Across New England, two issues appear to be driving legislatures this year — and they both have to do with drugs.
States are grappling with the emergence of marijuana legalization. But the region is also the epicenter of the opioid crisis, with overdose rates in New Hampshire among the highest in the country.
These two debates — separate, but not unrelated — transcend party. Marijuana legalization efforts have been supported by Democrats and Republicans, but none of the region’s six governors fully support recreational use of the drug. On the opioid crisis as well, there is bipartisan consensus about the importance of the issue — as well as the fact there’s no silver bullet to solve the problem.
New England’s two newest GOP governors — Vermont’s Phil Scott and New Hampshire’s Chris Sununu — both had campaign platforms that included plans to address the opioid crisis. Last year, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, up for reelection in 2018, signed a comprehensive law intended to tackle opioid abuse.
Indeed, the two issues have come to an awkward crossroads in New England. While states move to tighten restrictions on opioids, which are addictive, some legislatures are trying to figure out how to, from scratch, regulate marijuana — a drug over which there is a lot of debate about its addiction risks.
“For the first time, we see all state lawmakers engaged on the issue like never before,” said Matt Simon, the New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a group that supports legalization.
In Vermont, the state Senate passed a legalization bill during the last session, but it failed in the House. The 2016 election altered the makeup of the state House, and so legalization could pass there this year — although that may be as far as it gets. The state’s new governor, Scott, supports medical marijuana but not full legalization.
It’s a similar story in Rhode Island. Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio supports legalization, and other lawmakers are getting on board — buoyed by Massachusetts voters who have legalized it. But it could still run into roadblocks: House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, and Governor Gina Raimondo are on the fence about the legalization of marijuana, mostly citing concerns about its regulation.
Connecticut was among the first states to adopt medical marijuana and allow for small amounts of marijuana to be held without legal repercussions. But Connecticut lawmakers who support legalization say they are only beginning the conversation, and Governor Dannel Malloy opposes it.
The Live Free or Die state, New Hampshire, might be the state in the region where pro-legalization efforts are the most preliminary. Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Woodburn has sponsored a bill to legalize recreational use, but it is not expected pass the GOP-controlled Legislature.
In New Hampshire, most of the legislative action on drugs will focus on the opioid crisis, which Sununu has said is the biggest issue facing the state.
The conversation in Massachusetts and Maine is different than in the four other states because both states voted to legalize marijuana in ballot referendums last year. These states also have Republican governors who opposed it and are seemingly trying to slow down its implementation.
Local lawmakers are helping: In Maine, the leaders of the House and Senate crafted a deal this week that would put off much of the new legal marijuana provisions until February 2018. Massachusetts lawmakers have already delayed retail stores from opening by six months.
But all of these efforts will take place under a federal government that might not be so welcoming of legalized marijuana anyway. Even if states pass legalization efforts, possession of marijuana is still illegal under federal law.
President Obama’s Department of Justice was largely hands off when it came to enforcing federal law, as states like Colorado legalized recreational marijuana. But President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, US Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, has said “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
In fact, at his nomination hearing this week, Sessions told US Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, “I won’t commit to never enforcing federal law, but absolutely it’s a problem of resources for the federal government.”