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Here's what's driving lawmakers working to legalize recreational pot in 17 more states

When Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure in November to legalize recreational marijuana, Josh Miller saw this as a sign that his time had finally arrived. 

The Rhode Island state senator has a reputation among colleagues as a cannabis crusader — a battle that, so far, he’s lost. For the last three years, Miller introduced legislation to legalize recreational pot, and for the last three years, his efforts have died in committee hearing rooms.

But now, in a turnaround, some of Miller’s colleagues are signaling an interest in legalized weed — and raking in the tax dollars that come with it.

“We now have the wind at our backs,” said Miller, who introduced his latest pro-pot bill last week. “Seeing our next door neighbor legalize it should help us — a lot.” 

In the fall, three other states joined Massachusetts in passing recreational pot ballot measures: California, Maine and Nevada. Four other states — Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington — have legalized marijuana through ballot initiatives as well. 

But this year lawmakers in 17 states — Connecticut, Minnesota and Hawaii among them — have become emboldened enough to introduce more than two dozen measures to legalize recreational pot for adults and tax its sale. The experiences of Colorado and Washington state — the first two states to legalize the drug still considered illegal under federal law — drive the trend.

This month, Colorado officials released a report showing the state brought in $200 million in tax revenue last year. Washington raked in even more — about $256 million. Most of the money goes toward public school systems. 

“Our focus is on revenue and bringing in cash to the state as legalization becomes more and more widespread,” said Mary Washington, a state delegate from Maryland who introduced a bill recently that would tax marijuana like alcohol. She estimates the state could net $165 million a year.  (California estimates that legalized recreational marijuana will bring in about $1 billion a year in state tax revenue.)

Washington, whose district is in Baltimore, has not sponsored pot legislation in the past, but has been a supporter of legalization. She’s viewed the issue from a criminal justice perspective after witnessing young black men in her community continuously arrested for low-level possession.

Now, with individuals able to carry up to an ounce of marijuana legally in some states, along with the cash generated from sales, she felt that it’s time to join the broader legalization movement. The success of Maryland lawmakers in passing medicinal marijuana legislation in 2014 also makes her optimistic. 

“These conversations need to be happening now, in state legislatures,” Washington said, adding that even with voter- approved ballot measures, lawmakers are often tasked with hashing out laws that regulate sales. “Why not get it done now? We’re elected to do a job. More and more states are moving in this direction.”

The legalization of medical marijuana took a similar path.

Six states passed ballot measures approving medicinal pot from the mid-1990s until 2000. It wasn’t until that year when Hawaii became the first to do so through the Legislature. Since 2004, nearly twice as many states have adopted medical laws through legislatures — 13 — compared to seven passed through ballot initiatives.

Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, a group dedicated to ending cannabis prohibition nationwide, said voters led the way on legalizing cannabis for medicinal use before lawmakers woke up. 

“Voters saw through the government’s reefer madness and led the way on medical marijuana. Those laws inspired citizens in other states to demand action from their elected officials, who could now see that such laws were not just popular, but possible,” Tvert said. “The same thing is now happening with broader legalization.”

For wary lawmakers, polling is helpful as public approval of legal marijuana is increasing, similar to the country’s quick shift in favor of same-sex marriage over the years.  

A Pew Research Center survey from October showed that 57% of Americans believe marijuana should be legalized, compared to 37% who believe it should remain illegal. By contrast, a similar Pew poll in 2006 showed almost the opposite — 60% believed it should be illegal, compared with 32% who supported legalization.

And a poll released this month by Public Policy Polling showed that 59% of Rhode Islanders support legalization, compared to 35% in opposition. In Rhode Island, where a motorist can drive out of the state in 30 minutes or less, lawmakers fear losing millions of dollars to Massachusetts. So too do lawmakers in Connecticut and New York, where legalization measures are also being debated. 

The polling of Rhode Islanders, mixed with the Massachusetts vote, became enough to change the opinion of Rhode Island state Sen. Ryan Pearson.

He staunchly opposed Miller’s past efforts, because he believed, among other things, that edible marijuana, such as cookies and candies, would be enticing to children.   

“Then, I saw this shift around the country with other states. It’s crept into New England and we see it legal right next door,” he said. “Now it’s not a matter of if, but when, for legalization in this state. … We should take the initiative to get this done right.” 

The issue of edibles is a widespread concern and Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado has warned lawmakers in other states, including California recently, to regulate them carefully.

Still, opposition to legalization can often be seen in the corridors of state capitols. 

In Rhode Island, law enforcement agencies have expressed concerns about enforcing and prosecuting people driving under the influence. Moreover, Rhode Island Atty. Gen. Peter F. Kilmartin remains staunchly opposed, saying it’s “a complex policy decision that has long-lasting effects and unintended consequences, much of which are still unknown.”

“This is not a decision that should be made lightly,” he said in an email. “It must be made with a full understanding of the complications of regulating a new industry, its effect on our youths’ development, what impact it will have on our future workforce, the public health implications.” 

For Miller, despite each of his past efforts faltering in committees, he’s seen momentum for his cause over the years.

“One member of legislative leadership would back it, then another. It was a slow trickle,” said Miller, who in recent years has met with representatives from Colorado to talk about the ups and downs of legalization. 

Rhode Island state Rep. Scott Slater, Miller’s House sponsor for the legal pot measure, said pressure is on the state. 

“We see legalization moving into the New England area and out here it’s a very regional economy,” he said. “Why give Massachusetts all the benefit?” 

kurtis.lee@latimes.com

Twitter: @kurtisalee

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