There was a definitive trend among the states where adult use legalization bills passed this year: all four had top-down support from their governors. And, in all four of these states, the efforts were years in the making.
In New York, for example, Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Sen. Liz Krueger pushed legalization for nearly a decade. And, while their proposal ultimately passed, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced legalization through his budget plan for three years, including this year.
When a legalization push ran out of time in New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called for the special session during which lawmakers got the legislation over the finish line.
“Rushing through amendments in the final hours of a session, when there’s a mountain of other very important work to be done, is not the right way to do something of this magnitude,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement ahead of the special session. But, she continued, “we are very close. And we will finish the job.”
It was far from Lujan-Grisham’s first vote of support for legalization. Back in January 2020, Lujan-Grisham urged lawmakers to take up legalization in her State of the State address, saying, “For years now, the legislature has heard and debated recreational cannabis proposals. We’ve watched states come before us, we’ve watched them stumble in some areas, thrive in others, and every year we’ve said, ‘No, not yet, it’s not for us.’ Well, it’s easy to get to ‘no.’ It’s harder to stand up and create something good and new. And we’re ready for that.”
And in Virginia, where lawmakers made waves in April when they passed the South’s first legalization bill, adult use conversations began in 2019. Attorney General Mark Herring laid that groundwork that year when he hosted a day-long cannabis summit in Richmond, Virginia, during which stakeholders discussed topics like social equity, law enforcement, and hemp. Gov. Ralph Northam then formally called for legalization last December during his budget announcements.
And in Connecticut, lawmakers passed an adult use legalization bill during a special session in June, after running out of time by the end of the legislative session. Gov. Ned Lamont’s support for legalization has been clear for years. Lamont attended Cuomo’s 2019 Regional Cannabis Regulation and Vaping Summit, during which elected officials discussed how northeastern states could take a “regional approach” to legalization. Lamont doubled down in his 2020 State of the State speech, saying that Connecticut officials were working with “our neighboring states as we consider regulating marijuana for adult use.”
One major effort in the northeast is hanging in the balance until this fall. In June, the Rhode Island Senate passed a legalization bill by a 29-9 vote. This legislative session, there were three competing proposals at play in Rhode Island: one from Gov. Dan McKee, and one from each chamber of the legislature. (Former Gov. Gina Raimondo put legalization in the budget back in 2019, though it didn’t gain support.) The legislative session ended in late June, but House Speaker Joe Shekarchi told The Providence Journal that he considers cannabis legalization one of his “summer projects,” and indicated room for compromise this fall.
Other cannabis bills that crossed the finish line in 2021:
Alabama: After years of failed efforts, Alabama lawmakers agreed in early May on a bill to legalize medical cannabis. “I’ve signed SB 46 pertaining to medical marijuana. I would like to thank Sen. Tim Melson & Rep. Mike Ball for their hard work over the last few years & their commitment to continue to work on this to ensure we have a productive, safe & responsible operation in AL,” Gov. Kay Ivey tweeted upon signing the bill into law.
Louisiana: In June, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards signed into law a bill that will expand the state’s medical cannabis program, HB 391, and one to remove some criminal penalties for personal possession, HB 652. A push for adult use, though, failed after Louisiana House lawmakers voted down one bill in a trio that would have legalized and regulated cannabis for adult use, effectively killing the effort for the session.
Texas: The legislative session began with dozens of cannabis-related bills, ranging from decriminalization to full legalization. While medical cannabis expansion was signed into law, it was “watered-down.” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Cannabis Wire, “We’re glad to see the legislature expand the Compassionate Use Program, but it’s terribly disappointing to see Texas inching forward while 37 other states have taken meaningful action to provide patients with safe and legal access to medical cannabis.”
Cannabis bills that stalled in 2021:
Last year, the coronavirus pandemic upended many legislative pushes toward cannabis reform. While the pandemic certainly played into cannabis debates in legislatures this year, too, bills primarily stalled due to a lack of legislative or gubernatorial support.
