Several state legislatures are considering adult-use cannabis legalization proposals this year, but those efforts could be abruptly halted if the states’ governors oppose policy reform efforts.
So, where do governors stand on the issue in 2020?
NORML released its 2020 Gubernatorial Scorecard Jan. 29, and assigned a letter grade of “A” through “F” to each U.S. state’s governor based on their cannabis-related comments and voting records in 2019.
Thirty-two U.S. governors—including 22 Democrats and 10 Republicans—received a passing grade of “C” or higher, according to NORML’s findings. This is an increase from last year, when only 27 governors earned passing marks.
Nine governors (all Democrats) received an “A” grade, while 12 governors (11 Democrats and one Republican) earned a “B” grade from NORML. Eleven governors (nine Republicans and two Democrats) received a “C.”
Eighteen governors received non-passing grades, according to NORML. Ten (nine Republicans and one Democrat) received a “D” grade, while eight—all Republicans—received an “F.”
Here, we take a look at where the governors of the 12 states most likely to legalize this year ranked on NORML’s scorecard.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) – D
NORML acknowledges in its report that Ducey signed legislation last year that requires third-party lab testing for all medical cannabis products in the state, as well as a bill that reduces the fee associated with medical cannabis patient ID cards, but, as the organization points out, the Republican governor opposed the state’s 2016 ballot initiative to legalize adult-use cannabis. In 2019, Ducey reaffirmed his opposition to the issue, NORML reported.
Nevertheless, Arizona is launching new legalization efforts this year with two 2020 ballot initiatives. One, which is backed by the Arizona Dispensaries Association, was filed with the state in August. The Arizona Cannabis Chamber of Commerce has announced its opposition to this initiative and plans to work with the legislature this year to bring a competing proposal to November’s ballot.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) – D
Hutchinson has historically opposed cannabis policy reform, according to NORML, and though he didn’t veto any cannabis-related legislation in 2019, he also didn’t enact any either, according to the report.
NORML also notes the slow rollout of Arkansas medical cannabis program; voters passed a 2016 initiative to legalize medical cannabis, but regulators took three years to approve the state’s first dispensaries, which weren’t licensed until January 2019.
Hutchinson has stated that the rollout of the program was not unduly delayed, however, and that the law was implemented in a way that was “best for all Arkansans,” according to NORML’s report.
The Marijuana Policy Project is backing the Drug Policy Education Group and Arkansans for Cannabis Reform in submitting an adult-use ballot initiative this year, and two other groups are also collecting signatures for competing measures.
As of late January, Arkansans for Cannabis Reform had gathered roughly 10,000 of the required 90,000 signatures needed to earn a spot on the ballot.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) – C-
DeSantis’s middle-ground rating is representative of Florida’s state of legislative limbo. Two political action committees recently suspended their efforts to get legalization initiatives on the state’s 2020 ballot and are now looking toward 2022.
Florida Sen. Jeff Brandes, however, has since stated he hopes to legalize cannabis before then with a new bill he filed Jan. 13. The bill aims to incorporate small businesses in the state’s adult-use industry while including expunging provisions for those convicted of simple cannabis possession.
Meanwhile, DeSantis has been rather clear-cut in his opposition of adult-use legalization, stating it will not become Florida law “while I’m governor,” NORML notes.
DeSantis did, however, sign S.B. 182 last year after advocating for it strongly, which repealed a ban on the possession and use of herbal cannabis formulations by qualified patients. NORML notes DeSantis also led legal and regulatory changes to create additional licensed dispensaries in the state.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) — C+
Montana is settling into a very engaged role as a leader in the newly legal U.S. hemp industry, but it remains to be seen what the state does on the THC-rich cannabis side of things. Bullock has gingerly addressed shortcomings in the state’s medical cannabis program, and he’s taken a rather tepid approach to anything close to full legalization.
We’re guessing that it’s the electorate that will be doing a lot of heavy lifting in Montana this year, and, given the state’s blend of liberal, conservative and libertarian politics, that may be the most effective way forward.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) – D+
While Sununu did sign legislation into law last year that allows physician’s assistants to make medical cannabis recommendations, as well as a bill to allow individuals convicted of low-level cannabis convictions to petition the court for an annulment, he vetoed several other cannabis-related measures and remains opposed to adult-use legalization, NORML reported.
Among the legislation Sununu shot down last year was a bill to eliminate a mandatory three-month waiting period for patients seeking medical cannabis, which lawmakers ultimately voted to override, according to NORML’s report.
Sununu also vetoed a measure last year that would have allowed medical cannabis patients to cultivate up to three cannabis plants at home. While the House voted to override this veto, the Senate was not able to muster the two-thirds majority to override the veto in that chamber.
Another bill Sununu rejected last year would have allowed the state’s medical cannabis dispensaries to operate as for-profit entities, which stakeholders argued would increase patient accessibility.
Two adult-use cannabis legalization bills have been introduced in New Hampshire this year. One, which would allow adults to possess up to ¾ of an ounce of cannabis and to grow up to six plants at home for personal use, cleared the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee Jan. 28, and is expected to receive a full House vote Feb. 6.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) – A-
Murphy campaigned on cannabis legalization but has yet to make good on his promise, although he has significantly expanded the state’s medical cannabis program.
In 2019, Murphy expanded patients’ access to medical cannabis when he signed legislation that will add dozens of medical cannabis providers to the six that are currently operating in the state. Murphy also signed a bill last year that will allow the expungement of low-level cannabis crimes.
Although Murphy continues to support legalization efforts in the state, an adult-use legalization bill failed to garner enough support in the Senate last year, causing lawmakers to instead place the issue on the state’s 2020 ballot.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) — A
Lujan Grisham has made cannabis legalization a priority in 2020. “This is the fact: recreational cannabis can be the next frontier of our economic expansion,” she said during her recent State of the State address. “We can get in on the ground floor or we can try to play catch up. I know which one I prefer. And I know which one New Mexicans prefer.”
She has expanded patient access to medical cannabis, and it’s heartening to see a governor treat the medical and adult-use marketplaces with similar degrees of commitment. The New Mexico Senate Public Affairs Committee recently passed a legalization bill, signaling some serious momentum in the legislature. New Mexico is one of the most promising states on the legalization chart this year.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) – A-
Last year, Cuomo moved the needle toward decriminalization with Assembly Bill 8420-A. The new law, NORML notes, reduced penalties for low-level possession offenses, expanded on the state’s existing decriminalization law and created an automated process to review and expunge criminal records involving the possession of up to 25 grams of cannabis.
While a legalization bill didn’t make it past the New York legislature last year, Cuomo has expressed interest in trying again.
He has included adult-use marijuana legalization into the state budget proposal the past two years. The governor has also been in support of cannabis research, proposing the State University of New York (SUNY) form a Global Cannabis and Hemp Center for Science, Research and Education.
This year, he proposed working with the neighboring states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Connecticut “to coordinate a safe and fair system and legalize the adult use of cannabis,” according to his Twitter. He started that work in October of last year when he hosted the Regional Cannabis Regulation and Vaping Summit.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R) – C+
Though Burgum has historically expressed his opposition to broader adult-use marijuana legalization, NORML notes, he did take steps last year to ease criminalization and access for medical patients. H.B. 1050 reduced penalties for possession of a half-ounce of cannabis and position of paraphernalia, while several other bills expanded patients’ access to medical cannabis.
NORML notes the state has enacted new procedures permitting people with low-level possession charges to seek unconditional pardons.
Still, Burgum has not made any public statements in support of adult-use legalization, and the most recent ballot initiative back in 2018 failed.
Time will tell whether Legalize ND’s new version of an adult-use ballot initiative will take hold. The new proposal places limits on cannabis possession, bans home grow and establishes a 10-percent excise tax on cannabis sold at dispensaries.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) — B+
Last year, Wolf made a very encouraging statement when he stood with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and advocated for adult-use cannabis legalization in his state. “We are calling for the General Assembly to seriously debate marijuana legalization,” Wolf said at the time. “There are multiple bills introduced to advance that measure with support from many legislators … [who] agree with the many Pennsylvanians with making adult-use regulated marijuana legal. That includes me. I agree with that. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish together.”
Since then, now that we have a piece of very interesting piece of cannabis legalization language in the Pennsylvania Legislature, the biggest concern has become obstinate Republican lawmakers.
The state has become a mid-Atlantic leader in the medical cannabis industry, pairing state university medical centers with licensed cannabis businesses in an effort to ensure patients have access to the very best products—backed by science. It’s a model worth replicating elsewhere. Pennsylvania will be an exciting arena for how new cannabis markets in the U.S. will develop over the next few years, and it seems clear that Wolf acknowledges this.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) — F
Noem has presided over one of the most anti-cannabis states in the U.S. since she was elected in 2018 (although the state’s bleak history with cannabis began much earlier than that).
We’re covering the two cannabis reform measures being floated to the electorate this year, and—no surprise—Noem opposes both. To put it simply, NORML’s team writes, “Governor Noem has historically opposed all efforts to liberalize marijuana laws in South Dakota.” If the voters of South Dakota choose to pursue cannabis legalization this year, there will be a harsh governor with whom to reckon on the other side of the ballot box.
While we’re on the subject, Noem doesn’t even want to allow her state to have a role in the newly legal hemp industry. “There is no question in my mind that normalizing hemp, like legalizing medical marijuana, is part of a larger strategy to undermine enforcement of the drug laws and make legalized marijuana inevitable,” she said.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) – B+
Northam was outspoken last year in his support for decriminalizing cannabis, noting that it could ease overcrowding in prisons and free up law enforcement and court resources. He was also active signing several cannabis bills into law last year. One, S.B. 1557, permits physician assistants and nurse practitioners to issue medical cannabis recommendations, while another, S.B. 1632, permits the use of certain cannabis formulations on school grounds.
NORML also notes that Northam didn’t veto any legislation in 2019 regarding cannabis.
Support around its legalization is growing among other lawmakers in the state. After his first cannabis legalization bill stalled in the legislature in 2019, Del. Steve Heretick announced plans in September to try again this year. He recently told RVA Mag that “this year, such efforts are likely to find success.”
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has also announced his support for adult-use legalization vowed to work with state leaders to take steps toward policy reform.