The surprising environmental costs of marijuana

Your cannabis consumption has a carbon footprint, and when everybody's cannabis consumption is added up, that carbon footprint gets mighty big. The resulting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that impact climate change the most are from consuming indoor cultivated marijuana, which is grown under lights indoors with extensive heating, air conditioning and other electrical equipment. Marijuana that is grown outdoors or in greenhouses or hoop houses doesn't require this kind of setup and has a substantially lesser impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

It would appear that the ethical thing for marijuana consumers to do when it comes to addressing climate change is to consume outdoor, sun-grown marijuana. But that is just for starters. Environmentally conscious consumers can get really serious and demand marijuana that is sun-grown, organic, and produced in a sustainable and regenerative fashion.

But before getting to solutions, let us first come to grips with the scope of the problem. Given that much of the marijuana grown in the United States goes into the black market, no one is quite sure just how much weed we produce. But a 2019 study from industry analysts New Frontier Data, "The U.S. Cannabis Cultivation Report," estimated that the "[t]otal legal and illicit output is forecasted to grow to" almost 35 million pounds by 2025. California alone accounted for more than 12 million pounds of illegal exports in 2019, according to the report. A 2012 article, which appeared in the international peer-reviewed journal Energy Policy, states that "[o]fficial estimates of total U.S. Cannabis production varied between 10,000 and 24,000 metric ton[s] per year as of 2001," while a more recent (2010) "study estimated national production at far higher levels (69,000 metric ton[s])."

That is a lot of weed, and how we grow it has an impact on the environment. The article in Energy Policy also found that marijuana cultivation accounts for at least 1 percent of all the electricity consumed in the country, at a cost of $6 billion a year—it is important to note here that outdoor grows can be done with virtually no electricity. This kind of energy consumption due to indoor marijuana cultivation across the U.S. translates into GHG emissions equivalent to that by 3 million cars, the article estimated.

According to an article in Cannabis Business Times, "the 2018 Cannabis Energy Report from New Frontier Data found that indoor cultivation in the U.S. produces 2.6 million tons of carbon dioxide or one pound of carbon emissions for each gram of harvested flower. The same report found that growing indoors uses 18 times more electricity and produces nearly 25 times more carbon than outdoor farms."

Meanwhile, in March, researchers at Colorado State University published an article in the journal Nature Sustainability that showed how shifting grows from indoors to greenhouse and outdoor cultivation "can drastically reduce GHG emissions" by the cannabis industry. According to the article, the move from growing cannabis indoors to "outdoor cultivation practices" would reduce the Colorado cannabis industry's greenhouse gas emissions by 96 percent (a switch to greenhouse cultivation would cut GHG emissions by 42 percent). A switch to outdoor cultivation in Colorado "would see a reduction of more than 1.3 percent in the state's [total] annual GHG emissions," stated the article.

The industry is headed in the direction of increasing outdoor cultivation of marijuana, but at an achingly slow pace.

That 2019 New Frontier Data study found that only 44 percent of marijuana cultivation operations were outdoor grows. A Cannabis Business Times 2020 State of the Industry Report had similar numbers. It found that 42 percent of survey respondents grow cannabis outdoors, 41 percent grow in greenhouses, and 60 percent grow indoors (the total exceeds 100 percent because many operators rely on two or even all three methods of cultivation).

The good news, according to Cannabis Business Times, is that the number of indoor operations has been declining steadily over the past five years, from 80 percent in 2016 to 60 percent in 2020, while greenhouse grows increased by 7 percent from 2016 to 2020 and outdoor grows increased by 5 percent during the same period.

Dale Gieringer, the longtime head of the nonprofit California NORML, has been following the evolution of marijuana growing for decades, back to the 1980s, when raids on northern California pot growers helped prompt the move toward indoor cultivation. It was just easier to hide the crop from the cops by growing it indoors, but that required artificial lights and all the other inputs to grow an indoor crop.

"Indoor [cultivation] never made any sense to us, any more than indoor wheat or any other indoor agricultural crop," Gieringer told Drug Reporter. "That's the whole beauty of marijuana: Unlike pharmaceutical drugs, you can make it with pure sunlight; it's very carbon neutral and energy efficient when you do it that way."

Nowadays, said Gieringer, it is not the need to hide from law enforcement but rather the need to comply with stringent regulatory requirements that induces growers to go under the lights.

"All those security precautions the government puts [in place] to protect us have driven a lot of people indoors," he said while speaking with Drug Reporter. "One of the weird things that happened in California was that authorities got real skittish about outdoor growing in a lot of places, and so, early on, we had these towns out in the desert that opened up huge indoor grow facilities that have to be air-conditioned. None of that makes any sense to me; it's just the way things have been regulated."

One group that encourages not just outdoor cultivation but outdoor cultivation with the best practices is Sun+Earth Certified, the leading nonprofit certification for regenerative organic cannabis.

Sun+Earth Certified was founded in 2019 on Earth Day "by cannabis industry leaders, experts and advocates with a common commitment to regenerative organic agriculture, farmer and farm-worker protections, and community engagement," according to an article in Cannabis Business Times.

To earn the Sun+Earth seal, marijuana farms must not only be organic (no chemical fertilizers or toxic pesticides), but also use sustainable methods that regenerate the soil, such as using cover crops, composting, reduced soil tillage, and planting the crop alongside food crops. All of these practices suck carbon out of the atmosphere.

"The multi-billion dollar cannabis industry has an important obligation to shift away from high levels of energy consumption and chemical-intensive farming practices, and Sun+Earth has the blueprint for how to do that," said Sun+Earth Executive Director Andrew Black during an Earth Day virtual press conference on April 23, marking the organization's two-year anniversary.

"In two years, we've grown to 33 cannabis farms and hope to finish the year with 60 total certifications," said Black. "This shows demand at both the farmer and consumer level for high-bar certifications for regenerative sustainable cannabis production."

The group is striving to set the gold standard for more-than-organic marijuana production.

"Our certification is tougher than normal USDA organic farming requirements," Black said during the virtual press conference. "Farmers must build soil fertility using natural resources from the farm itself to create living, bio-rich soil. And there are written contracts to protect farm labor and… to engage with and uplift the local community. Those aren't part of any other organic standard."

Sun+Earth certified farmers are a world away from industrial cannabis production practices indoors and under lights.

