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Slow Roll

The long road to legalization

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In the euphoric aftermath of marijuana-legalization victories in California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada last November, the marijuana blogosphere was alive with predictions about which states would be next to free the weed.

But unlike the first eight states, which all legalized it via the initiative and referendum process, for legalization to win this year it would have to be through state legislatures. Yet here we are, nearing the halfway point of 2017, and we're not seeing it. And we're unlikely to see it for the rest of this year. The states that had the best shots are seeing their legislative sessions end without bills being passed, and while bills are alive in a couple of states—Delaware and New Jersey—they're not likely to pass this year either.

To be fair, we have seen significant progress in state legislatures. More legalization bills have been filed than ever before, and in some states, they are advancing like never before. In Vermont, a bill actually got through the legislature, only to fall victim to the governor's veto pen. Actually getting a legalization bill past both houses of a legislature and a governor has yet to happen.

And while there is rising popular clamor—buoyed by favorable opinion polls—for state legislatures to end pot prohibition, the advocacy group most deeply involved in state-level legalization efforts, the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), understands the difficulties and intricacies of working at the statehouse. The MPP has worked hard but made no promises for victory this year, instead saying it is committed to "ending prohibition in eight more states by 2019."

That MPP list doesn't include initiative states, of which we could see a handful next year. The MPP is already involved in Michigan, where legalization is polling above 50 percent, and first-stage initiative campaigns are underway in Arizona, Arkansas, Missouri and the Dakotas. It would be disappointing for reform advocates if they had to wait until November 2018 to win another legalization victory through popular vote, and given the progress made in statehouses this year, they hope they won't have to. Still, legalization at the state house is proving a tough row to hoe.

For reform advocates, it's a case of the glass half full. "This is still a historic time," says Justin Strekal, political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "We've had great victories in the past 10 years, but they've all been through the initiative process. Now, with the polls continuing to show majorities favoring outright legalization, legislators are feeling more emboldened to represent their constituents, but it won't happen overnight."

Phillip Smith is editor of the AlterNet Drug Reporter and author of the 'Drug War Chronicle.'

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