Hard Truth: No States Will Legalize Marijuana in 2017

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“Progress” is rarely linear, as the wisdom of many old saws tells us (that is, if you accept the concept at all and aren’t beginning to suspect that—hey!—maybe things are getting worse). A good today can fill us with hope for a better tomorrow—which reveals itself to be the start of a total shit week instead. 

So it appears to be with Americans’ overwhelming, undeniable and repeatedly stated desire to do away with marijuana prohibition.

Th year, 2017, is just about half in the bag, and with governors rejecting what state legislatures have failed to fumble away or punt, it seems clear that the next solid steps towards marijuana legalization will have to wait until 2018. 

As Alternet’s Phillip Smith observed, despite bold predictions from all corners (including the pages of this august publication), the number of states to legalize marijuana in 2017 will be a figure that is both round and flat. That is—zero.

This is no huge shock.

After 2016—when marijuana absolutely dominated at the ballot box, with legalization winning in four out of five states and medical cannabis recording shock victories in Arkansas and North Dakota to go along with a comfortable win in Florida—2017 was always going to be a letdown. There was simply less at stake. Hopes were high, but expectations, realistic expectations, were much lower.

2017 had a serious handicap. It is not an election year.

Now, 2018. That is an election year.

Legalization happens during election years—and only in election years. To date, voters have had to shoulder nearly all of the work of legalizing cannabis, as lawmakers—too scared, too bought off–generally can’t be bothered. 

Every successful effort to legalize marijuana (and most of the unsuccessful ones) has happened thanks to voters approving citizens’ initiatives. Every workable medical marijuana system is voter-created and voter-approved, and you should not be fooled into thinking it a coincidence that medical marijuana is more myth than reality in the places where it was “legalized” by a state legislature.

Really, even one state this year would have been big progress.

The best shot was in Vermont, where the state legislature passed a legalization bill that was confoundingly vetoed by the state’s Republican governor (who simultaneously voiced support for legalization as a general concept… just not now. Or something).

Everywhere else a legalization effort was mounted—Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland and in federal Congress—the furthest it progressed was a committee hearing. In case it warrants mention, politicians powerful enough to score a committee chair did not achieve their stations in life by being pro-weed.

The extent to which political lifers are willing to go to block cannabis reform was most evident in Texas—where, despite apparent majority support for a medical cannabis bill on the floor of the state legislature, party shot-callers prevented the issue from even being called for a vote. 

Interested groups have adjusted aims accordingly.

The Marijuana Policy Project, the main organizer of the successful legalization efforts in Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada, is now vowing to spend big to make progress in eight states—by 2019.

Two whole years!

By then, the 2020 reelection campaign will be in full swing. We might have a President Pence. Or Putin.

Still. This is almost certainly an instance of us getting too greedy and wanting too much all at once. That’s what happens when you win, win again and then win some more—you get used to it. 

The main thing to keep in mind is what ground has been lost.

Here, too, the figure is zero—so far, at least.

It is true that legalization has been implemented with widely varying degrees of zeal. Though voters in the two states approved the idea at the same time, there will be legal recreational marijuana sales on the Las Vegas Strip, while lawmakers in Boston still toy with exactly how to do it. And in Florida, state lawmakers literally abdicated their constitutional responsibility to create rules for medical marijuana.

But with cannabis reform, at least, the arc of the moral universe is long and clear. It’s just a matter of when and how, though it still can’t be soon enough.

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