"I credit the [cannabis] plant with bringing me into the consciousness of being in a living system on a living planet," said Tina Gordon of Moon Made Farms, a Sun+Earth certified grower in Southern Humboldt County, who also participated in the press conference. "We do less than half an acre [of marijuana cultivation], in the ground, in full air [and] under the sun. The plants are exposed to the elements. You think about how the plants are grown and how they react to the natural environment, and you ask yourself: What does the land around us offer? What is the responsible way to live? You have to do this in the best possible way with the best possible practices, not just for the plant, but for the people and the community. That's why Sun+Earth resonates so deeply for me. We can care for and heal the planet and ourselves with cannabis."

As Gordon and fellow Sun+Earth certified grower Chrystal Ortiz, founder of High Water Farm, demonstrate, best practices mean adapting to the land, not trying to bend it to one's will.

"We're in an oak grove, and we chip the oak for mulching," Gordon said during the virtual press conference. "We mulch on top of where the plants grow and also beside them, and the mycelium starts eating the wood, and we flip that back into the soil, so it's soil-building. The mycelium is also breaking down a thick layer of leaves, making humus; this is how trees grow. We start with what feeds these native plants and then we start tuning in on the essentials. We use rainwater from the top of the property, and of course, we utilize the sun. When this [cannabis] plant goes indoors, the opportunity to understand how and where this plant is grown is lost."

Ortiz's High Water Farm occupies a different growing environment, and that makes for a different growing method.

"What is unique about farming here is that it is way different than Tina's [experience] of mulching and mycelium. I'm working [with] a beautiful, silty canvas in the Eel River watershed that fills with water every winter, a zen canvas that is rebuilt every year. Farming in the silt is different from forest cultivation. I'm learning new ancient traditions," Ortiz, who is a second-generation grower, said during the virtual press conference.

"We do dry farming with a cover crop, and we till the cover crop, run sheep that eat the cover, till the sheep poop and [compost the] cover crop into the ground, and then we plant our plants directly into the ground," she elaborated. "There is no water or fertilizer added whatsoever for the entire cycle. We just look at the ancient redwoods with their wide shallow root systems; they figured it out, and we follow the same process. We have wide plant spacing, the sunshine hitting this native soil and the evaporation of the water table. It's a very unique, faithful way to grow. When the plant gets the strength and resilience it needs, we're off to the races for another beautiful season."

Sun+Earth fills only a tiny niche in the massive marijuana economy, but it is a niche that is growing and one that can help begin to shift practices in the industry.

"We're trying to build a truly green cannabis economy, and that means educating at the dispensary level about why Sun+Earth cannabis is important and how consumers can support farmers by buying their products," said Black during the virtual press conference. "If we want to keep these farms on the land, they have to be supported in the marketplace.

"Right now, the expansion of Sun+Earth is happening organically," Black said. "We're creating demand in California, where we have an active campaign to promote Sun+Earth at point of sale. And we're trying to create campaigns that attract more of a national audience. For instance, last fall, we had a fundraising campaign where Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps created a cannabis-scented soap made from hemp extract from a Sun+Earth certified farm in Oregon."

Those campaigns are getting the word out beyond California, Black added, pointing to four farms in Oregon, two in Washington, a hemp farm in Wisconsin, and an urban medical marijuana grow in Detroit that have shown interest in the work being done by his organization.

"We're working on expanding to the Eastern Seaboard, too, maybe soon in Massachusetts, where local ordinances allow for outdoor grows. In some jurisdictions, they don't allow outdoor production, which is crazy."

What's really crazy, though, is contributing to the global climate crisis by smoking indoor-grown, high carbon footprint weed. As the example of Sun+Earth shows, conscious consumers can make a difference by supporting conscientious producers.

Phillip Smith is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug policy journalist for more than two decades. He is the longtime writer and editor of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the nonprofit Stop the Drug War, and was the editor of AlterNet's coverage of drug policy from 2015 to 2018. He was awarded the Drug Policy Alliance's Edwin M. Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Biden takes a step in the right direction on drug policy — but sends worrying signals too

On April 1, the Biden administration gave us the first big hint of what its drug policy will look like with the release of the congressionally mandated "Statement of Drug Policy Priorities for Year One." The result is a definite mixed bag, with the statement not only focusing on a heavy dose of drug prevention, treatment, and recovery—along with an acknowledgment of harm reduction—and a nod in the direction of racially sensitive criminal justice reform, but also a reflexive reliance on prohibitionist drug war policies both at home and abroad.

And there is no mention of the most widely used illicit drug by far: marijuana. The words "marijuana" or "cannabis" do not appear anywhere in the main statement. That's perhaps not so surprising, given that in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle on April 5, Vice President Kamala Harris said the administration was "too busy" dealing with the coronavirus pandemic to make good on its campaign pledges relating to marijuana reform.

What is on the administration's mind is "the overdose and addiction crisis." Citing ever-increasing drug overdose deaths, the statement says "addressing the overdose and addiction epidemic is an urgent priority for his [Biden's] administration." But the solution is not to imprison drug users, with the statement noting that "President Biden has also said that people should not be incarcerated for drug use but should be offered treatment instead." This might come across as a seemingly humane approach, but it is actually based on an errant presumption that all or most drug users are addicts and need treatment when, depending on the drug, only between 5 percent and 15 percent of drug users fit that dependent or problematic drug user description.

Here are the Biden administration's drug policy priorities, all of which are dealt with in detail in the statement:

  • Expanding access to evidence-based treatment;
  • Advancing racial equity issues in our approach to drug policy;
  • Enhancing evidence-based harm reduction efforts;
  • Supporting evidence-based prevention efforts to reduce youth substance use;
  • Reducing the supply of illicit substances;
  • Advancing recovery-ready workplaces and expanding the addiction workforce; and
  • Expanding access to recovery support services.

Prioritizing treatment, prevention, and recovery is bound to be music to the ears of advocacy groups such as Faces and Voices of Recovery (FAVOR), whose own federal policy and advocacy priorities, while focusing on specific legislation, lean in the same direction. But the group also advocates for harm reduction practices the administration omits, particularly supervised consumption sites. FAVOR took note of the administration's statement without making a comment regarding it.

As with the failure to even mention marijuana, the Biden administration's failure to include supervised consumption sites in its embrace of harm reduction—it is wholeheartedly behind needle exchanges, for example—is another indication that the administration is in no hurry to rush down a progressive drug reform path. And the prioritizing of supply reduction by the Biden administration implies continued drug war in Latin America (while working "with key partners… like Mexico and Colombia") and at home, via support of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program and "multi-jurisdictional task forces and other law enforcement efforts to disrupt and dismantle transnational drug trafficking and money laundering organizations." Prohibition is a hard drug to kick.

