Marijuana legalization has long been seen as a blue state issue, with Democratic lawmakers far more favorable toward the policy change than Republicans even as GOP voters have warmed to cannabis reform in recent years. But in legislatures across the country this year, there are signs that’s finally starting to change.
In at least 10 states, Republican lawmakers have taken lead roles in crafting and sponsoring legislation to legalize cannabis in 2021 legislative sessions. In some, such as North Dakota, GOP-led bills are on pace to potentially become law, while in other states like New Mexico, Republicans have submitted legalization proposals alongside their Democratic colleagues, coming to the table to craft bipartisan compromises.
In yet other states, including New Hampshire and Missouri, Republicans have introduced marijuana legislation but have so far struggled to gain momentum for their bills. Even there, the bills’ conservative lawmakers have staked an ideological claim to legalization, arguing the change would better respect individual liberties and end wasteful spending on a failed government drug war.
“This initiative will increase personal freedom, allow law enforcement to focus on violent crime instead of nonviolent marijuana users, and provide revenue for infrastructure, broadband, and drug treatment,” Rep. Shamed Dogan, a Missouri Republican, said after prefiling a legalization bill for this session.
It’s a rare example in today’s divided age of lawmakers finding common policy ground across party lines. While some of the Republicans teaming up with Democrats to legalize cannabis are moderates, others remain sharply partisan on other issues. Florida Republican Rep. Anthony Sabatini, for example, a sponsor of bipartisan legislation to legalize cannabis for adults in that state and allow past convictions to be expunged, has previously tweeted QAnon conspiracy theories and criticized Black Lives Matter protestors as “disgusting, lawless thugs.”
The cross-country wave of Republican lawmakers embracing legalization comes after voters in several GOP-leaning states, such as Montana and South Dakota approved cannabis reform measures on their November ballots, which might be influencing more politicians across party lines to embrace the issue.
Here’s a list of states where Republican lawmakers have taken lead roles in introducing legislation to legalize marijuana in 2021.
Among a flurry of legalization proposals introduced in Florida this session is a bipartisan effort led by Sen. Jeff Brandes (R) and Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D) to allow the state’s medical marijuana treatment centers to sell cannabis products to adults 21 and older. The legislation (SB 710 / HB 343) would allow possession up to up to 2,000 milligrams of THC and up to 2.5 ounces of smokable cannabis so long as they were purchased from a licensed retailer. Registered medical marijuana patients and caretakers would be exempt from sales tax on cannabis products.
Homegrow would initially be prohibited under the proposal, although the bills would direct the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs to “conduct a study on the potential harms and benefits of allowing the cultivation of marijuana by members of the public for private use, including the use of a cooperative model.” That report would be due to lawmakers by January 2022. People with past convictions for certain low-level cannabis crimes could petition a court to expunge the charges from their criminal history.
The plan would also eliminate the state’s vertical integration requirement, allowing companies to apply for a single license—such as cultivation or retail—or multiple licenses.
Brandes is the lone sponsor of the Senate bill so far. On the House side, the legislation’s lead sponsor and three of the four co-introducers are Democrats, while a fourth co-introducer is Republican Rep. Anthony Sabatini.
House Resolution 281, a simple two-page bill from Rep. David Clark (R), would put the question of marijuana legalization to voters. Details of the new system would be largely left up to lawmakers to settle later, although the proposed constitutional amendment would dedicate all fees and taxes from the legal cannabis industry to “substance abuse recovery and prevention, mental illness treatment, and for use by law enforcement agencies in combating and responding to cases of illegal drug use and addictions.”
The amendment would also charge lawmakers with establishing a process to expunge or otherwise vacate past arrests and convictions for cannabis offenses “which would not have been a crime” after legalization takes effect.
Republican Rep. Shamed Dogan, chairman of the House Special Committee on Criminal Justice, said earlier this year that he wants “to regulate marijuana as closely as possible to the regulations we have on alcohol, tobacco and other products.” His proposed constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana, House Joint Resolution 30, would would require no special licensing for businesses “beyond that which is applicable for the cultivating, harvesting, processing, manufacturing, packaging, distributing, transferring, displaying, or possession of any nontoxic food or food product,” according to language of the joint resolution. Home cultivation for personal or medical use would also be allowed, with no specified plant limits or other restrictions.
The proposal reflects a popular libertarian view that the government should not interfere with how people use the cannabis plant. It echoes a 2015 proposal from a Texas Republican who said marijuana be regulated under “whatever laws apply to tomatoes.”
So far, however, the proposal hasn’t found traction in Missouri. Introduced at the beginning of the legislative session, Dogan’s bill has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.
