The new year is already shaping up to be a big one for marijuana reform. And activists and lawmakers are finding allies in governors across the country, with numerous State of the State addresses and budget speeches including calls for legalization.
From New York to New Mexico, top policymakers have signaled that cannabis policy reform is a legislative priority for 2021. To date, at least 11 governors have proactively brought up marijuana in their formal addresses, budget plans or press briefings so far, with more expected to come.
While the governors might not be able to unilaterally enact the reforms they’re seeking, their support for the issue could significantly improve the chances of cannabis policy changes succeeding this year, at least in some states.
Here’s a look at what governors are saying about marijuana policy in 2021:
Gov. Ned Lamont (D) included a call to legalize cannabis in his annual State of the State address in January, stating that the policy change is “happening all around us” in neighboring states.
“Let’s not surrender these opportunities to out-of-state markets or, even worse, underground markets,” he said.
The governor followed up the next month by including a legalization proposal in his 2021 budget request.
Lamont, who convened an informal work group in recent months to make recommendations on the policy change, said his budget plan will involve establishing a “comprehensive framework for the cultivation, manufacture, sale, possession, use, and taxation of cannabis that prioritizes public health, public safety, and social justice.”
As lawmakers introduced marijuana reform bills, the governor of Kansas earlier this month unveiled a plan to legalize medical cannabis and use the resulting tax revenue to fund Medicaid expansion.
Gov. Laura Kelly (D) held a press conference to announce her legislation, explaining that it “establishes the regulatory framework for the cultivation, testing, distribution, prescription and purchase of medical marijuana.”
“The introduction of this bill in itself is a win for Kansans, who will benefit from medical marijuana—something that, once again, our neighbors in Oklahoma and Missouri have already recognized and addressed,” she said.
During his State of the Commonwealth address in January, Gov. Andy Beshear (D) said Kentucky should pursue cannabis reform.
“Speaking of laws that unduly restrict us from growth and innovation, it is time to legalize medical marijuana,” the governor said during his speech, adding that he also wants to allow sports betting.
Legislation to enact medical cannabis legalization was filed right around the time Beshear made the address.
In Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz (D) talked about the need to legalize marijuana last month as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice.
During a briefing focused on his budget proposal for the 2022-23 biennium, the governor said he was open to allowing sports betting, but lawmakers should “take a look at recreational cannabis” to increase tax revenue.
Not only would tax revenue from adult-use marijuana “dwarf” those collected through sports betting, he said, but legalization would also help address “the equity issue and, quite honestly, the racial impact of our cannabis laws.”
Walz did not include a request to legalize through his budget, however. Meanwhile, top Minnesota lawmakers introduced a bill earlier this month that would legalize cannabis in the state.
The governor of Nevada said last month that his budget proposal contains provisions to keep marijuana tax revenue flowing to schools in the state.
Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) discussed his fiscal plan during a State of the State address, saying it “ensures marijuana tax dollars will continue to fund education, to ensure districts can meet the needs of students during the pandemic and beyond.”
“The 2019 Legislature approved SB 545 which requires the proceeds of the 10% excise tax imposed on recreational sales of marijuana products to be deposited to the [Distributive School Account],” the governor’s budget says. “This new education funding did not offset general fund and was placed in the account as an enhancement. This is continued in the 2021-2023 budget.”
Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said during his State of the State address last month that “we are on the verge of passing an innovative and groundbreaking set of laws to reform our historically unjust approach to marijuana and cannabis.”
Advocates had hoped that the legislature would have moved quicker to approve enabling legislation after voters approved a legalization referendum in November, but disagreements between lawmakers and the governor over certain provisions concerning underaged people have delayed the reform.
During her State of the State speech last month, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) reiterated her commitment to legalizing marijuana in the state in 2021.