Still, naming advancing racial equity issues as a key priority is evidence that the Biden administration is serious about getting at some of the most perverse and corrosive outcomes of the war on drugs and is in line with its broader push for racial justice, as exemplified by Executive Order 13985, "Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government," issued on Biden's first day in office. And it is in this context that criminal justice system reform gets prioritized, although somewhat vaguely, with the promise of the creation of an "interagency working group to agree on specific policy priorities for criminal justice reform."

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), meanwhile, has some specific policy priorities for criminal justice reform, too, and they go far beyond where the administration is at. In its 2021 Roadmap for the new administration released in February, the group calls for federal marijuana legalization, drug decriminalization, and a slew of other criminal justice and policing reforms including ending mandatory minimum sentencing and the deportation of non-citizens for drug possession to barring no-knock police raids, ending the transfer of military surplus equipment for counternarcotics law enforcement, and dismantling the Drug Enforcement Administration. And the federal government should get out of the way of supervised consumption sites, or in DPA's politically attuned language, "overdose prevention centers."

"We're glad the administration is taking important steps to address the overdose crisis—by increasing access and funding to harm reduction services and reducing barriers to life-saving medications—especially as people are dying at an alarming rate. We also appreciate their commitment to studying how to advance racial equity in our drug policies and best implement innovative practices on the ground. But it's clearly not enough. We need action," DPA's Office of National Affairs director Maritza Perez said in a press release while responding to the administration's statement. "Black, Latinx and Indigenous people continue to lose their lives at the hands of law enforcement in the name of the drug war, and yet, the Administration has chosen to prioritize increased funding for law enforcement. We need supervised consumption sites, not more money for police."

"And while we commend the Administration for taking steps to reduce employment discrimination, unless we address the biggest barrier for people trying to get a job—past drug convictions and arrests—we will still be left with significant inequities and racial disparities in the workplace," Perez continued. "It's time we get serious about saving lives and repairing the damage that has been caused by the drug war, particularly on Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities. We can start by passing federal marijuana reform and ending the criminalization of people for drugs in all forms."

Young drug reformers also had a few bones to pick with the administration's priorities. In their own statement in response to that by the administration, Students for Sensible Drug Policy applauded priorities like more access to treatment and more research on racial equity. But the group complained that the administration priorities "fail to provide adequate support to Young People Who Use Drugs (YPWUD) in this country"—especially those who use drugs non-problematically.

"[T]here are no steps being taken to support YPWUD that do not want to and will not stop using drugs," SSDP said. "Young people have feared and faced the consequences of punitive drug policies and shouldered the burden of caring for their peers who use drugs for far too long. Young leaders calling for drug policy reform recognize that simply using drugs is not problematic and that we can support the safe and prosperous futures of People Who Use Drugs (PWUD) without forcing them to stop as a pre-condition for compassion, care, and opportunity."

Although only time will tell, for drug reformers, the policies of the Biden administration are looking like a step in the right direction, but only a step. Its policy prescriptions still seem like they are limited by a vision of drug use rooted in the last century. Perhaps the administration can be pressured and prodded to plot a more progressive drug policy path.

Phillip Smith is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug policy journalist for more than two decades. He is the longtime writer and editor of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the nonprofit Stop the Drug War, and was the editor of AlterNet's coverage of drug policy from 2015 to 2018. He was awarded the Drug Policy Alliance's Edwin M. Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. The Drug Policy Alliance is a funder of Drug Reporter.

Matt Gaetz investigation evolves from sex trafficking to marijuana: report

The investigation into Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) continues to evolve as federal authorities find more information to expand their case. Over the last several weeks, the case, which began as an investigation into sex trafficking, has expanded to an investigative probe into medical marijuana legislation passed in Florida a few years prior.

According to NBC Connecticut, there are multiple reasons why investigators are zeroing in on Gaetz's longstanding interest in medical marijuana. His connection to two individuals who benefited greatly from Florida's passing of medical marijuana raises ethical concerns and questions about the possibility of conflicts of interest.

The publication reports that Gaetz, Dr. Jason Pirozzolo, and Halsey Beshears have quite a few common interests between the three of them but the most significant is the Sunshine State's $1.2 billion medical marijuana industry. Now, his case, which focused on allegations of sex trafficking a minor, has shifted to one that focuses on "a larger review of public corruption."

What began as a probe into sex trafficking and whether Gaetz paid women and an underage girl in exchange for sex has grown into a larger review of public corruption, according to people familiar with the investigation.

Individuals with knowledge of the investigation have revealed investigators are "looking at whether Gaetz and his associates tried to secure government jobs for some of the women."

Investigators are also said to be looking into "scrutinizing Gaetz's connections to the medical marijuana sector, including whether Pirozzolo and others sought to influence legislation Gaetz sponsored. The probe includes legislation from 2018, when Gaetz was in Congress, and earlier work in the state legislature."

With Florida's distinct legislation in place to govern its medical marijuana industry, the state only allowed a "limited the pool of applicants to nurseries that had been in continuous business for 30 years and had an inventory of 400,000 or more plants." The pool of applicants included the Beshears family.

The Tampa Bay Times reported in 2014 that Beshears had failed to file a conflict of interest report when he voted on the bill, and the lawmaker who sponsored the amendment wanted to "err on the side of limiting who could qualify now" when embarking on such a new industry. More licenses have since been awarded, but the industry is still tightly controlled.

On the day Pirozzolo viewed from the Florida House, another amendment was added to the state's marijuana legislation requiring "dispensary applicants to employ a doctor as a medical director." Just one week after that amendment was added, Pirozzolo formed a consulting firm to connect cannabis businesses with medical directors.

Amid Florida's continued expansion of marijuana, many measures were incorporated that appear to align with Gaetz, Pirozzolo, and Beshears' interests. However, Gaetz continues to deny any wrongdoing in connection with the allegations he is facing.

Breaking down the differences among CBD, marijuana and hemp: Which are legal?

Brandon McFadden, University of Delaware and Trey Malone, Michigan State University

New York recently became the 15th U.S. state to legalize cannabis for recreational use.

While 67% of U.S. adults support marijuana legalization, public knowledge about cannabis is low. A third of Americans think hemp and marijuana are the same thing, according to the National Institutes of Health, and many people still search Google to find out whether cannabidiol – a cannabis derivative known as CBD – will get them high, as marijuana does.

Hemp, marijuana and CBD are all related, but they differ in significant ways. Here's what you need to know about their legality, effects and potential health benefits.

Hemp, marijuana and cannabanoidals

Both hemp and marijuana belong to the same species, Cannabis sativa, and the two plants look somewhat similar. However, substantial variation can exist within a species. After all, great Danes and chihuahuas are both dogs, but they have obvious differences.