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Two legalization bills in New Hampshire received GOP support this session but have not advanced beyond committee. One measure is HB 629, sponsored by Rep. Carol McGuire (R) along with four other Republicans and one Democrat. It would legalize possession and personal cultivation of marijuana but, unlike most other legal states, would not establish a commercial market. Adults would be able to grow up to six cannabis plants and possess up to three-quarters of an ounce of marijuana and up to five grams of hashish.
Another bill, HB 237, sponsored by seven Democrats and Republican Rep. John Reagan, would create a system of licensed and taxed cannabis production and sales.
In New Mexico, where House and Senate lawmakers are scrambling to harmonize four separate legalization proposals, a bill by GOP Sen. Cliff Pirtle, SB 288, is a favorite among some Republican lawmakers and has earned Pirtle a seat at the table as sponsors of all four bills work to hammer out a deal on how the proposal will proceed ahead of the end of the session on March 20.
Pirtle said earlier this month that he introduced the measure, which has a lower tax rate than Democrats’ proposals and retains more revenue and control for municipalities, “because I felt something as important as legalizing the sale of recreational cannabis really needed to have a bipartisan approach.”
Another Republican, Sen. Craig Brand, said the bill is “very close” to what he’d like to see in marijuana legislation.
Pirtle’s measure cleared a Senate committee on Tuesday following the House’s passage of one of the other bills last month. “Hopefully we can come up with something that works for everybody,” Pirtle told the Santa Fe New Mexican last week. “We’re working on it.”
North Dakota’s House of Representatives has already passed Republican-led legislation to legalize marijuana, approving. HB 1420 late last month on a 73–21 vote. The measure, which would allow adults 21 and older to possess and purchase one ounce of cannabis but would prohibit home cultivation, now awaits consideration by the Senate Human Services Committee.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Jason Dockter (R), has bipartisan support in the House and in the Senate is sponsored by Sen. Scott Meyer (R). Even if the legislature were to pass the measure, however, it’s unclear whether Gov. Doug Burghum (R) would sign or veto it.
One goal of Republicans in North Dakota is to set their own rules ahead of a possible legalization push at the ballot box. Rep. Matthew Ruby (R) said last month that the legislation’s intent is “to get ahead of the constitutional measure that is already beginning the signature collection,” adding that home cultivation in that proposal would complicate enforcement efforts.
Oklahoma Republican Rep. Scott Fetgatter is proposing a ballot question to let voters decide whether to legalize marijuana for adults. HB 1961, introduced in early February, would put a referendum to voters on whether to allow the state’s existing medical marijuana dispensaries to sell products to adults 21 and older. Consumers could possess up to an ounce of cannabis and gift that amount to other adults without remuneration.
The measure would impose a 15 percent excise tax on retail marijuana as well as a state and local sales taxes. Revenue would go to the state’s general fund.
The measure faces an uphill battle in the legislature, but Fetgatter is optimistic. “It at least starts a conversation,” he told local NBC affiliate KJRH.
A Pennsylvania Republican is one of two leading proponents of a forthcoming bill to legalize marijuana, which advocates hope will make the proposal more appealing to the state’s GOP-controlled legislature. Sens. Dan Laughlin (R) and Sharif Street (D) announced last month plans to introduce legislation that would allow adults to possess up to 30 grams of marijuana purchased from licensed stories. Homegrow would be allowed only for medical marijuana patients.
The bill marks the first time a Republican lawmaker in the state has sponsored an adult-use legalization bill. Laughlin said during a press conference that while he’s not necessarily in favor of cannabis use, he thinks a regulated market is “the most responsible approach.”
“It’s clear to me that public attitudes towards marijuana have changed dramatically in the past decade,” he said, “maybe more than any other issue in recent memory.”
Legislation introduced last week by West Virginia Republican Dels. Brandon Steele and Doug Smith would legalize, tax and regulate cannabis for adults 21 and older. Home cultivation of up to three cannabis plants for personal use would be permitted so long as the marijuana is grown inconspicuously, not sold and not brought across state lines. Unusually under the bill, HB 2919, retail sales would take place only through the West Virginia Cannabis Commission. The commission would also set a wholesale price at which the state would buy cannabis from licensed growers, as well as the base tax rate for the legal system
House Majority Whip Paul Espinoza (R) recently polled GOP colleagues on marijuana legalization as one of a number of possible ways the state could raise revenue to bridge a $2.1 billion loss in revenue expected under a plan to eliminate the state’s personal income tax. He noted that some of the issues on the list “are nonstarters,” but did not share the results of the internal poll.
