On Tuesday, voters in two different states elected new governors. These elections both, along with the results of several local races countrywide, potentially have massive implications for the entire effort to legalize marijuana in the United States.
Citizens took to the polls in droves on Tuesday, and this is an overview of marijuana-specific ballot measures approved by voters, along with details on how the New Jersey and Virginia Democratic gubernatorial wins will encourage campaigns for cannabis reform in those states.
The new governor-elect of New Jersey, Phil Murphy, based much of his campaign around the promise to legalize marijuana. “The criminalization of marijuana has only served to clog our courts and cloud people’s futures, so we will legalize marijuana,” he stated during his victory speech on primary night. “While there are financial benefits, this is overwhelmingly about doing what is right and just.”
Murphy said in a tweet this summer that New Jersey’s marijuana laws are costing taxpayers $143 million a year. He also said that the racial disparity in arrest rates was an unacceptable 3:1. With outspoken marijuana opponent Chris Christie leaving the governor’s office, now that Murphy is at the helm, New Jersey may become the first state to use legislature to legalize adult use, as opposed to putting it to voters in a ballot question.
Democrat Stephen Sweeney, Senate President, has made a “commitment” to introduce a bill to legalize marijuana in early 2018. He said, “We are going to have a new governor in January 2018. As soon as the new governor gets situated, we are all here and we intend to move quickly on it.”
Ralph Northam, the new governor-elect of Virginia and former lieutenant governor, centered his election campaign on decriminalizing cannabis, frequently discussing the issue in terms of racial justice. “We need to change sentencing laws that disproportionately hurt people of color,” he wrote in blog post. “One of the best ways to do this is to decriminalize marijuana.”
Northam explained with this statement, “African Americans are 2.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Virginia. The Commonwealth spends more than $67 million on marijuana enforcement, money that could be better spent on rehabilitation.” The new governor also wrote a letter to the Virginia State Crime Commission during his campaign, which is currently studying the potential effects of legalization.
In this letter, Northam wrote that, “Virginia spends $67 million on marijuana enforcement, enough to open up another 13,000 pre-K spots for children. African Americans are nearly three times as likely to get arrested for simple possession of marijuana, and sentencing guidelines that include jail time can all too often begin a dangerous cycle of recidivism.”
Tommy Norment, GOP Senate Majority Leader, announced already next year’s plans to introduce legislation that would decriminalize possession of marijuana for first-time offenders. Democrats on Tuesday also succeeded in winning a majority of seats in the House of Delegates, which should bolster Northam’s efforts to pass marijuana reform laws.
Results still pending in a few House of Delegates races could potentially give control of the chamber to Democrats altogether. Prior to Tuesday’s election to top job, Northam has advocated outspokenly for the expansion of Virginia’s limited medical marijuana laws and permitting hemp on an industrial scale.
Residents of Athens, a college town in Ohio, approved a measure overwhelmingly that eliminates all court costs and fines for possession or cultivation of 200 grams of cannabis. Advocates believe that this move will remove incentive for police officers to arrest low-level marijuana offenders. Seventy percent of the town voted in favor of the measure, with only 23 percent against.
Several other cities in Ohio passed similar decriminalization measures last year. Combined, the supportive majority further pressurizes lawmakers in the state to take marijuana reform more seriously and scrap overarching prohibition of the substance, particularly since voters approved the legalization of medical marijuana just last year.
Voters in Philadelphia elected a new district attorney on Tuesday. Incoming prosecutor Lawrence Krasner is vocal about reforming the criminal justice system. His bold statements of the past explain his stance on marijuana enforcement. Krasner has said, “One of the things we see in other jurisdictions is that, where marijuana is readily available, there is a 25 percent reduction in opioid overdose deaths.”
Krasner explained in this statement, “So, if Philadelphia is looking at 500 opioid overdose deaths a year, a district attorney, by choosing not to enforce against marijuana usage, can potentially save 125 lives. That is what a district attorney should exercise his or her discretion to do.”
Voters in Detroit faced two ballot propositions. Wayne County residents voted strongly in favor of allowing medical cannabis facilities to operate in more areas and another that permits them to operate longer hours. It appears that advocates will succeed in placing a full measure to legalize marijuana on Michigan’s statewide ballot next year. Detroit’s support for legalization bodes very well for those efforts.
Voters in New York rejected a proposition on the ballot outright on Tuesday; one that would convene a constitutional convention many hoped would open the path toward legalizing marijuana. Others did not believe in the multi-step initiative to pass the proposition first before electing anti-prohibition delegates next year, lobby the convention for a marijuana amendment, and then give voters the ballot to decide.
Instead, advocates will now have to refocus their energy on persuading state lawmakers to pass legislation that would legalize cannabis.
The Future of Marijuana
The results of Tuesday’s elections countrywide were exceptionally optimistic overall for those in favor of marijuana reform. In 2018, advocates in at least three states are likely to qualify a ballot measure for medical cannabis, namely Utah, Oklahoma, and Missouri. Until then, voters in Michigan will probably approve a measure that legalizes cannabis in full.
Having a governor such as Murphy in New Jersey will put it squarely in the race with Vermont and several other states to become the pioneer state to end marijuana prohibition through actions of its legislators and not the request of its voters. This year, it has become abundantly obvious that marijuana may soon win elections nationwide.