The Pioneering Way the First State on the East Coast Might Legalize Marijuana

For decades, states have led the charge of cannabis policy reform in the US, but mostly at the ballot — state legislatures, like the federal Congress, have generally not been in the vanguard of reform. While there have been welcome exceptions to this rule (Hawaii’s legislature, for example, passed the state’s first medical law as far back as 2000), the majority of legislative actions in medical states more closely resemble the precedent set by Montana‘s state legislature, which voted to severely restrict the state’s medical program which passed by initiative with 62% of the vote eight years earlier.

In a historic shift, the year 2015 will probably be the year that this trend finally reverses. The first state legislature to pass an adult use legalization bill in US history, according to the Marijuana Policy Project’s Rob Kampia, will probably be Rhode Island — a regional reform leader since passing a medical bill through legislative vote in 2006 and poised to improve on the feat in 2015.

Regulate Rhode Island, a grassroots campaign which came close to attaining the passage of the Marijuana Regulation Control and Taxation Act last summer, appears poised to clinch the deal in the wake of historic voter-led legalization campaigns in Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C. Undoubtedly helping the cause is a report by Open Doors predicting annual tax windfalls between $21.5 and $82 million for the cash-strapped state.

If the national movement is indeed on the cusp of a new trend in which state legislatures break the taboo of discussing adult use legalization, its practical effect may well exceed that of the pioneering work of state ballot initiatives, for the simple reason that a roughly half the states have no ballot initiative process at all; and even within ballot initiative states the legislature still has some role in shaping policy (as in California, where the legislature has clarified the language of Proposition 215 through Senate Bill 420).

State legalization bills crafted by legislatures may also prove more effective in providing a model which the federal Congress may follow than citizen-led initiatives, which according to best practice legislate general principles and don’t attempt to define minutiae.

Rhode Island may not be the only state to legalize by legislature in 2015; even the state legislature of Texas will consider a tax and regulate bill in its 2015 session. But one point is becoming increasingly clear: for all the talk of 2016, the year 2015 will probably be remembered as the more momentous year — when legalization came through the voters’ elected representatives, rather than directly from the voters themselves.

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