Gov. Jim Justice (R), meanwhile, said last week that he would support taxing “the absolute crap” out of legal cannabis if the proposal passes the legislature. “If in fact the entire nation is going to move that way, if our legislature from the standpoint of the Republicans in the House were to bring me that, and it would be tied to using those extra dollars [to] get rid of additional personal income tax, I would support it,” Justice said. Days earlier he said legalization could potentially curb opioid-related overdose epidemics in West Virginia.
A Republican-led coalition in Wyoming last week introduced HB 209, a bill that would allow adults 21 and older in the state to purchase marijuana from licensed stores as well as grow cannabis at home for personal use. The lead sponsor on the House side is Judiciary Committee chairman Jared Olsen (R), and seven of the 11 House cosponsors are Republicans—including the House speaker. On the Senate side, the lead sponsor is Sen. Cale Case (R).
If passed, adults could grow up to 12 flowering plants and possess up to a pound of marijuana in their homes, provided that any amount over 2.5 ounces is stored in a locked or otherwise secure area.
The bill is before the House Judiciary Committee and is expected to get a hearing this week.
Contextualizing GOP Support For Legal Marijuana
Beyond the Republican lawmakers who’ve sponsored bills to fully legalize marijuana, even more have embraced relatively modest measures to decriminalize possession or allow medical cannabis.
Others are championing even more far-reaching measures to reform laws around psychedelics and other drugs. Iowa Rep. Jeff Shipley (R), for example, filed legislation this session to decriminalize psilocybin and to allow seriously ill people to access psychedelics.
But despite the growing number of individual GOP officials who are beginning to lead reform efforts, Democrats as a whole are still much more likely to support legalization than their Republican counterparts.
When Virginia lawmakers sent Gov. Ralph Northam (D) a cannabis legalization bill last month, not a single GOP member of the legislature was on board. And while West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) has reluctantly said he would sign marijuana legislation if sent to his desk, nearly a dozen Democratic governors across the country this year have used their State of State addresses or budget proposals to proactively push cannabis reforms.
The partisan divide on legalization remains especially evident in Congress, where top Democratic lawmakers have signaled the policy change is a priority this year. When the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to end federal marijuana prohibition last year, by contrast, only five Republicans voted in support.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer
Illinois Will ‘Blow Past’ $1 Billion In Legal Marijuana Sales In 2021, Chamber Of Commerce President Says
“Are we going to get to a billion dollars? I think we’re going to blow past the billion dollars based on the experience in smaller states,” the Chamber leader said.
By Elyse Kelly, The Center Square
Illinois’s cannabis industry is growing up fast, with adult-use recreational cannabis sales expected to hit $1 billion by year-end.
In March alone, Illinoisans spent $110 million on recreational marijuana.
Todd Maisch, president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said one factor contributing to Illinois’ explosive growth is that most neighboring states haven’t legalized marijuana yet.
“What we saw early on in states like Washington and Colorado is they did have demand come in from surrounding states, which frankly benefits our industry and benefits the taxes collected,” Maisch said.
Cannabis sales have already surpassed alcohol’s tax revenues for the state, and Maisch said he thinks $1 billion estimates are conservative.
“Are we going to get to a billion dollars? I think we’re going to blow past the billion dollars based on the experience in smaller states,” Maisch said.
There are only a couple of things that could stop Illinois’ explosive cannabis market growth, Maisch said. He said that policymakers could ruin things by pushing taxes too high as evidenced by the tobacco market.
“As taxes have gone up and up and up, they’ve pushed people all the way into the black market or they’ve created this grey market in which people are ostensibly paying some of the taxes, but they’re still getting sources of tobacco products that avoid much of the tax,” Maisch said.
The other thing that could head off continued growth is other states opening up recreational-use markets.
“So if you start to see surrounding states go to recreational, that’s definitely going to flatten the curve because we’re not going to be pulling in demand from other states,” Maisch said.
Maisch points out some concerns that accompany the explosion of Illinois’s recreational cannabis market including workforce preparedness.
“All of those individuals who are deciding to go ahead and consume this product are really taking themselves out of a lot of job opportunities that they would otherwise be qualified, so there’s a real upside and a downside,” Maisch said.
While it’s easy to track the revenues this industry brings into state coffers, he points out, it will be harder to track the lack of productivity and qualified individuals to operate heavy machinery and other jobs that require employees to pass a drug test.
DEA Finally Ready To End Federal Marijuana Research Monopoly, Agency Notifies Grower Applicants
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on Friday notified several companies that it is moving toward approving their applications to become federally authorized marijuana manufacturers for research purposes.
