States Push Marijuana Legalization Bills Despite Opposition from the Federal Government

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Lawmakers in about two dozen states have proposed bills this year to ease their marijuana laws despite Attorney General Jeff Sessions' warning that he could crack down on pot, a major change from the Obama administration, which essentially turned a blind eye to the state legislation.

Bills have been introduced in 17 states this year to make recreational pot legal for adults, while five others are considering voter referendums on the issue. Sixteen states have introduced medical marijuana legislation, 10 are considering decriminalizing the drug and three are considering easing their penalties. An effort in Wyoming to decriminalize the drug failed this session.

“ Republican lawmakers are among those proposing and sponsoring the bills as their constituents' views about pot change. ”

Currently, eight states and the District have legalized small amounts of marijuana for adult recreational use. Twenty-eight states and the District allow medical marijuana use.

"State legislatures have reformed marijuana laws in the face of federal government opposition in the past. We would expect them to continue doing so in the future if the administration turns out to be hostile on this issue. As of now, the administration has not indicated whether it intends to respect or interfere with state marijuana laws," said Mason Tvert, communications director for Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-pot national advocacy group.

Support for decriminalizing marijuana has increased nationwide over the last several years. Public support for legalizing the substance hit 60 percent in an October poll by Gallup, marking a record high in the poll's 47-year history.

States that are legalizing the drug also are taxing it, looking to pot as a new source of revenue. Sales taxes on marijuana reached $1.6 billion last year, according to marijuana advisory firm GreenWave Advisors, which projected $1 billion in sales taxes by 2021, the Motley Fool reported last month.

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Conservative states are joining what has historically been a liberal policy, with many starting with medical marijuana bills to test the waters. The states considering legalizing medical marijuana include Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Republican lawmakers are among those proposing and sponsoring the bills as their constituents' views about pot change.

Tennessee Sen. Steven Dickerson proposed a bill to open 50 grow centers across the state. Dickerson, a Republican and physician who treats chronic pain, sponsored a similar proposal two years ago, but the bill failed.

"Polls consistently show widespread support for medical cannabis across Tennessee, but legislators have been hesitant to embrace my bill, which strives to be narrow, data-driven and compassionate," Dickerson said. "I am committed to the proposition that cannabis can help with pain and other conditions and has a better side-effect profile than many of the medications we are currently using."

Colorado, which in 2012 was one of the first states to introduce liberal pot laws, is trying to ease its laws further, including expanding the criteria for who is allowed to use medical marijuana.

State Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Colo., introduced a bill to add post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of qualifying medical conditions under the state's medical marijuana law.

"This law provides important access for veterans, who commit suicide at a rate of 22 veterans per day," Aguilar said.

Twelve states hope to join the 21 and D.C. in decriminalizing marijuana possession. Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wyoming have filed legislation to remove possible jail time and rescind or reduce fines for simple possession.

While states push to ease their marijuana policies, Washington is watching. Using marijuana is a federal offense, and Sessions as well as the broader Trump administration has opened the door for a federal crackdown on marijuana.

Nonetheless, the states plan to fight back. Aguilar said Colorado's congressional representatives will fight any Justice Department effort against pot legalization, particularly the use of medical marijuana.

For the last several years, pot states have had Congress on their side. Amendments have been built into the federal budget that prohibit the Justice Department from spending any money to interfere in states' marijuana policies.

And Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., has introduced legislation this year that would prevent the federal government from superseding state marijuana laws.

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