With now 28 states and the Washington D.C. supporting legalization of medical and/or recreational marijuana, there should be an earnest sense of wrapping up loose ends on the east coast.
The reality is a little more complex, with a lot of moving parts.
D.C. has been a real driver of adult-use cannabis on the east coast as a result of the work of activists and a well-meaning but divided city council who responded to the will of voters and legalized adult use in 2015.
The medical marijuana initiative in D.C. was approved in 1998 but took 12 years to become law.
While D.C. was the first area (not a state but a district) to legalize on the east coast, rules regarding where to get and where to legally consume recreational cannabis are still a bit hazy, all as a result of a patchy network of rules created by city council members who fretted that D.C. would become a sort of wild west Amsterdam filled with narco-tourists, and the interference of Congress who continue to fight any further developments in the regulation and use of the still federally illegal substance.
Overall on the east coast, things are still a bit mired in either legislative tangles, or slowed by the new administration’s unclear message about federal interference in the industry.
But weighing heavily on the plus side, the east coast states with the biggest populations are in play.
New York’s legalized medical marijuana market has sputtered from the starting gate in early 2016, when eight dispensaries opened (20 are allowed statewide and currently operating, along with five manufacturing operations) serving just 51 qualified patients with a short list of conditions approved for treatment by medical marijuana.
Only patients with cancer, HIV, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, Huntington’s disease and Lou Gehrig’s disease can qualify.
The New York State Department of Health will be adding chronic pain to its list of qualifying conditions, and is discussing home delivery services.
But the health department is still working on getting enough patients, currently at 14,437 but originally estimated to be 200,000, and qualified doctors to make medical marijuana even remotely profitable. There are 892 registered practitioners for the program in New York.
New Jersey, with legalized medical marijuana since 2010, has citizens wary of Governor Chris Christie’s position that he will veto any adult use. Proponents like New Jersey Democratic State Senator Nicholas Scutari, who has sponsored a bill legalizing cannabis, is working with other lawmakers behind the scenes with the hope of making adult use legal once Christie leaves office in 2018. “I think we have an opportunity to build an entire economy or stimulate this economy by creating a new industry,” he said.
Pennsylvania approved medical marijuana in April, 2017 (Philadelphia decriminalized in 2014) and has a limited list of conditions for medical marijuana patients to qualify.
Applications for growers and processors are being accepted now, with total rollout of the program expected by early 2018. The Pennsylvania Department of Health will announce a first round of approvals of up to 12 grower/processor permits and 27 dispensary permits by this June. “When it comes to marijuana reform I don’t get anything but support,” Chris Goldstein with Philly NORML, said. “What is begrudging is public support. Behind the scenes, if I had a dollar for every politician or active duty cop who told me they hope that legalization happens I would be a millionaire today.”
The two biggest east coast states to legalize medical and recreational marijuana from November elections—Massachusetts (legalized medical use in 2012, recreational use in 2016) and Florida, created a sort of trifecta of U.S. power players in the legalization effort with California—a state that added adult use to their medical use program in November.
But the reality is that the Massachusetts lawmakers are far from settled on the terms of the voter-approved law. Comments by Senate President Stanley Rosenberg of adjusting the terms of the law have cannabis proponents worried. Legislators also want to delay the opening of commercial cannabis stores from January, 2018 to July, 2018. The Cannabis Control Commission, one of two oversight groups in the state created by the law, will not begin to accept retail licensing applications until October.
Florida has had a limited medical marijuana law in place since 2016, but voters approved expanding that law in November. Six new expansion and implementation plans have been introduced, and lawmakers are discussing those now in the Florida legislative session that began on March 7.
The actions in the District have helped ignite more work for legalization in Virginia and Maryland. Legalized medical marijuana has been on a bumpy path in Maryland, where an issue about including a more diverse dispensary owner base caused the state to reorganize their licensing rules. There is now a list of 15 finalists for grow licenses in the state.
Virginia has always been a tough sell for legalization, but recently took steps to decriminalize cannabis possession with the approval of Senate Bill 1091, which revises an existing rule that anyone convicted of possession would lose their driver’s license for six months. A more far-reaching bill to decriminalize possession faces review by the State Crime Commission, and is opposed by the Virginia State Police.
Other east coast states deepening their interests in the legalization game include Maine, where voters passed the referendum to legalize marijuana for adult use in November, and it went into effect in late January. The state had legalized medical marijuana in 1999.
The law is fairly detailed in what it covers, more in line with regulating like alcohol, and keeps the door open for the possibility of social clubs. Regulations are supposed to be in place by October. Governor Paul LePage, an opponent of legalization, continues to intervene in the process, signing a bill in late January that would delay the start of retail sales until February, 2018
Connecticut is beginning to more closely examine the economic benefits of cannabis as more states around it begin legalization activities, and legislators are getting busy. According to Connecticut NORML, lawmakers have scheduled a pair of hearings in March to debate the various legalization proposals.
There are currently two House bills and one Senate bill to regulate the personal use and retail sale of marijuana by adults in that state.
Some of the smaller players in the legalization movement on the east coast are now making some noise about what they want to do.
As of January, there are efforts underway in the Georgia legislature to create a medical marijuana program.
In Rhode Island, where medical marijuana has been legal since 2006, lawmakers are once again trying to legalize adult use—their seventh try in as many years.
New Hampshire continues to struggle with legalization, and has not even decriminalized possession after many tries.
In Delaware, Senate Majority Whip Margaret Rose Henry, who wrote the state’s medical marijuana legislation, introduced legislation early this year that legalizes and regulates adult use. The state decriminalized in December, 2015. Medical marijuana was legalized in 2011.
Other east coast states, like North and South Carolina, are still distancing themselves from the legalization fray, although North Carolina did recently allow farmers to legally grow hemp in that state for research and commerce purposes. And South Carolina’s lawmakers introduced a comprehensive medical marijuana bill on the first day of the 2017 legislative session.
So with the proverbial genie out of the bottle across the country, there is still some fear about the growth of legalized marijuana, especially in light of the recent comments from Attorney General Jeff Sessions that marijuana is “only slightly less awful” as heroin.
In mid-2016, Earl Blumenaur, the Democratic Oregon congressman who supports taxing and regulating marijuana, and who, along with Colorado Congressman Jared Polis, has introduced bills to make that happen, said that the movement to legalize marijuana crested in 2016. “The dominoes are starting to fall,” he said.