This is a significant development—and one of the first cannabis-related moves to come out of the Biden administration. There is currently a monopoly on federal cannabis cultivation, with the University of Mississippi having operated the only approved facility for the past half-century.
It was almost five years ago that DEA under President Barack Obama first announced that it was accepting applications for additional manufacturers. No approvals were made during the Trump administration. And the delay in getting acceptances has led to frustration—and in some cases, lawsuits—among applicants.
But on Friday, organizations including the Biopharmaceutical Research Company (BRC), Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI) and Groff NA Hemplex LLC were notified by the agency that their requests were conditionally accepted.
“DEA is nearing the end of its review of certain marijuana grower applications, thereby allowing it to soon register additional entities authorized to produce marijuana for research purposes,” DEA said. “Pending final approval, DEA has determined, based on currently available information, that a number of manufacturers’ applications to cultivate marijuana for research needs in the United States appears to be consistent with applicable legal standards and relevant laws. DEA has, therefore, provided a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) to these manufacturers as the next step in the approval process.”
The Wall Street Journal first reported on the move, and it’s unclear just how many organizations have received a DEA communication so far.
Matt Zorn, who has represented SRI in a suit against DEA over the processing delays, told Marijuana Moment that the agency explained that it is “moving forward” with the facility’s application and that it appears to be “consistent with public interest” to give the institute the ability to grow marijuana for study purposes.
SRI’s Dr. Sue Sisley is in a process of completing a memorandum of agreement that DEA requested “so that it can be executed and official,” according to a press release.
BRC CEO George Hodgin said in another press release that after being finalized, “this federal license will forever change the trajectory of our business and the medicinal cannabis industry.”
“The DEA’s leadership will set off a nationwide wave of innovative cannabis-derived treatments, unlock valuable intellectual property and create high quality American jobs,” he said. “The BRC team is already familiar with DEA compliance procedures based on our extensive history of controlled substances activity, and our world class staff is ready to hit the ground running on this new business arm that the DEA has authorized.”
DEA said it has presented applicants that appear to meet legal requirements “with an MOA outlining the means by which the applicant and DEA will work together to facilitate the production, storage, packaging, and distribution of marijuana under the new regulations as well as other applicable legal standards and relevant laws.”
“To the extent these MOAs are finalized, DEA anticipates issuing DEA registrations to these manufacturers,” the agency said. “Each applicant will then be authorized to cultivate marijuana—up to its allotted quota—in support of the more than 575 DEA-licensed researchers across the nation.”
DEA said it “will continue to prioritize efforts to evaluate the remaining applications for registration and expects additional approvals in the future” and will publicly post information about approvals as they are finalized.
Following a 2019 suit against DEA by SRI, a court mandated that the agency take steps to process the cultivation license applications, and that legal challenge was dropped after DEA provided a status update.
That suit argued that the marijuana grown at the University of Mississippi is of poor quality, does not reflect the diversity of products available on the commercial market and is therefore inadequate for clinical studies.
That’s also a point that several policymakers have made, and it’s bolstered by research demonstrating that the federal government’s cannabis is genetically closer to hemp than marijuana that consumers can obtain in state-legal markets.
Last year, DEA finally unveiled a revised rule change proposal that it said was necessary to move forward with licensing approvals due to the high volume of applicants and to address potential complications related to international treaties to which the U.S. is a party.
SRI filed another suit against DEA in March, claiming that the agency used a “secret” document to justify its delay of approving manufacturer applications. And that was born out when the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel document was released last year as part of a settlement in the case, revealing, among other things, that the agency feels that its current licensing structure for cannabis cultivation has been in violation of international treaties for decades.
Photo by Aphiwat chuangchoem.
Mississippi Supreme Court Overturns Medical Marijuana Legalization Ballot That Voters Approved
A voter-approved initiative to legalize medical marijuana in Mississippi has been overturned by the state Supreme Court.
On Friday, the court ruled in favor of a Mississippi mayor who filed a legal challenge against the 2020 measure, nullifying its certification by the Secretary of State. The lawsuit was unrelated to the merits of the reform proposal itself, but plaintiffs argued that the constitutional amendment violated procedural rules for placing measures on the ballot.
While the court acknowledged that a “strong, if not overwhelming, majority of voters of Mississippi approved Initiative 65” to legalize medical cannabis in the state, Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler’s (R) petition was valid for statutory reasons.
Madison’s challenge cites a state law stipulating that “signatures of the qualified electors from any congressional district shall not exceed one-fifth (1/5) of the total number of signatures required to qualify an initiative petition for placement upon the ballot.” But that policy went into effect when Mississippi had five congressional districts, and that’s since been reduced to four, making it mathematically impossible to adhere to.
