These 4 States Will Reform Their Marijuana Laws in 2013

The pot reform movement picks up speed.


It's been only two months since Washington and Colorado voters legalized recreational marijuana, but the advocates who raised millions to pass Amendment 64 and Initiative 502 aren't wasting time celebrating. In addition to helping craft the rules and regulations in the Centennial and Evergreen states, they're also providing support to state legislators who will introduce marijuana bills—more than 20 altogether—in 2013.  

"While not all of them will pass," says Morgan Fox of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the debates around them will be different than in years past. "What I'm hearing is that a dam broke," says Jill Harris, managing director of strategic initiatives for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "Before Colorado and Washington, the idea of legal marijuana existed in the realm of fantasy. But after Colorado and Washington, we can have a more serious conversation."

With the start of the 2013 legislative session, that conversation has officially begun. Incremental reforms are going to happen in the next 12 months, even if the next state to fully legalize marijuana doesn't do so until 2014 or (more likely) 2016. We asked the folks at MPP, which was instrumental in the passage of Amendment 64, and DPA, which led the charge in Washington, which state legislatures could make big changes to their marijuana laws in 2013. These are the four they told us about. 

1. Medical Marijuana in New Hampshire

New Hampshire in recent years has come painfully close to legalizing medical marijuana, but can't seem to seal the deal. In 2009, Democratic Gov. John Lynch vetoed the first medical marijuana bill to pass the Republican-led state legislature, even though U.S. Attorney John Kacavas—an Obama appointee—said his office wouldn't prosecute patients. A 2011 version of the bill never made it to Lynch's desk, due to language allowing for dispensaries, which Kacavas opposed. The 2012 version of the bill was more conservative, limiting marijuana only to specific caregivers and patients, but was once again killed by Lynch.

But now New Hampshire has Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, a former state senator who voted for medical marijuana in 2009 after meeting with patients. "The testimony that was the most compelling was from a woman who had small children," Hassan told local media. "She had a debilitating medical illness. There were other options, but the side-effects were so strong that she couldn't make them lunch and get them off to school."

The Marijuana Policy Project is confident Hassan's presence in the governor's office will seal the deal. "With Lynch retiring and being replaced by medical marijuana supporter Maggie Hassan, New Hampshire appears poised to finally pass this bill into law with a governor's signature in 2013."

2. Hemp in Kentucky

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 banned not just smokable marijuana, but also hemp, which can be used for just about anything, except getting high. Nevertheless, prohibitionist didn't want it farmed on U.S. soil, so from 1937 until 1941, American manufacturers got their hemp from the Philippines. Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and practically overnight the U.S. lost its chief supplier of raw materials for ropes and parachutes. The shortage forced the U.S. to create the War Hemp Industries Department, which encouraged American farmers to grow hemp for the war effort. Kentucky turned out to be the perfect place to grow the stuff, and grew a lot of it until Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act.

Kentucky's successful record with hemp, and the fact that the U.S. is the largest global consumer of the stuff—is it any surprise that we can import it, and sell it, but not grow it?—are two reasons why advocates in the Bluegrass State are hopeful that Kentucky legislators will restore hemp to its rightful place as a major Kentucky cash crop. Did we mention hemp lovers have Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and Republican Sen. Rand Paul on their side?

While law enforcement groups oppose Senate Bill 50 and House Bill 33, defenders of hemp say the legislation wouldn't lead to an increase in marijuana use. The hemp law would require regular THC testing of crops, and for farmers to plant at least 10 acres—which would make an illegal grow more difficult to hide. And none of those regulations would go into effect until Washington, D.C. gave Kentucky the go-ahead.

That could happen pretty soon, according to NKY.com, which reports that Sen. Paul "told state officials that he will lobby for a federal waiver of the the federal ban on industrial hemp for Kentucky if the General Assembly passes legislation on hemp production."

3. Medical Marijuana in Illinois

Medical marijuana legislation was passed years ago in the Illinois Senate, but Republicans in the Illinois House—even those who privately agreed with the measure—wouldn't bring themselves to vote for it. 

After Democrats cleaned up in Nov. 2012, outgoing incumbents were expected to vote yes in a lame duck session. When that didn't happen, Illinois state Rep. Louis Lang re-filed his bill. Again. This time, he's convinced it'll pass

MPP thinks it will, too, even if that means rooting for one of the strictest medical marijuana laws in the country, per Mark Wachtler

The first round of revisions to the bill's wording added penalties of up to 2 years in prison for selling marijuana to someone without a state-issued medical marijuana ID card. Also added was a provision making this a pilot program, expiring after a 3-year trial period. Additional amendments made it illegal for patients to operate a motor vehicle for up to 12 hours after using the drug and addressed anticipated problems arising between patients prescribed the medication and employer drug testing and termination policies.

Even further revisions to the Bill added restrictions on campaign contributions from persons, businesses or organizations running marijuana dispensaries, imposed a $5,000 application fee and a $20,000 certificate fee for dispensaries, and raises the amount of salable marijuana from 2 ounces every 14 days to 2.5 ounces.

"Democrats have traditionally been more supportive of medical marijuana than their conservative counterparts and will hold a record-high number of seats in both the Senate and the House," says MPP. "The bill was within three votes of passing in the previous legislature, so there's no reason it shouldn't pass now."

4. Decriminalization in Vermont

It's somewhat mystifying that the home state of Bernie Sanders, Pat Leahy, and the politically successful Vermont Progressive Party can't seem to decriminalize pot.

Even more mystifying? The most recent attempt to drastically reduce penalties for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana was trounced by a Democrat—Vermont state Speaker of the House Shap Smith. According to a February 2012 report, Smith and other conservative Democrats blocked a decriminalization bill that was popular with voters, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, and Commissioner of Public Safety Keith Flynn, because the bill wasn't popular with the "state's law enforcement community." 

The tide has turned since early 2012. The race for attorney general saw both the incumbent and his primary challenger agree that marijuana should be decriminalized. Shortly after the election, Gov. Shumlin announced he expected to sign a decriminalization bill in the 2013, and the bill's authors told constituents they planned to reintroduce it in the new legislative session. To top it off, Smith, who still opposes decrim, says he won't block the bill again if it's reintroduced