Tiny chihuahua sits next to a giant great dane

Great Danes and chihuahuas are distant cousins, like marijuana and hemp.

Pixy, CC BY

The defining difference between hemp and marijuana is their psychoactive component: tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Hemp has 0.3% or less THC, meaning hemp-derived products don't contain enough THC to create the “high" traditionally associated with marijuana.

CBD is a compound found in cannabis. There are hundreds of such compounds, which are termed “cannabinoids," because they interact with receptors involved in a variety of functions like appetite, anxiety, depression and pain sensation. THC is also a cannabinoid.

Clinical research indicates that CBD is effective at treating epilepsy. Anecdotal evidence suggests it can help with pain and even anxiety – though scientifically the jury is still out on that.

Marijuana, containing both CBD and more THC than hemp, has demonstrated therapeutic benefits for people with epilepsy, nausea, glaucoma and potentially even multiple sclerosis and opioid-dependency disorder.

However, medical research on marijuana is severely restricted by federal law.

The Drug Enforcement Agency categorizes cannabis as a Schedule 1 substance, meaning it handles cannabis as if there is no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Scientists don't know exactly how CBD works, nor how it interacts with other cannabinoids like THC to give marijuana its added therapeutic effects.

Retail CBD

CBD comes in food, tinctures and oils, just to name a few. Here are some commonly used terms used to describe CBD products in the store.

Wood shelf with various CBD products from the R+R Medicinals label on it

Full spectrum CBD products for sale, including tinctures, topical creams, edible gummies and pet products.

Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

While the terms “CBD tincture" and “CBD oil" are often used interchangeably, the two are actually different. Tinctures are made by soaking cannabis in alcohol, while oils are made by suspending CBD in a carrier oil, like olive or coconut oil.

“Pure" CBD, also called “CBD isolate," is called that because all other cannabinoids have been removed. So have terpenes and flavonoids, which give marijuana its strong aroma and earthy flavor.

“Broad spectrum" CBD typically contains at least three other cannabinoids, as well as some terpenes and flavonoids – but still no THC. “Full spectrum" CBD, also called “whole flower" CBD, is similar to broad spectrum but can contain up to 0.3% THC.

In states where recreational marijuana is legal, the list of cannabis-derived products greatly expands to include CBD with much higher THC content than 0.3%.

There is no standardized dosage of CBD. Some retailers may have enough knowledge to make a recommendation for first-timers. There are also online resources – like this dosage calculator.

Consumers concerned about content and the accuracy of CBD products, which are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, can look for certification from independent lab testing or by scanning a QR code on product packaging.

Note that CBD oil is different from hemp oil – which comes from pressing cannabis seeds, and may not contain CBD – and hempseed oil, which is a source of essential fatty acids and contains no CBD. It's a nutritional supplement, more like fish oil than CBD oil.

Legal status

Another big difference among hemp, marijuana and CBD is how the law treats them.

Though 15 states have now legalized recreational marijuana, it remains illegal federally in the United States. Technically, those in possession of marijuana in a legal weed state can still be punished under federal law, and traveling across state borders with cannabis is prohibited.

Hemp, on the other hand, was made legal to grow and sell in the United States in the 2018 Farm Bill.

Man wearing backpack looks at a row of hemp plants

A stand at the 2019 Southern Hemp Expo, in Tennessee.

Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

One would assume, then, that hemp-derived CBD should be federally legal in every state because the THC levels don't surpass 0.3%. But CBD occupies a legal gray area. Several states, such as Nebraska and Idaho, still essentially regulate CBD oil as a Schedule 1 substance akin to marijuana.

Our recent study found that Americans perceive hemp and CBD to be more like over-the-counter medication and THC to be more like a prescription drug. Still, the average person in the U.S. does not view hemp, CBD, THC or even marijuana in the same light as illicit substances like meth and cocaine – even though both are classified by the DEA as having a lower potential for abuse than marijuana.

The current federal prohibition of marijuana, in other words, does not align with the public's view – though state-based legalization shows that society is moving on without the blessing of politicians on Capitol Hill. U.S. recreational marijuana retail sales may reach US$8.7 billion in 2021, up from $6.7 billion in 2016.

As interest in other cannabinoids, like cannabigerol, or CBG – which some are touting as the new CBD – continues to grow, so too grows the need for further medical research into cannabis.

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Brandon McFadden, Assistant Professor of Applied Economics and Statistics, University of Delaware and Trey Malone, Assistant Professor and Extension Economist, Michigan State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Another win for marijuana: New Mexico embraces legalization

On March 31, New Mexico became the second state in as many days to see lawmakers approve marijuana legalization. New York had signed legislation to legalize adult-use recreational marijuana one day earlier. The legislators in Santa Fe, New Mexico, approved the Cannabis Regulation Act (House Bill 2) and the Expungement of Certain Criminal Records (Senate Bill 2).

Both states have Democratic governors who are supportive of their states' marijuana legalization, with New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo signing the bill into law on March 31. New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, who called a special session precisely to get legalization passed, made her intentions clear earlier in March, saying, "We're going to get cannabis because I am not going to wait another year," according to a video clip by the Paper.

She was even more clear after the bills finally passed. "This is a significant victory for New Mexico," she said in a post-vote statement on March 31. "Workers will benefit from the opportunity to build careers in this new economy. Entrepreneurs will benefit from the opportunity to create lucrative new enterprises. The state and local governments will benefit from the additional revenue. Consumers will benefit from the standardization and regulation that comes with a bona fide industry. And those who have been harmed by this country's failed war on drugs, disproportionately communities of color, will benefit from our state's smart, fair and equitable new approach to past low-level convictions."

Once Lujan Grisham signs the bills, New Mexico will become the 17th state to legalize marijuana and the fourth to do so via the legislative process, after Vermont, Illinois, and New York. Virginia is expected to join this group soon—the legislature has already passed a legalization bill, but Governor Ralph Northam (D) has proposed an amendment to the bill that will speed up the implementation of legalization from 2024 to July 1, 2021. The General Assembly will take up the amendment in a one-day session to consider vetoes and amendments on April 7 and is expected to approve it soon after.

"This year is proving to be nothing short of monumental for the cannabis policy reform movement. State legislatures across the nation are recognizing the urgent need to end cannabis prohibition and are rising to the challenge," Steve Hawkins, executive director at the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement after the vote.

In New Mexico, House Bill 2 allows people 21 and over to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and grow up to six mature plants at home. It also sets up a plan for taxed and regulated sales to begin next year, with a maximum of 20 percent tax. And the bill includes measures aimed at easing entry into the industry for those disproportionately impacted by pot prohibition. While the bill was stripped of some provisions that would have helped ameliorate the impact of the war on drugs on the most affected communities, it does provide an entrée to the industry via low-cost licenses for small producers, and it will also allow some people with drug convictions to gain entry to the legal industry.

