull off a stunning upset, such as when voters in North Dakota and Oklahoma voted to legalize medicinal marijuana in 2016 and 2018, respectively.

So with that in mind, we've put together a list of the three US states that are most likely to legalize cannabis in 2020.


New York

Although cannabis legalization suffered several setbacks in New York during 2019—such as the local government's decision to ban CBD edibles—the state almost ended up pushing through legislation that would have established a framework for the taxation and regulation of recreational cannabis.

And while things initially seemed hopeful, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act would eventually fail to pass after Governor Andrew Cuomo raised concerns about issues such as taxation and social equity.

The bill was co-sponsored by Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes and state Senator Liz Krueger, who said that Cuomo's opposition to the legislation was largely based on his desire to channel the tax revenue generated by cannabis sales into the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

I'm much more optimistic that the governor might be more interested in a taking a stab at it [cannabis legalization] again. I think that 2020 could be the year we get it done. New York State Senator, Liz Krueger

While the legislation's initial failure may seem discouraging, New York did take several positive steps forward during 2019, such as when it decided to introduce a new bill in July that further decriminalized cannabis. The decriminalization bill removed criminal penalties for possession of less than two ounces of marijuana, while also reducing the penalty for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana to a $50 fine.

Additionally, the bill also allowed individuals who have been convicted of marijuana offences to have their records expunged, which was intended to make marijuana policing "fairer and more equitable" according to Governor Cuomo.

"Communities of colour have been disproportionately impacted by laws governing marijuana for far too long, and today we are ending this injustice once and for all," he said.

"By providing individuals who have suffered the consequences of an unfair marijuana conviction with a path to have their records expunged and by reducing draconian penalties."

"We are taking a critical step forward in addressing a broken and discriminatory criminal justice process," Cuomo said.

While the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act failed to pass during 2019, the debate has managed to successfully lay the groundwork for future legalization efforts in the state.

Similarly, the decision to decriminalize marijuana in New York earlier this year is another important signal the state's legislature will be open to the possibility of further policy reform in the coming year.

As a result, we believe that it is highly likely that recreational cannabis use will be legalized in New York during 2020.    


Vermont

Vermont is another state to keep an eye on in 2020. In fact, one of the state's top elected officials, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, recently stated that there is enough multi-party support in her chamber to pass legislation that would tax and regulate recreational cannabis sales next year.

However, this should come as no surprise, as the Vermont state legislature already passed a bill to legalize cannabis back in 2018.

Unfortunately, the law only legalized the possession and home cultivation of cannabis plants, while commercial production and retail activities remained illegal in the state.

Given what I've heard from people, I believe there is a solid tri-partisan majority in the House that would like to see tax and regulate pass this year. I believe there is the will in the House to pass it this year. House Speaker, Mitzi Johnson

Legalization activists were initially hopeful that the situation would be addressed this year—after the Vermont Senate passed a bill aimed at taxing and regulating the commercial cannabis industry in February—but the legislation failed to make it to the House floor.  

The Vermont House Majority Leader, Jill Krowinski, stated that passing the bill would be a top priority for the state government during 2020.  

 "It [cannabis legalization] is a top priority for us to take it up in January," Krowinski said.

The announcement was welcomed by drug reform advocates such as attorney, Dave Silberman, who described the news as underscoring, "the importance of the work that the House Government Operations Committee has already done to address legislators' concerns about youth access to cannabis, traffic safety and environment protection."

"The legislature returns in early January, and I look forward to the bill being brought to a vote in short order," Silberman said.

While this may seem encouraging, there are still some hurdles for Vermont to overcome, such as the concerns raised by Governor Phil Scott, who stated that he will not support the bill until a plan is put in place to address any issues that may arise from individuals who are caught driving under the influence.

Conversely, the director of the Vermont Department of Health's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs, Cynthia Seivwright, recently told the media that regulating cannabis commerce would significantly improve public safety.

"Without the regulation, we don't know what's in it," Seivwright said

"We can't control the potency of it. We can't control the access, and we definitely don't want children and adolescents to have access to it. … We at the Health Department support a regulated system."


