“I think [November’s] going to be a watershed moment for legalisation in general,” said Rob Hunt, director at Teewinot Life Sciences. Hunt’s resume boasts stints as an attorney, consultant, and entrepreneur in the cannabis industry. Like many others who work in America’s sort-of-legal cannabis industry, he sees the coming election as a tipping point for the movement.
Indeed, 2016 is a big year for cannabis legalisation. Five states – Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada – will vote on adult-use legalisation. Four states – Arkansas, Florida, Montana, and North Dakota – will have ballot initiatives for medical cannabis. Depending on the outcome of the election, a quarter of the U.S. population could have access to state-legal cannabis. All eyes are on California, America’s most populous state and home to the largest cannabis market in the U.S. The outcome of Proposition 64 could impact the rest of the U.S. and even other countries.
But another pivotal moment is brewing for legalisation advocates: The Northeast.
While the coasts of the country tend to be more liberal, the East lags behind the West Coast in terms of cannabis policy reform. Washington D.C. has legal cannabis, but no commercial market. No state in the Northeast has legalised adult-use. Meanwhile, the West boasts recreational markets in Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, plus California’s well-developed medical marijuana market.
With voters in both Maine and Massachusetts voting on cannabis legalisation ballot measures (Question 1 and Question 4, respectively) it could be a turning point for the region.
Why has it taken so long?
One reason the Northeast has lagged behind on legalisation is simply a lack of direct democracy. Cannabis legalisation has been driven by state ballot measures that allow voters to decide on legislation directly. With 60 percent of Americans supporting legalisation (and no sign of federal reform any time soon), it’s clear that this is an issue where lawmakers lag behind the public. Northeastern states generally lack initiatives and referendums – Maine and Massachusetts are outliers.
“These campaigns take a lot of money and effort, so getting on the ballot is a task in and of itself,” said David Boyer, manager of Maine’s Question 1 campaign. But he thinks that 2016 is the right time for the effort, with the presidential election bringing out more young voters.
Cultural differences are also a factor.
“Medical marijuana itself is a relatively new development on the East coast compared to what’s been going on out West, so just the idea of marijuana stores is just something that West coast voters are more familiar with,” said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority.
And when it comes to the general political climate, Northeasterners may be more conservative on social issues.
“It may be part of the vestiges of puritanism, and that folks in New England tend to be a little hidebound,” said Will Luzier, the campaign manager for Massachusetts’ Question 4.
What makes it important?
“It’s important to get away from that failed policy that is decades old and the incredible massive damage it’s done to our communities,” said Leslie Bocskor, president of Electrum Partners. “I think [Northeastern states] are all very appealing to investors because they’re new markets that represent a lot of opportunity.”
Bocskor says Maine is particularly exciting because of the smooth rollout of its medical cannabis programme. “You haven’t heard stories out of Maine about problems with their medical marijuana market like you hear of other jurisdictions,” he said.
“Massachusetts is exciting for its population… investors are excited to see markets of that size,” said Bocskor.
While either initiative passing would be a milestone for the region, Massachusetts is particularly important for businesspeople and advocates alike. “The spillover effect of legalisation in Massachusetts will be more far reaching than Maine,” said Angell.
For states without ballot initiatives, any cannabis reform would have to be passed by state legislatures. Vermont seemed like it could be the first Northeastern state to legalise when a governor-endorsed measure passed the state Senate in February. But the House overwhelmingly voted against the legislation.
Having neighbours with legal cannabis could change how state legislatures think about the issue.
“We predict once one or two of these states in New England make marijuana legal, neighbouring states will follow soon after,” said Boyer.
Indeed, lawmakers in Rhode Island have indicated an openness for reform. “There has been a number of legalisation bills in Rhode Island with really impressive co-sponsor lists, but they have never been brought to a vote,” explained Angell. “The Speaker of the House has already said publicly that if Massachusetts voters enact legalisation, Rhode Island could move very swiftly.”
Another reason the Northeast is important is simply due to its geography. Despite state-legal cannabis programmes, crossing state lines with cannabis is still a federal crime.
“New England presents the best case study on why that doesn’t make sense,” said Hunt, citing the 2005 Supreme Court case Gonzales v. Raich, which ruled against a medical cannabis patient in California.
“It made sense in California where you have such a large geographic state, but when you start thinking about people who need to cross state lines for work or family… the Northeast will be the real opposition as a result of its geographic size,” he said.
Legalisation Won’t be A Walk In The Woods
Despite promising polling that indicates support for the initiatives, legalisation is no shoo-in.
“We know election-day results tend to be a little lower than polling results are,” said Angell. “To be candid, I’m worried about Massachusetts and Maine, as well as Nevada and Arizona.”
In Maine, averaging the polls found 52.27 percent of voters supported legalisation. In Massachusetts, 50.25 percent support legal cannabis. Given a 4-plus percent margin of error, the numbers are worrisome for the pro-cannabis camp.
“I think there are a lot of young people who are registering to vote just to vote on this question,” said Luzier. “If that’s the case, it’s really not reflected in the polls… folks under the age of 40 support this initiative by 75 or 80 percent.”
A complicating factor to the legalisation debate is the opioid crisis, which has hit the Northeast particularly hard. Research shows that access to cannabis is associated with lower opioid overdose rates, and medical cannabis may reduce abuse of painkillers. But lawmakers still point to the opioid epidemic as a reason not to legalise.
“The opponents are trying to take advantage of the fact that we’re struggling with an addiction crisis and make this gateway argument that making marijuana legal would make things worse,” said Boyer.
“In politics, if you repeat something often enough, some number of voters will believe it whether the science says otherwise,” explained Angell.
Medical cannabis industry interests are another challenge for the campaigns. In both states, some patients and business owners have come out against legalisation ballot measures.
But advocates were not particularly alarmed by the opposition.
“It’s an extremely vocal minority of people who are making money off medical marijuana in this state,” said Paul McCarrier, founder of Legalize Maine. “They want to keep their monopoly on providing marijuana to [patients with] a limited number of conditions.”
“We wish they were with us,” said Boyer. “Some people are misguided in what they think legalisation will bring. We see it as a way to expand medical marijuana access to everyone 21 and over.”
Other industry interests are stepping up to help legalisation.
“We’ve seen the cannabis industry setting itself apart from any other industry I’ve ever encountered before,” said Bocskor. “[Businesses] have been stepping up in a very large way in raising money and assisting in getting these ballot initiatives passed.”
Given the growing prominence of cannabis legalisation as an important political issue, there’s a fair amount of cautious optimism surrounding the measures.
“Once people realise the benefits, they don’t really go back,” said Boyer. “The truth’s on our side.”
Others were a bit more apprehensive.
“I’m concerned that people will become complacent,” said Luzier. “They won’t go out and do the work because they’ll think that it’s a no-brainer and that it’s going to pass.
“We’ll worry about being hopeful or optimistic after November 8th, when the real work begins,” he said. “The legislature can change it at any time… We’re going to have to protect the ideas that are in it.”
Mona Zhang is a New York-based writer and editor of the cannabis newsletter Word on the Tree. Follow her on Twitter @ZhangMona