Senate Bill 2 provides for the automatic expungement of past marijuana possession convictions. It also provides for a review of the sentences of about 100 state prisoners currently doing time for marijuana-related crimes.

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) has had a New Mexico office since 2000 and has been plugging into a wide range of drug reform issues, including marijuana legalization ever since. It lauded the long-sought-after victory.

"New Mexicans are finally able to exhale. After many years of hard work, another whirlwind legislative session, and input from stakeholders throughout the state, social justice-centered cannabis legalization is on its way to the Governor's desk, where she has already agreed to sign," DPA senior director for Resident States and New Mexico Emily Kaltenbach said in a statement after the vote.

The Land of Enchantment is about to get a bit more enchanting.

Phillip Smith is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug policy journalist for more than two decades. He is the longtime writer and editor of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the nonprofit Stop the Drug War, and was the editor of AlterNet's coverage of drug policy from 2015 to 2018. He was awarded the Drug Policy Alliance's Edwin M. Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. The Drug Policy Alliance is a funder of Drug Reporter.

'This is a historic day': Legal marijuana arrives in New York

On March 31, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) signed legislation that would immediately legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana for persons 21 and older and set the stage for a taxed and regulated legal marijuana market in New York State.

In a tweet posted soon after signing the legislation, Cuomo said, "This is a historic day. I thank the Leader and Speaker and the tireless advocacy of so many."

One day earlier, hours of debate in the New York State Senate ended with a 40-23 vote to approve the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (Senate Bill 854-A). The House followed up hours later, approving the bill with a 100-49 vote.

An embattled Governor Andrew Cuomo had reached an agreement with legislative leaders on the bill over the weekend.

Late on March 30, Cuomo said he was looking forward to signing the bill. "New York has a storied history of being the progressive capital of the nation, and this important legislation will once again carry on that legacy," he was quoting saying, according to PIX11.

New York has become the 16th state to legalize marijuana and the third to do so through the legislative process. It is also the second most populous state to do so after California. And, along with legalization in New Jersey earlier this year, the Empire State's decision to end its war on marijuana will undoubtedly add pressure on remaining neighboring pot prohibition states to get on the bandwagon.

Under the bill, people 21 and over will be able to possess up to 3 ounces and grow up to six plants, three of them mature. Past marijuana possession convictions will be automatically expunged. But legal sales will not commence until a state committee sets up rules and regulations for the nascent industry.

Keen recognition of racial injustice in the prosecution of the war on drugs guided legislators as they crafted their vision of progressive marijuana law reform. As a leading bill supporter, State Senator Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) enumerated in a statement after the legislation took final form the main features of the bill, which has a strong set of social equity provisions, including:

  • "Dedicating 40 percent of revenue to reinvestment in communities disproportionately impacted by the drug war, with 40 percent to schools and public education, and 20 percent to drug treatment, prevention and education"
  • "Equity programs providing loans, grants, and incubator programs to ensure broad opportunities for participation in the new legal industry by people from disproportionately impacted communities as well as by small farmers"
  • "A goal of 50 percent of licenses going to equity applicants"

Krueger, who, along with other legislative leaders and a broad-based coalition of activists, has been trying to get legalization passed since 2013, said she was pleased with the passage of the bill, in a statement after the vote.

"Today is an historic day for New Yorkers," she said in her statement. "I could not be more proud to cast my vote to end the failed policies of marijuana prohibition in our state, and begin the process of building a fair and inclusive legal market for adult-use cannabis. It has been a long road to get here, but it will be worth the wait. The bill we have held out for will create a nation-leading model for legalization. New York's program will not just talk the talk on racial justice, it will walk the walk."

In her statement, Krueger gave shout-outs to Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo) and to activist groups such as the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), both of whom have been working on the issue for years.

"I am proud to have fought so long for this legislation and to finally see it pass," said Peoples-Stokes. "We are providing marijuana justice by ensuring investment into the lives and communities of those who suffered for generations as a result of mass incarceration. The results will be transformative for people across New York State—it will create economic and research opportunities, jobs across a wide variety of sectors, and a safe and reliable product."

"This day is certainly a long time coming," DPA executive director Kassandra Frederique said in a statement after the March 30 vote. "When we started working toward marijuana reform 11 years ago, we knew we had our work cut out for us. Because of the sheer extent of harm that had been inflicted on Black and Brown communities over the years, any marijuana reform that was brought forth had to be equally comprehensive to begin repairing the damage. And I can confidently say, the result… is something truly reimaginitive. We went from New York City being the marijuana arrest capital of the country to today New York State coming through as a beacon of hope, showing the rest of the country what comprehensive marijuana reform—centered in equity, justice and reinvestment—looks like."

A new day is dawning in New York.

Phillip Smith is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug policy journalist for more than two decades. He is the longtime writer and editor of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the nonprofit Stop the Drug War, and was the editor of AlterNet's coverage of drug policy from 2015 to 2018. He was awarded the Drug Policy Alliance's Edwin M. Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. The Drug Policy Alliance is a funder of Drug Reporter.

‘20 years ago in Montana meth was homemade': Senator scorched for 'waxing nostalgic' about illegal drugs

Senator Steve Daines Blames Decades-Old Illegal Drug Crisis on President Biden

Republican U.S. Senator Steve Daines' cause may have been just – denouncing illegal drugs crossing the border and especially the heightened potency of extremely dangerous meth made in Mexico, coming into his home state of Montana. But during a Friday press conference he sounded more like, as one person put it, "a Montana meth brand ambassador."

Senator Daines on Friday also put the blame for the decades-old crisis on President Joe Biden.

Meth is not only dangerously addictive, it is deadly and Daines' home state of Montana has been ravaged by the illegal drug that for decades has taken countless lives.

Which may be why so many on social media were perplexed about the Montana Senator's choice of words after denouncing "the flood of Mexican meth, Mexican heroin, Mexican fentanyl."

"20 years ago in Montana, meth was homemade – it was home grown," he said emphatically, nearly with pride. One person said it sounded like he was "waxing nostalgic."

"It had purity levels less than 30 percent," Daines continued. "Today, the meth that is getting into Montana is Mexican cartel."

Oddly, Daines gave the exact same speech to a local Billings, Montana newspaper Thursday, so this wasn't a flub. Daines or one of his aides actually wrote this, and he must have practiced it before delivering it in front of the cameras Friday, presumably thinking it sounded good.