New Mexico

New Mexico is another contender to watch in in 2020, as cannabis legalization has the support of the state's Governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, who views it as a top priority.

The state previously attempted to get a recreational cannabis bill passed during the last legislative session, however the bill ultimately failed despite being passed by the New Mexico House.  

Luckily, the president of the New Mexico Senate, Howie Morales, has previously stated that he is open to the idea of recreational cannabis legalization.

We would tax it [cannabis] right, we would regulate it right, we would be cautious about the mistakes that other states have made. New Mexico Governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham

Meanwhile, Governor Lujan Grisham has also taken additional steps to ensure that the new version of the bill has a better shot at making it to the Senate floor. As part of this, she has established a Cannabis Working Group, which is focused on issues such as the development of a tax program for legal cannabis sales.    

 "It's a complicated piece of legislation, and I think it's going to be a tough piece of legislation to pass, but I committed to putting it on my call," Lujan Grisham said.

"I appointed members from every sector who have expertise in cannabis, including education and public safety, so that we know we're doing the right work with prevention, and that we would tax it right, we would regulate it right and be cautious about the mistakes that other states have made."

"You don't want to overprice it or overtax it because then you create a black market. That's exactly what we don't want, illegal drug sales anywhere in the state."

Research conducted by the Cannabis Working Group also uncovered data which suggests that up to 11,000 new jobs will be created if the state legalizes cannabis, while the combined tax revenue from medicinal and recreational sales could reach more than $100 million per year.     

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Governor Lujan Grisham has confirmed that she intends to have a policy-reform plan already in place before the government returns for its next 30-day legislative session in early January 2020, which means that New Mexico may become the next US state to legalize cannabis.

One of the members of the Albuquerque City Council, Pat Davis, believes that marijuana could even become "larger than most agricultural industries" in the state once recreational use is legalized.

"New Mexico is ready for this. We found that New Mexico has been doing this for 10 years already [with medical cannabis], and this is just a multiplier in terms of regulation and infrastructure.

"This is a real opportunity," Davis said.

The bill is also likely to receive strong bipartisan support from the general public, as a recent survey found that up to 75 percent of New Mexico voters are in favour of legalizing cannabis. The same study—which was conducted by Change Research—found that almost 50% of voters knew someone that wants to work in the legal cannabis industry.


Yes We Cannabis

Although Vermont, New York, and New Mexico are three states most likely to introduce recreational cannabis in 2020, that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the US legalization movement.

For instance, the Governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo, has confirmed she will launch another attempt to legalize recreational cannabis in the state in 2020, after a previous initiative was defeated earlier this year.

"Last year we made a step forward with more medical [cannabis] and I think the next logical step is adult use," Raimondo said.

Similarly, both the Governor of Connecticut, Ned Lamont, and the Governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, have publicly come out in support of plans to tax and regulate the adult-use cannabis industry, however it is still unclear if either state will be able to successfully push a legalization bill through the legislature during 2020.

Several states are also set to vote on cannabis legalization at the ballet box in November this year, such as Arizona, which is leading the charge with its Smart and Safe Arizona campaign. And while a similar ballot initiative was rejected in 2016, the neighbouring states of California and Nevada now both allow for recreational use, which is likely to have a legitimising effect in the minds of Arizona voters.

Residents of New Jersey will also get to vote on recreational legalization later this year thanks to a "legislatively referred constitutional amendment", which means it will be automatically added to the November vote without the need for a signature-gathering campaign.

Pro-reform lawmakers in Florida and Montana are currently campaigning to get recreational legalization put on the November ballot as well, though a lack of strong public support in both states may make this an uphill battle.

With three states on the verge of legalizing recreational use—and seven more also considering the issue—it looks like 2020 could be the biggest year for cannabis yet.

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Hugo Gray
Hugo Gray

Hugo Gray is a Melbourne-based journalist with a body of work that covers a diverse range of topics, including immigration law, sex technology, and now the rapidly expanding cannabis industry.

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