Washington state lawmakers have once again tabled a bill that would have allowed residents to grow cannabis at home. Despite early momentum for the measure, House Bill 1019 didn’t make it past a key mid-session deadline to pass out of its house of origin.
The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Shelley Kloba, said lawmakers have four areas of focus this session: COVID-19, economic relief, racial equity, and climate change. “HB 1019 did not fit neatly into one of these four categories and was not considered a high enough priority to consider in a year where we are hearing less legislation as a result of the pandemic,” Kloba wrote in a statement to Cannabis Wire.
Washington was one of the first two states where voters passed ballot box initiatives to legalize cannabis for adults. Since then, 13 states and the District of Columbia have followed suit, either by ballot or bill. Washington was an early outlier in excluding home grows, and most adult use states allow for the residential cultivation of a limited number of plants by adults 21 and over. But, as legislatures increasingly take up legalization – including solely to get out ahead of voters – at-home cultivation has emerged as a contentious issue.
The Washington bill would have allowed residents to grow up to six plants at home. At a hearing in the Commission on Commerce and Gaming on January 15, supporters cited the experience of other states.
Former Boulder County, Colorado district attorney Stan Garnett said at the hearing that home grows hadn’t overburdened his office. He noted that, over time, enforcement of the statute had become complaint driven, rather than initiated by law enforcement.
“It’s like having neighbors whose dogs bark all the time, where somebody is bothering people and it’s a concern,” Garnett said. “Not so much a law enforcement concern as it may be a zoning or planning department concern.”
However, law enforcement in Washington expressed opposition. James McMahan, policy director for the Washington Association of Police Chiefs, pointed to public safety concerns that home-grown cannabis might be diverted to the illicit market. He said police couldn’t enforce this law with their current resources.
“Many of the restrictions and limitations in this bill are things that would only be known if our officers were inside the home,” McMahan said at the hearing.
McMahan added that the Washington Association of Police Chiefs was encouraged by the bill’s provisions to keep plants out of public sight and their smells contained, but those aspects weren’t enough to gain the group’s support.
Alison Holcomb, political director for ACLU Washington and architect of the 2012 initiative that legalized adult use, said a bill to legalize home cultivation was long overdue. She disagreed that infractions related to smell and visible plants were necessary.
“We always have concerns about the risk of racial bias and wealth disparities skewing enforcement patterns and outcomes,” Holcomb told Cannabis Wire.
The Commission on Commerce and Gaming passed it with a vote of 7-2. It received a public hearing in the House Committee on Appropriations on February 9 but ultimately died there.
Opposition to home cultivation in Washington sheds light onto the trepidation in other states considering home-grown cannabis. The Washington Association of Police Chiefs believes it’s “inconsistent and contrary to” the reason why voters approved adult use, which was to create a regulated market for the plant. Plants grown in households would be out of view from state regulators.
Lawmakers and regulators in states across the country are preparing to implement adult use initiatives passed by voters in 2020, or to pass legalization bills in current sessions. As Cannabis Wire reported, home-grow was an early point of contention in Virginia’s legalization effort this year. Lawmakers were concerned about apartment units and potential for fires and other hazards. Ultimately, they decided to allow home grown cannabis, but not until 2024 to coincide with legal sales. The bill awaits Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan for legalization does not include home cultivation, though, as Cannabis Wire has reported, lawmakers’ own adult use bill does. In neighboring Connecticut, Governor Ned Lamont’s legalization bill also does not include home cultivation, which has emerged as an early sticking point as some lawmakers and advocates push for inclusion.
Amid delicate negotiations, some advocates and lawmakers would rather not sink legislation over the issue.
In New Mexico, legalization measures have been introduced in both the House and Senate. In the House, the two bills differed on home cultivation. HB 17 excluded it, while HB 12 would allow residents to grow up to six plants in their homes. On February 26, the House advanced HB 12 on to the Senate.
Before the session began, Ben Lewinger, executive director of the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, said he believes the state’s prospects of joining the growing club of adult use cannabis states are good. “Even if the legislation that ends up getting the most traction doesn’t include home grow, the fact that it’s not in there is not a reason just to throw out the baby with the bath water,” Lewinger told Cannabis Wire.
Momentum for legalization is building in Rhode Island, too. Former Gov. Gina Raimondo, now the commerce secretary for the Biden administration, included legalization in her budget last year, but it didn’t make it through. Her predecessor, former Lt Gov. Daniel McKee, has also backed legalization.
State Senator Joshua Miller, who has been working on legalization in the legislature, said he and his colleagues are using Massachusetts as a model for their legislation. Massachusetts allows up to six plants per person. Legalization measures are expected to be introduced any day now.
New Jersey voters approved adult use cannabis in 2020, passing it on to lawmakers to develop a regulatory framework for the new market. Home cultivation was excluded. Nick Etten, a member of the New Jersey Cannabis Trade Association and vice president of government affairs for Acreage Holdings, doesn’t believe the ban will last.
“States will tend to try to maintain as much control as they can at the outset to ensure that they are minimizing any risks that they perceive,” Etten told Cannabis Wire.
While some industry players don’t support home growing because they believe it could cut into sales, Etten looks at it like brewing beer in the garage – which is legal, advocates of growing at home are quick to point out. He said cannabis isn’t easy to grow, so the chances of a few plants in someone’s house hurting profits is unlikely.
“I think when hobbyists grow, they can geek out on it and really enjoy it, and others will find that they enjoy it for a period of time but they don’t have as much time to invest,” Etten said. “So then they’ll come back to a retail outlet and buy it there.”
Back in Washington, the state’s example could be instructive: If cannabis cultivation for adults isn’t included in the initial push for legalization, it might be years before home growers’ gardens begin to sprout.