But Daines also blamed the illegal drugs that have been crossing the border for decades on President Biden, who has been in office two months and six days, calling it the "#BidenBorderCrisis," which is just plain false.

In fact, here he is in 2019, before Biden was President, bragging about "bringing Vice President Mike Pence to Billings next Wednesday (6/12) for a firsthand look at Montana's devastating meth crisis."

Meanwhile, The Recount said the Montana Republican Senator was getting "a little nostalgic."

Another social media user commented that Daines "sounds more upset that the meth production has been outsourced than the issue of meth still being so prevalent."

Some expressed confusion about Daines' intentions:

Others just totally mocked him:

Why Canada is pulling the plug on its war on drugs

On February 18, Canada's governing Liberal Party finally moved to enact long-promised reforms in its criminal justice system by introducing a sweeping new bill that "would require police and prosecutors to consider alternative measures for cases of simple possession of drugs," other than making arrests. The legislation would also end all mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and some "gun-related crimes," and open the way for conditional (probationary) sentences for a variety of offenses. But is it enough?

The government's move comes as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces mounting pressure for reform on two fronts. First, Canada is facing an unprecedented drug overdose crisis, with the province of British Columbia hit especially hard. According to a recent report on "unintentional illicit drug toxicity deaths" by the provincial Coroners Service, British Columbia saw a whopping 1,724 drug overdose deaths in 2020, up by a startling 74 percent from 2019.

The province has always been on the cutting edge of drug reform in Canada, and spurred by the crisis, British Columbia formally asked the federal government in early February for an exemption to the country's drug laws to allow it to decriminalize the possession of personal use amounts of illicit drugs. That request is still being considered by Ottawa.

But the pressure for drug decriminalization isn't just coming from British Columbia; it's coming from inside the criminal justice system. In July 2020, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police's president, chief constable Adam Palmer, called for drug decriminalization, recommending that "Canada's enforcement-based approach for possession be replaced with a health-care approach that diverts people from the criminal justice system." The following month, the federal prosecution service issued "a new directive permitting prosecution only in the most serious cases."

And public opinion supports decriminalization. An Angus Reid Institute poll released after the government announced the new bill found that seven out of 10 Canadians felt the country's opioid crisis had worsened in 2020, and 59 percent supported the decriminalization of all illegal drugs.

Second, just as the massive protests in the summer of 2020 in the United States channeled and amplified long-standing demands for racial and social justice, so have they echoed north of the border. Canada has its own not-so-noble history of racism and discrimination, and the number of Black and Indigenous people swept up in the country's criminal justice system demonstrates that the legacy of the past continues to this day, as reported on Vice.

Indigenous people make up 5 percent of the Canadian population but accounted for more than 30 percent of all federal prisoners by 2020. Similarly, Black people account for about 3 percent of the population of the country but made up more than 7 percent of prisoners in the country's federal correctional services in 2019. As the justice ministry noted in a 2018 report, after Conservatives passed tough anti-crime measures early this century, Black and Indigenous people were disproportionately targeted for mandatory minimum sentencing in the decade ending in 2017. And as the Office of the Correctional Investigator reported, Black inmates are more likely to be sent to maximum-security prisons, have force used against them, and be denied parole.

As the government rolled out the bill, C-22, "An Act to amend the Criminal Code and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act," Justice Minister David Lametti made it clear that not just public health but also racial justice was a priority.

In a mandate letter, Trudeau had asked Lametti to "address systemic inequities in the criminal justice system." In a press conference on February 18, Lametti said that the system "did not make the justice system more effective or more fair. Its singular accomplishment has been to incarcerate too many Indigenous people, too many Black people and too many marginalized Canadians."

The bill envisions reforms in policing, prosecuting, and sentencing drug offenders and sets out principles for dealing with drug offenses, including that "problematic substance use should be addressed primarily as a health and social issue." It further adds that state actors should recognize human rights and harm reduction imperatives, and criminal sanctions are stigmatizing and "not consistent with established public health evidence."

Under these principles, when encountering people using or possessing drugs, a peace officer would be granted the discretion to "consider whether it would be preferable… to take no further action, to warn the individual or, with the consent of the individual, to refer the individual to a program or to an agency or other service provider in the community that may assist the individual."

Similarly, the bill mandates prosecutors open drug possession cases only when a warning, referral, or alternative measures are "not appropriate, and a prosecution is appropriate in the circumstances." And it gives judges much broader discretion to order probationary sentences instead of confinement.

The bill looks as if it were designed to cut off an influx of inmates to the Canadian prison system at every level of the system. Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who has represented Toronto's Beaches-East York district since 2015, and is a longtime proponent of full drug decriminalization, says that is exactly what it is supposed to do.

He filed private member's bills this session for decriminalization (C-235) and for an evidence-based diversion model (C-236) to reduce drug arrests and prosecutions. It is the latter bill that the government has now largely adopted as C-22.

"I favor drug decriminalization because the war on drugs is an absolute failure that harms the people we want to help," he told Drug Reporter. "Our opioid crisis has taken more than 16,000 lives since 2016, and there is systemic racism in the criminal justice system, including around drug charges."

But if the Trudeau government wasn't ready to take the big step of decriminalization, Erskine-Smith's bills offered an out.

"My goal was to call for full decriminalization with a second bill to show the government if they weren't inclined to favor decriminalization, here's an alternative that would get us closer to the goal and would be more politically feasible. This bill [C-22] seriously restricts the discretion of police and prosecutors to proceed, according to a set of principles that will ensure a stronger focus on human rights and harm reduction," he said. "It doesn't go as far as I want it to go, but it is unquestionably a step forward. It will be virtually impossible for the state to move forward with drug possession charges and prosecutions."

Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and author of Vancouver's groundbreaking Four Pillars drug strategy in the 1990s, has a more jaundiced view of both the Liberals and C-22.

"The things that are in this bill are all things the Liberals promised when they were elected in 2015, and if they had done this then it would have been seen as a good move, getting rid of egregious stuff the [Stephen] Harper government had implemented," he told Drug Reporter. "But now, the discussion has moved so far that even police chiefs are calling for decriminalization. It's too little, too late."

Even the limited support he gave the bill was filled with caveats.

"Overall, though, it is a good thing, it is incremental progress; getting rid of the mandatory minimums is probably the most powerful aspect in terms of criminal law," MacPherson conceded. "But the bill was supposed to deal with the disproportionate impact of drug law enforcement on people of color, and it won't do it. There will be more probationary sentences and more alternatives to imprisonment, but arrests and prosecutions will be 'at the discretion of,' and Black and Indigenous people will now be caught up in kinder, gentler diversion programs."