Delaware: The fate of adult use legalization bill HB 150 began to look bleak in June, when the House was set to vote on it, but its sponsor cancelled the vote to “consider the implications” of “various amendments.” Rep. Edward Osienski, the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement shared with Cannabis Wire at the time, “House Bill 150 is an extremely important piece of legislation with many complicated moving parts. In recent days a number of amendments have been filed by myself and other legislators that would make significant changes to the bill as written. Accordingly, my colleagues and I need time to consider the implications of these various amendments before bringing the bill to the House floor for a vote.” The legislative session ended without a vote.
Florida: While more lawmakers filed bills to legalize adult use cannabis in the 2021 legislative session than ever before, opposition remained strong, and the bills hardly budged. “Our bipartisan approach has many challenges to getting across the finish line,” Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith told Cannabis Wire in March, referencing the legislation he introduced alongside Senator Jeff Brandes. “Not least of which is Governor DeSantis saying that cannabis won’t be legalized for adult use under his watch.” DeSantis’ current term ends on January 3, 2023.
Hawaii: Several adult use bills were introduced, in both the House (including HB 7, HB 238, HB 1202) and the Senate (including SB 1376, SB 704, SB 767). While SB 767 passed out of the Senate, the efforts ultimately failed this year.
Idaho: In February, medical cannabis bill H 108 was introduced in the Health and Welfare committee, but never got a hearing.
Kansas: In May, with days left in the legislative session, Kansas House lawmakers passed a bill to legalize and regulate medical cannabis use and sales, though it did not allow for home cultivation or sales of smokable (or vape) products. While several medical cannabis bills, and one adult use bill, were introduced, this one advanced the farthest. The timeline was ultimately too tight for passage, but as far as future efforts, Gov. Laura Kelly supports medical cannabis. In February, she announced a separate effort, a “Medicaid expansion bill” that also included medical cannabis legalization. “By combining broadly popular, commonsense medical marijuana policy with our efforts to expand Medicaid, the revenue from the bill will pay for expansion,” Kelly said in the announcement.
Kentucky: Rep. Jason Nemes introduced HB 136, a medical cannabis bill, and a similar piece of legislation was introduced in the Senate, SB 92. Nemes’ medical cannabis legislation passed in the House last year, but didn’t get through the Senate by session’s end. The effort this year quickly died with little movement. Two legalization bills, HB 467 and HB 461, stalled before gaining momentum.
Maryland: The cannabis legalization push in Maryland, which briefly appeared to be picking up momentum, came to an end in March. Two adult use legalization bills were introduced this session: HB 32, introduced by Delegate Jazz Lewis, and SB 708, introduced by the vice chair of Maryland’s Senate Finance Committee, Brian Feldman. What’s next? Lewis told Cannabis Wire that he is now “working on a plan B this legislative session to move forward on the regulatory infrastructure so that is one less barrier next year.”
Minnesota: In May, an adult use legalization bill advanced farther than ever before in the Minnesota legislature when it passed out of the House. But with the Republican-controlled Senate still opposed, the bill’s movement stopped there.
Missouri: Two adult use bills were introduced in the House, including HB 263 and HB 325. There was also House Joint Resolution 30, which would put the question to voters in 2022. These bills didn’t go anywhere, but a ballot push is underway. (Last year, Missourians for a New Approach had to end its ballot push campaign amid COVID-19, as social distancing requirements complicated signature gathering.)
Mississippi: Lawmakers introduced several bills to legalize medical cannabis and one bill to legalize for adult use. None of these bills advanced. As Cannabis Wire reported, the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down a medical cannabis initiative that voters passed by 74% margin. State Sen. Kevin Blackwell told the Clarion Ledger that a medical cannabis bill could be expected this summer.
