In many ways, 2015 was a surprisingly dull year for marijuana reform. Just one statewide legalization initiative made it before voters, in Ohio, and that failed, badly. Lawmakers talked of new laws, but nothing much came of it.
Even the presidential election has failed to spark much fury around legalization. Candidates have staked out positions, with the Democrats leaning toward the idea and the Republicans against it. But only one candidate, Democratic Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, actually pushed specific legislation in 2015.
Instead of marijuana, attention turned for much of the year to Donald Trump and his struggling opponents in the Republican primary race. Most are hostile to reform, though at least one (Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul) has said he would tolerate it. In any event, the issue has failed to catch fire on that side of the aisle. Republican voters are more concerned about immigrants than potheads.
Keep your eyes peeled
The presidential contest will almost certainly be the central story of 2016. But it would be a mistake to think marijuana won’t make a comeback this year. Here are some of the things that could make this the biggest year yet for legal pot.
California: Most observers are predicting legalization in the nation’s most populous state in 2016. If advocates can keep their act together, a ballot proposal should go before voters in the November election. Two previous attempts to legalize fell flat, but public support for the idea is stronger now, and California is still viewed as the big prize.
New York: The fourth-most populous state is nearly as important as California. It may take a bit longer in New York, but 2016 could see statewide legalization. Medical marijuana recently went into law, New York City has effectively decriminalized the drug for recreational use, and the public badly wants legal cannabis. But the process here will unfold in the state Legislature rather than through a public ballot initiative.
New England: Maine or Massachusetts could be the first state to bring legal pot to the East Coast, unless New York or Vermont gets there first. Both those states are vying to become the first to legalize by statute rather than ballot initiative. Whoever wins first, New England’s liberal politics are a strong breeding ground for reform, with Rhode Island also likely to legalize in the next few years.
Arizona and Nevada: Nevada voters are already slated to decide legalization in 2016, while a vote in Arizona looks increasingly likely. These two Western states, which border each other, have strong libertarian streaks that make them ideal for reform. And since both states also border California, we could see a massive three-state win legalizing cannabis all the way from the Canadian border to the New Mexico state line.
Medical Marijuana: Voters in two states, Missouri and Florida, are likely to decide medical marijuana proposals in November. If these initiatives make the ballot, they’re almost certain to draw strong support. That should be enough for a win in Missouri, but in Florida, state law requires that public initiatives get at least 60 percent of the vote. A similar proposal in 2014 drew 57 percent but still failed. Even so, support will likely be stronger this time around. Meanwhile, lawmakers in Pennsylvania may finally take the plunge and enact MMJ in 2016.
Washington, D.C.: Congress will probably debate reform on some level in 2016, though proposals to legalize marijuana will almost certainly fail. A ban on legalization in the nation’s capital could be lifted. And the Obama administration could use the president’s last year in office to make incremental reforms to federal law. That could include protections for Native American tribes that legalize, for cannabis patients, and for veterans, among other groups.