Still, the passage of C-22 would be a step in the right direction, MacPherson said.

"It is preparing the ground for the next step, full decriminalization, which I think is now inevitable. The harms of criminalization in Canada are now so evident to everyone that the question now is not whether to but how to," he said. "We saw this with cannabis—at a certain point, the change in the discourse was palpable. We're now at that point with drug decriminalization."

Longtime Vancouver drug user activist Ann Livingston, co-founder of the pioneering Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and currently the executive project coordinator for the British Columbia and Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors, had an even more critical view, scoffing at more police discretion and expanded probationary sentences.

"I'm glad to see the mandatory minimums gone, but the Liberals want more police, and we say don't do us any more favors," she told Drug Reporter. "And the police have always had discretion to not make drug arrests; they just never exercise it. And probation—many of the people in jail are there for probation violations, even administrative ones, like missing appointments."

For Livingston, the cutting edge is now no longer criminal justice reforms or even decriminalization but creating a safe supply of currently illegal drugs. Limited opioid maintenance programs, including heroin, are available in the city, but they aren't enough, she said.

"Here in British Columbia, we had 900 COVID deaths last year and 1,700 overdose deaths. What we need is a safe drug supply," she argued. "We have to have clear demands, and what we are demanding is a pure, safe supply of heroin, cocaine, and crystal meth. This is a crisis; this is the time to do this drug law stuff right. And to get serious. The feds tell us they place no barriers on heroin prescribing, but then they fight about who is going to pay for it."

If Justin Trudeau and the Liberals think passing C-22 is going to quiet the clamor for more fundamental change in Canadian drug policies, they should probably think again.

Phillip Smith is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug policy journalist for more than two decades. He is the longtime writer and editor of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the nonprofit Stop the Drug War, and was the editor of AlterNet's coverage of drug policy from 2015 to 2018. He was awarded the Drug Policy Alliance's Edwin M. Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

New plan to legalize marijuana emerges in New York

In New York State — once home to the draconian Rockefeller drug laws — Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature have worked out an agreement for legalizing recreational marijuana for anyone who is 21 or older, Bloomberg News is reporting.

According to Bloomberg reporter Keshia Clukey, New York State "would impose special pot taxes and prepare to license dispensaries under an agreement reached by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders."

New York State Senate Finance Committee Chair Liz Krueger told Bloomberg, "It is my understanding that the three-way agreement has been reached and that bill drafting is in the process of finishing a bill that we all have said we support."

Krueger also told Bloomberg that according to the agreement Cuomo has reached with the New York Legislature, recreational marijuana sold in New York State would be subject to a 13% sales tax — with 9% of that revenue going to the state government and the other 4% going to local governments. And New York lawmakers, according to Kreuger, may vote on marijuana legalization as early as next week.

The announcement of marijuana legalization in New York State comes at a time when Cuomo is facing allegations of sexual harassment and some Democratic politicians are calling for his resignation. The governor, however, has contested some of the allegations and said that he has no plans to resign.

New York State's reported legalization of recreational marijuana is a major departure from the infamous Rockefeller drug laws, which were passed under the late Gov. Nelson Rockefeller during the 1970s. Rockefeller had a reputation for being a moderate Republican, and the term "Rockefeller Republican" came to symbolize northeastern GOP moderates who weren't as far to the right as the Goldwater conservatives and libertarians associated with Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Yet the Rockefeller drug laws imposed severe penalties for selling drugs — including marijuana — and have been blamed for mass incarceration in New York State.

Under the Rockefeller laws, simple possession of larger quantities of marijuana was treated like trafficking. Now, marijuana-related activities that could have resulted in prison sentences of 25 or 30 years in the past will be legal in New York State.

Early on Wednesday at a press briefing, Cuomo told reporters that he was within "inches" of an agreement on marijuana legalization with New York lawmakers, but that the details were still being worked out.

Cuomo told reporters, "I believe New York is the progressive capital of the nation — not just because we say it is, but because we perform that way. And legalizing cannabis is this year's priority to be the progressive capital of the nation. We won't be the first, but our program will be the best."

Live: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo Holds Coronavirus Briefing | NBC News youtu.be

'Misguided': Experts decry Biden push for Colombia to restart glyphosate spraying program

After a six-year halt, Colombia plans to restart the toxic aerial spraying of glyphosate on coca crops as early as next month—drawing "most welcome" support from U.S. President Joe Biden and sharp criticism from 150 regional experts who wrote to Biden, "your administration is implicitly endorsing former President Trump's damaging legacy in Colombia."

On March 2nd, the Biden administration welcomed Colombia's decision to restart its aerial coca eradication program in Biden's first annual 2021 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report: "The government of Colombia has committed to re-starting its aerial coca eradication program, which would be a most welcome development."

Colombia halted the controversial spraying program in 2015. In 2018, Colombia's then-new President Ivan Duque vowed to resume the program but has yet to restart the aerial spraying

The country faced increasing pressure from the United States to restart the program. "You're going to have to spray," former US President Donald Trump told Duque at the White House during a March 2, 2020 meeting.

Aerial fumigation had been a central component of Plan Colombia, the 2005 multi-billion dollar U.S. program to finance the Colombian government war on coca cultivation and their war on FARC, which was Colombia's largest rebel group before being disbanded in 2017.

But in 2015, the Colombian Supreme Court ruled that the spraying must end if the spraying of glyphosate was creating health problems. Also, in 2015, the World Health Organization found that glyphosate—also known as "Roundup"—was harmful to the environment and health, potentially causing cancer.

In 2014, ending aerial fumigation was central to peace negotiations with FARC, with the Colombian government agreeing with FARC negotiators that it would transition away from aerial spraying. The Colombian government was also facing significant pressure from the rural poor, who were organizing national protests against aerial fumigation and other forms of forced eradication. "National level protests blocking access roads and inhibiting movement were a major hindrance to manual eradication's ability to operate in major coca-growing regions, and also bedeviled aerial eradication operations," the US State Department reported in 2014.

VICE News is reporting:

More than 150 experts on drugs, security, and environmental policy in the region have written an open letter to Biden, saying Duque's spraying campaign is "misguided" and Biden's decision "could not have come at a worse time."

"The recently announced decision sends an unfortunate message to the Colombian people that your administration is not committed to abandoning the ineffective and damaging war on drugs internationally, even as your administration takes bold steps to mitigate its multiple impacts on Black, Indigenous, and people of color in the United States," says the letter, spearheaded by the Center for Studies on Security and Drugs at the Bogotá-based Los Andes University.