The governor discussed cannabis reform as a means to generate needed tax revenue amid the coronavirus pandemic and create jobs, saying a “crisis like the one we’ve experienced last year can be viewed as a loss or as an invitation to rethink the status quo—to be ambitious and creative and bold.”
“That kind of thinking includes, of course, recreational cannabis and the tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in new revenue it will bring to our state,” she said.
Prior to the annual address, Lujan Grisham released an agenda for 2021 that included legalization among a list of legislative priorities.
Lawmakers appear to be going along, with a cannabis legalization bill clearing a House committee this week.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has frequently discussed plans to legalize marijuana through the budget this year.
For the third year in a row, he included the reform proposal in his budget request, and he recently announced that he will be sending an amended version to the legislature in hopes of striking a deal with legislators who were critical of certain provisions of his original proposal.
In his State of the State address last month, the governor said New York “will legalize adult-use recreational cannabis, joining 15 other states who’ve already done so.”
“This will raise revenue and will end the over-criminalization of this product that has left so many communities of color over-policed and over-incarcerated,” he said.
Cuomo first previewed the details of his legalization plan in January during a budget speech.
“We also propose legalizing adult-use cannabis, which would raise about $350 million,” he said, adding that “$100 million would go to a social equity fund. That would still give us $250 million towards the budget and our needs.”
On Tuesday, the governor revealed details of the amended budget plan to legalize marijuana that he sent to the legislature, with new provisions to allow cannabis delivery services and a refined approach to penalties for unlawful sales.
The governor of Pennsylvania said earlier this month that marijuana legalization is a priority as he begins annual budget negotiations with lawmakers. However, his formal spending request doesn’t contain any legislative language to actually accomplish the cannabis policy change.
In a supplementary legislative plan for 2021, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) said that “Pennsylvania has built a successful medical marijuana program through bipartisan work,” and now “it’s time to take the next step and legalize recreational marijuana in the commonwealth with an emphasis on helping businesses and restorative justice.”
Prior to his budget speech, Wolf said in an agenda that enacting the cannabis policy change should be part of the state’s economic recovery and would also promote social equity.
With neighboring states moving toward legalization, he said “Pennsylvania cannot afford to be left behind.”
Marijuana prohibition was intentionally set up “generations ago” to discriminate against people of color, the governor of Virginia said last month, calling for legalization to resolve those disparities during a State of the Commonwealth address.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said cannabis criminalization is an example of how “our criminal justice system treats different people unfairly,” adding that Black people are more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people despite comparable rates of usage.
The speech came on the same day that the governor unveiled a comprehensive legalization bill, which is being carried by leaders in both the House and Senate
He separately unveiled a budget proposal in December that “lays the groundwork to legalize marijuana” by including millions of dollars to support efforts to expunge cannabis convictions as well as steps to set up the state to eventually implement a system of commercial sales.
“We know that laws to ban marijuana historically were based in discrimination, and criminalization laws have disproportionately harmed minority communities,” Northam said in a speech announcing the budget.
Both the House and Senate approved their own versions of the marijuana legalization legislation this month, and now lawmakers are taking steps to reconcile the differences into a single proposal to send to Northam’s desk.
On Tuesday, Gov. Tony Evers (D) unveiled a plan to legalize marijuana as part of his budget proposal.
“Legalizing and taxing marijuana in Wisconsin—just like we do already with alcohol—ensures a controlled market and safe product are available for both recreational and medicinal users,” he said in a statement, “and can open the door for countless opportunities for us to reinvest in our communities and create a more equitable state.”
Evers, who first announced he would put legal cannabis in his fiscal request earlier this month, didn’t specifically mention the policy during his budget speech on Tuesday. But the text of the plan as submitted to lawmakers offers an in-depth look at what the program would look like.
The proposal is already getting significant pushback from leaders in the Republican-controlled legislature. But some members have signaled an interest in enacting more modest cannabis reforms such as decriminalization or allowing medical cannabis.
Photo courtesy of Carlos Gracia.