Nebraska: While a medical cannabis measure qualified for the November ballot last year, it was upended by a lawsuit brought by the Sheriff of Lancaster County. The Nebraska Supreme Court ultimately blocked the medical cannabis measure from appearing on the ballot, an unprecedented outcome for a cannabis-related state ballot measure. Nebraska Senator Anna Wishart pushed for the 2020 ballot measure after lawmakers had defeated a bill she sponsored, and so in early 2021 she brought forth another bill. That bill, though, was also defeated, and Wishart is already working toward the 2022 ballot. “My bill to legalize medical cannabis fell two votes short of overcoming a filibuster. To the courageous senators who voted in favor, all 31 of you, I am forever grateful. To the families, I am sorry I failed again and I promise not to give up. Now onward to the ballot,” Wishart, who is also co-chair of Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana, tweeted in May.
New Hampshire: House lawmakers introduced HB 237. Among the bill’s sponsors was Rep. Renny Cushing, who introduced a legalization bill last year that didn’t allow for sales, as a sort of compromise, considering the governor’s opposition. This year’s version also didn’t include sales, but that didn’t help the bill gain traction, and it went nowhere.
North Carolina: Lawmakers introduced bills to legalize for both medical and adult use. While adult use is a longshot for now, one medical cannabis bill, SB 711, is advancing in committees.
North Dakota: In February, the full House passed HB 1420, an adult use legalization bill, and a related taxation bill. The sponsor of the adult use bill, Rep. Jason Dockter, spoke during a hearing about why he introduced a bill to legalize something for which he doesn’t care. “I have many people wondering: why did I introduce this bill? And I think about that a lot. Why did I? But then I thought to myself, as lawmakers, what is our job? Our job is to create laws, for safety, for other issues. And most of the time we come here and we’re reactive,” he said. “Well I look at this as trying to be proactive. It’s not if it’s coming; it is coming, and it’s already here.” The bill ultimately died.
Pennsylvania: Gov. Tom Wolf and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman are two of the most vocal state leaders on legalization anywhere in the United States. As Cannabis Wire reported in a deep-dive, legalization, though, remains a non-starter in the Republican-controlled legislature. In February, Democratic Senator Sharif Street and Republican Senator Dan Laughlin held a news conference about legalization. Street told Cannabis Wire that he had one-on-one calls with Republican lawmakers, to try to build support for the legislation. “I believe that there is significant Republican support and we just have to continue to do the work,” Street added.
South Carolina: In December, Sen. Tom Davis and Rep. Bill Herbkersman unveiled S. 150 and H. 3361, respectively, also known as the South Carolina Compassionate Care Act. While there was a dedicated push this session, the bill ultimately died this spring. Davis tweeted in May that he’s received commitment from the Republican caucus that medical cannabis will be the “first order of business” in January.
Tennessee: Lawmakers introduced a handful of bills this legislative session to establish a medical cannabis program, but none gained support. The governor signed into law SB 118, which is a minor expansion of the state’s existing medical cannabis law, which allows patients to possess medical cannabis products with .9% THC or less. This bill also established a commission to study medical cannabis.
Wisconsin: In Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers is a strong supporter of legalization, but is up against a legislature that doesn’t agree. Evers proposed legalizing cannabis and regulating it like alcohol when he released his budget, though cannabis was ultimately stripped from the final version. Despite this expected outcome, Evers frequently pushed cannabis this session and included it in his “Badger Bounceback agenda,” the state’s post-pandemic plan. During a related virtual forum, focused on Justice Reform & Marijuana Legalization, Evers suggested that participants should call Assembly leadership to encourage lawmakers to take up legalization, and to also have conversations with people who might disagree with legalization. “I would reach out to folks in your sphere of influence, your neighbors, your relatives, and have this conversation with them, too. I think it’s very important if we want to move forward as a state,” Evers said. “We also have to be mindful that this is a group where many of you were directly impacted by the system that exists.”
Wyoming: In March, Wyoming’s House Judiciary Committee advanced HB0209, an adult use legalization bill introduced by Representative Jared Olsen, a Republican. Olsen noted ahead of his opening remarks that “almost fifty percent” of the Committee had already signed on to the bill. He then said that the “question in front of this Committee” is simply: “Is Wyoming ready to legalize marijuana?” The bill then stalled.