"By backing fumigation, your administration is implicitly endorsing former President Trump's damaging legacy in Colombia," the letter says. "It was your predecessor who, shortly after taking office, intensified demands on our country to resume spraying with glyphosate, which has been shown to pose significant health and environmental risks to affected populations."

The experts point to how aerial spraying with glyphosate can cause serious health problems, such as cancer, miscarriages, and respiratory illness, and environmental destruction—biodiversity loss, soil damage, and contamination of water sources.

The aerial fumigation program using glyphosate in Colombia continued throughout the US presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

VICE quoted José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch: "Many peasants grow coca because it is their only profitable crop, given weak local food markets, inadequate roads, and lack of formal land titles," he said. "Sustainable progress in reducing coca production can only be achieved by ensuring that farmers have a profitable alternative. And there's no amount of glyphosate that can achieve that."

These 5 states are the most well-placed to legalize marijuana in 2021

In 2020, the number of states that ended pot prohibition reached 15 (and the District of Columbia), as voters in four states—Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota—legalized marijuana through the initiative process. Since 2021 is not an election year, any states that attempt to legalize marijuana this year will have to go through the much more cumbersome legislative process, but at least a handful of them are poised to do so.

It is no coincidence that the early progress toward state-level legalization has been led by states that allow for voter initiatives. State legislatures badly trail public opinion on the issue, and beyond that, the legislative process itself is messy, beset with horse-trading, and progress of a bill is beholden to key legislative gatekeepers—the committee chairs and majority leaders. And because crafting legislation is a complex process, getting a legalization bill through both chambers and signed by a governor generally takes not one, but two to three or even more years.

Legalization bills are likely to appear in nearly every state that has not already freed the weed and are expected to be an uphill struggle in 2021 for most of them.

But the five states listed below have already been grappling with marijuana reform for years, have governors who are backing legalization, and will only be emboldened by the Democrats' majorities in the U.S. House and Senate (which could pass federal legalization in 2021) to push these bills forward. If all goes well, by the end of 2021, the number of legal marijuana states could reach 20.

Here are the five best prospects for 2021.


Marijuana legalization has been fermenting in the legislature for several years now, but in November 2020, Democrats added to their legislative majorities, increasing the odds that the issue will finally move forward in 2021. Governor Ned Lamont (D) reiterated his call for legalization in his State of the State address, saying, "I am working with our neighboring states and look forward to working with our tribal partners on a path forward to modernize gaming in our state, as well as the legislature on legalization of marijuana. Sports betting, internet gaming, and legalized marijuana are happening all around us. Let's not surrender these opportunities to out-of-state markets or even worse, underground markets." And House Speaker Matthew Ritter (D) is vowing to take the issue to the voters if the legislature doesn't act. "I think it'll be a very, very close vote in the House," he said at a press conference in November 2020. "But if we do not have the votes—and I'm not raising the white flag—I want to be very clear: We will put something on the board to put to the voters of the state of Connecticut to amend the state constitution to legalize marijuana."

New Mexico

The Land of Enchantment saw a marijuana legalization bill get through one Senate committee in 2020 only to be killed in another. But with the support of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), who formed a working group on marijuana legalization in 2019, and the ousting of some anti-reform legislators in the November 2020 elections, 2021 could be the year it gets over the finish line. In May 2020, while updating New Mexico residents on the state's response to COVID-19, Lujan Grisham had argued that if the state had legalized recreational marijuana in "this year's [2020] regular session as she'd unsuccessfully urged them to do," it could have helped reduce revenue shortfalls because of the coronavirus. And in December 2020, Lujan Grisham emailed constituents and took a jab at the inaction by lawmakers to ensure legislative legalization of marijuana: "Unfortunately, the Legislature couldn't come to an agreement, even though the economic impact would have created thousands of new jobs and sustainable state revenue sources to invest in New Mexico's future," she wrote. The Senate had been the biggest obstacle to moving a legalization bill, but now the Democratic senators who voted with Republicans to kill the bill in 2020 are out. The state's 60-day "short session" is likely to see several legalization bills, and New Mexico could be the first out of the gate this year.

New York

Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) has been calling for marijuana legalization for years, but measures in the legislature have always stalled because of disputes over taxes and social equity provisions and because of pure legislative power plays. Now, like Connecticut, the Empire State is feeling the pressure of neighboring states—New Jersey—that have already legalized marijuana as well as increased budgetary pressure because of the pandemic, and Cuomo is reiterating the call. In a recent video briefing, Cuomo again proposed the legalization of recreational use of marijuana, according to an article in the New York Times. "I think this should have been passed years ago," he said. "This is a year where we do need the funding and a lot of New Yorkers are struggling. This year will give us the momentum to get it over the goal line." Democrats now have a supermajority in both chambers, which makes it easier to pass legislation, despite Republican objections, and makes it easier for the legislature to override any veto of a legalization bill by Cuomo over provisions he may not like. A legalization bill, SB 854, has already been filed in the Senate. They have been working on this since 2013, and this will be the fifth time the bill has been introduced. For New York, the fifth time may be the charm.

Rhode Island

Governor Gina Raimondo (D) and legislative leaders are all on board with moving forward on legalization, although the governor wants a state-run model and some legislators favor a private model. "The time has come to legalize adult cannabis use," Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D) said in November 2020. "We have studied this issue extensively, and we can incorporate the practices we've learned from other states." McCaffrey and Senator Joshua Miller (D), who spearheaded past efforts to get legalization passed, have been tasked by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D) with coming up with workable legislation this session. And the House is on board, too, with new Speaker Joseph Shekarchi (D) saying he is "'absolutely' open to the idea of cannabis legalization and that his chamber is 'very close'" to having enough votes to pass it. There are a couple of complicating factors for Rhode Island now, though: The division over state versus private sales and the fact that Raimondo will likely be leaving office soon after being nominated as commerce secretary in the new Biden administration.


A legalization bill, SB 1406, has not only been filed, but has already won a committee vote, and Governor Ralph Northam (D) has said he supports marijuana legalization. "Legalizing marijuana will happen in Virginia," he said in November 2020. At the time, Northam laid out the principles the bill will address—social, racial, and economic equity, public health, protections for youth, upholding the state Clean Air Act, and data collection—and said it could take up to two years, but growing public and political support and financial pressures related to the pandemic could well speed up that timeline.

Phillip Smith is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug policy journalist for more than two decades. He is the longtime writer and editor of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the nonprofit Stop the Drug War, and was the editor of AlterNet's coverage of drug policy from 2015 to 2018. He was awarded the Drug Policy Alliance's Edwin M. Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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