Setbacks for Recreational Marijuana Abound in the Northeast
May 20, 2019

The news for legalization proponents has been consistently good for the past several years, but recent developments in the Northeast should perhaps take the optimism down a notch. Recreational legalization proposals in the deep-blue states of New York, New Jersey, and Vermont all appear destined to fail in 2019, raising new questions regarding the path forward for recreational use.

The script is similar in all three states: strong early support from key players, initial optimism about passage, and then a slow legislative death. In New Jersey, opponents of the law were able to divide supporters on various issues, including expungement of criminal records (which was opposed by law enforcement), disagreement on how to address other social equity concerns, and ongoing public safety concerns (the proposal generated opposition from parent-teacher organizations). At the same time, Governor Murphy has been engaged in a budget battle that has taken the focus away from recreational legalization.

In New York, the initial impetus had been to beat New Jersey to legalization, and when prospects dimmed there, New York’s effort also slowed. Most significantly, Governor Cuomo, while generally supportive of recreational legalization, did not make a strong push for marijuana in the state budget and his office expressed concern about potential political fallout associated with legalization.

In Vermont, legislators last year approved recreational use and limited cultivation, but did not create a retail market. Efforts to create that market this year were expected to easily pass, but have collapsed amongst infighting between the House and Senate, and lukewarm support from the House Speaker and Governor. One issue dividing the two chambers is the use of a saliva test during law enforcement stops; the test shows the presence of drugs, but does not determine impairment.

Technically, there is still time to pass legislation this year in all three states. In New York, there are about six weeks left in the legislation session, New Jersey has imposed a May 31st deadline for marijuana legislation, and Vermont has less than a week left to take up legislative business. But lawmakers in all three states appear to be moving on. Seemingly in lieu of recreational marijuana, Governor Murphy in New Jersey has proposed to expand the medical marijuana market by 700% and New York legislators have prepared their own bill to increase access to medical marijuana. Legislators in Vermont are gearing up for a renewed push for a retail market in 2020.

The apparent defeats for recreational bills in three liberal Northeast states, even if only temporary, should be a lesson to recreational marijuana advocates. While there is strong support for medical marijuana, recreational marijuana is not a foregone conclusion. The details of recreational marijuana bills are crucial and have the potential to continue to generate significant pushback from key demographics.

We will continue to monitor the debates over recreational bills in other states, including Illinois, to see if these recent developments are simply anomaly or the start of a more troubling trend for the industry.

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