The secretary of state and other officials pushed back against the lawsuit and argued that a plain reading of the state Constitution makes it clear that the intention of the district-based requirement was to ensure that signatures were collected in a geographically dispersed manner—and the result of the campaign met that standard.
But in the court’s 6-3 ruling released on Friday, the justices said that their hands were tied. The legislature or administration might be able to fix the procedural ballot issue, but it had to follow the letter of the law.
“We find ourselves presented with the question squarely before us and nowhere to turn but to its answer,” the decision states. “Remaining mindful of both the November 3, 2020 election results and the clear language in section 273 seeking to preserve the right of the people to enact changes to their Constitution, we nonetheless must hold that the text of section 273 fails to account for the possibility that has become reality in Mississippi.”
In sum, a Census-driven change in the number of congressional districts in Mississippi “did, indeed, break section 273 so that, absent amendment, it no longer functions,” meaning there’s no legal way to pass a constitutional ballot initiative in the state.
“Whether with intent, by oversight, or for some other reason, the drafters of section 273(3) wrote a ballot-initiative process that cannot work in a world where Mississippi has fewer than five representatives in Congress. To work in today’s reality, it will need amending—something that lies beyond the power of the Supreme Court.”
“We grant the petition, reverse the Secretary of State’s certification of Initiative 65, and hold that any subsequent proceedings on it are void,” the court ruled.
One justice who dissented said that the district-based requirement is arbitrary as it concerns Mississippi elections. While the federal government defines the state as having four congressional districts, the state Constitution “lays out the five districts,” and “there have been zero changes to the five districts” as far as the state’s laws are concerned.
In any case, this marks a major defeat for cannabis reform activists in the state who collected more than 214,000 signatures for their initiative. Sixty-eight percent of voters approved a general ballot question on whether to allow medical cannabis, and 74 percent signed off on advocates’ specific measure in a separate question.
“The Mississippi Supreme Court just overturned the will of the people of Mississippi,” Ken Newburger, executive director for the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association, said in a press release. “Patients will now continue the suffering that so many Mississippians voted to end. The Court ignored existing case law and prior decisions. Their reasoning ignores the intent of the constitution and takes away people’s constitutional right.”
“It’s a sad day for Mississippi when the Supreme Court communicates to a vast majority of the voters that their vote doesn’t matter,” he said.
Today the MS Supreme Court ruled against the state’s ballot initiative process, killing the medical marijuana program 74% of Mississippians voted to pass. This is devastating for not only patients, but voters as a whole. Below is our statement: https://t.co/jrDoJM3K16 pic.twitter.com/AR3xuId3xR
— Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association (@medmarijuanams) May 14, 2021
Under the voter-approved initiative, patients with debilitating medical issues would have been allowed to legally obtain marijuana after getting a doctor’s recommendation. The proposal included 22 qualifying conditions such as cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and patients would have been able to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 14-day period.
There was an attempt in the legislature to pass a bill to legalize medical marijuana in the event that the court overruled the voter-approved initiative, but it failed to be enacted by the session’s end.
The Mississippi State Department of Health told WJTV that it will cease work on developing medical cannabis regulations in light of the court ruling.
“However, the agency has certainly learned a lot in the process of putting together a successful medical marijuana program, and we stand ready to help the legislature if it creates a statutory program,” Liz Sharlot, director of the Office of Communications for the department, said.
This is the latest state Supreme Court setback to affect cannabis reform efforts.
Last month, the Florida Supreme Court dealt a critical blow to marijuana activists working to legalize marijuana in the state—killing an initiative that hundreds of thousands of voters have already signed and forcing them to start all over again if they want to make the 2022 ballot.
While a Nebraska campaign collected enough signatures to qualify a reform initiative in 2020, the state Supreme Court shut it down following a legal challenge. It determined that the measure violated the state’s single-subject rule, much to the disappointment of advocates.
In South Dakota, the fate of an adult-use legalization initiative that voters approved last November is also in the hands of the state’s Supreme Court, where a sheriff is challenging its constitutionality based on a single subject rule as well.
Opponents to a Montana marijuana legalization measure that was approved by voters have also filed lawsuits contesting the voter-approved initiative for procedural reasons, arguing that its allocation of revenue violates the state Constitution. While the state Supreme Court declined to hear the case last year, it did not rule on the merits and left the door open to pursuing the case in district and appeals court, which plaintiffs then pursued.
Read the Mississippi Supreme Court ruling on the medical cannabis initiative below: