One of the most common concerns raised regarding cannabis legalization is that legal weed will inevitably lead to an increase in pot use among minors. But, like many other marijuana myths, scientific research is proving that this fear is unfounded. This week, a federally-funded study is reporting that teens are actually smoking less pot today then they did before individual states began legalizing adult-use sales.
As the body of scientific evidence on cannabis grows, it is becoming easier to separate fact from myth, and new research is inspiring many former opponents of legalization to see cannabis in a new light. One notable example of this phenomenon is New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who just endorsed adult-use legalization after years of calling pot a “gateway drug.” And across the Hudson River, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is making good on his plans to expand his state's medical marijuana program by doubling the total number of dispensaries.
Now that legal pot is available in Massachusetts, and Connecticut's next governor is pushing for legalization, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo is finally becoming convinced that legal weed could be a good move for the Ocean State. Even the Midwest is looking to get in on the green rush – Nebraska lawmakers recently announced that they are working to put marijuana legalization initiatives on the state's next election ballot. Let’s dig in to the week in weed news.
Teen Marijuana Use Has Not Increased Since States Began Legalizing Pot, Federal Study Finds
A new study funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) has found that the rate of teen marijuana use today is lower than it was in 2012, when Washington and Colorado became the first two U.S. states to legalize full adult-use cannabis. The annual Monitoring the Future survey, which asks high school students to anonymously report their drug use, has consistently found that teen pot use has decreased since individual states began legalizing recreational pot.
That trend has continued this year, according to the 2018 edition of the survey, which was just made public this week. “We are not seeing decreases in marijuana, but we are not seeing increases,” Nora Volkow, director of NIDA, said at a press conference, The Verge reports.
“Even as teens’ attitudes toward marijuana’s harms continue to relax, they are not showing corresponding increases in marijuana use,” the study concludes. “The most significant public policy approach to reduce teen use of cannabis is to take it out of the hands of the illicit market and put it behind a counter where employees check IDs,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said to Marijuana Moment. “This new report and public acknowledgment by NIDA only further solidifies our demand for an expeditious legalization in the remaining stubborn states with prohibition.”
Legal Pot Could Be Coming to New York as Soon as Next April
April 2019 may be the start of the greenest spring that New York has ever seen. During a recent speech, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that legalizing cannabis was one of his “top legislative priorities for next year,” alongside other “social justice, racial justice, and economic justice” reforms, Marijuana Moment reports. “The fact is we have had two criminal justice systems: one for the wealthy and the well off, and one for everyone else,” he added. “And that’s going to end.”
“Let’s legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana once and for all,” Cuomo recommended, according to the New York Times. This is the first time that Cuomo has explicitly endorsed legalization, marking the final phase of the governor's shift from an opponent of cannabis reform to a proponent of legalization. As recently as 2013, Cuomo was opposed to even allowing a limited medical marijuana program in the state, but pressure from pro-cannabis candidates in this year's gubernatorial election, along with the fact that most of New York's neighbors are legalizing, has finally changed his mind.
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State lawmakers are currently drafting a legalization bill, which is expected to be introduced during next month's legislative session. From there, the bill could be on track to pass by April, in tandem with the state budget bill, which is expected to include legal weed taxes as a source of revenue. State Senator Diane Savino said that her fellow legislators were looking to Nevada as a model for the Empire State's adult-use regulations, especially that state's decision to allow existing medical marijuana dispensaries to begin selling recreational weed.
If New York were to copy this aspect of Nevada's laws, adult-use sales could possibly begin next year, potentially avoiding a two-year gap between legalization and the actual start of sales, an issue which has plagued states like Massachusetts and Maine. Advocacy groups are also pushing lawmakers to include social justice reforms in the bill, including measures to allow former cannabis offenders to clear their records for good.
New Jersey Doubles Its Number of Medical Marijuana Dispensaries
Although New Jersey lawmakers have managed to derail Governor Phil Murphy's plans to legalize adult-use cannabis retail sales this year, they have at least been willing to support the governor's push for medical marijuana reform. This Monday, the New Jersey Department of Health granted six new medical marijuana licenses, doubling the total number of dispensaries in the state. Almost immediately upon taking office this January, Murphy initiated an expansion to the state's MMJ program, which had previously been crippled by former Gov. Chris Christie, renowned enemy of cannabis reform.
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Under Murphy's watch, the state's medical marijuana program added five new qualifying conditions and reduced the wait time for medical marijuana ID cards from 28 days to 2 days or less. Over 20,000 new patients joined the program this year, bringing the total number of patients to 38,000, but the state's six dispensaries soon found themselves unable to cope with this growing demand. In response, the state health department announced that they would begin accepting applications for six new dispensaries.
Out of the 146 applications that they received, “six very strong applicants were selected, including minority-owned and women-owned businesses,” Health Commissioner Shereef Elnahal said. “We will meet with them early next year to refine their timetable for growing product and opening their doors." These applicants must still pass background checks, receive approval from their municipal governments, and demonstrate full compliance with state regulations before they can plant their first crops.
Rhode Island Considers Legal Weed as Surrounding States Go Green
Smokers from all along the Eastern seaboard flocked to Massachusetts last month to participate in the East Coast's first legal pot sales. Even with only two stores open, the state made nearly $75,000 in tax revenue on the first day of sales — and neighboring states immediately took notice.
Last month, Connecticut Governor-elect Ned Lamont said that he was in full support of bringing legal pot to the Nutmeg State, and this week, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo admitted that pot tax revenue could provide a welcome solution to the Ocean State's budget problems. During an election debate in October, Raimondo said that she was “open” to legalization, but was holding off over concerns that it would be too “hard to regulate so it doesn’t get into the hands of kids.”
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But the combined pressure of a $200 million budget deficit and the spread of legalization throughout New England is making the prospect of legal pot tax revenue even more alluring. “Given my druthers, if I could make all of these decisions in a vacuum, I’ve been favoring a wait-and-see approach,” Raimondo told the Providence Journal. “However, Connecticut is going to do it. The new governor-elect has been crystal clear, this is a priority. It’s happening. Massachusetts is already doing it. We’re a tiny state in between these two other states…. Like, if we think that there is not going to be Rhode Islanders crossing the border into Seekonk or, you know, Putnam, Connecticut, we are crazy.”
Nebraska Lawmakers Working to Put Legalization Measure on 2020 Election Ballot
The Midwest may well be the last holdout for prohibition, but progressive lawmakers are still hoping to bring the green rush to America's heartland. In Nebraska, two state senators just kicked off a petition drive to put a medical marijuana measure on the 2020 election ballot. State Sens. Anna Wishart and Adam Morfeld have created a new advocacy group, Nebraskans for Sensible Marijuana Laws, which will work with the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) to fight for cannabis reform in the Cornhusker State.
“We are quickly being surrounded by states that have sensible laws on medical marijuana, and we do not,” Morfeld said to the New York Times. “A lot of Nebraskans are looking to other states — to Utah and Missouri — and saying, ‘Wow, these are also conservative states and they have much more reasonable policies about this than we do.’” Legislators proposed medical marijuana bills in 2016 and 2017, but both bills were shot down by the state's Republican leadership.
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Medical marijuana legalization is the group's primary focus, but plans to draft measures that would legalize full adult-use cannabis are also being considered. “Over next few months, we will determine whether multiple initiatives addressing other areas of marijuana policy reform would also be viable,” MPP Deputy Director Matt Schweich told Marijuana Moment. “Those decisions will be guided by public opinion research and the single subject rules that govern ballot initiatives in Nebraska.”