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How long can Congress keep pretending marijuana legalization isn’t becoming the norm?

How long can Congress keep pretending marijuana legalization isn’t becoming the norm?
This June 5, 2017, photo shows marijuana plants in the vegetative room at a cannabis cultivator in Fairbanks, Alaska. (Associated Press)

It’s only January, but 2019 could be the year that a Green Wave of marijuana legalization sweeps across the country. Will it finally hit Washington, D.C., and force Congress to reform the nation’s woefully outdated marijuana laws?

New York and Rhode Island are on the cusp of making recreational marijuana legal under their states’ laws after Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Gov. Gina Raimondo announced this week that they’ll present plans to allow the sale and adult use of recreational marijuana in their states.

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This is significant for several reasons.

It’s a sign of the momentum, even the inevitability, of legalization that Cuomo and Raimondo — both longtime skeptics of loosening the prohibition of recreational pot — are leading the effort to create legal, regulated marijuana marketplaces that flout the federal strictures.

Raimondo essentially said her state had little choice but to end prohibition.

“I will say, I do this with reluctance,” Raimondo told the Providence Journal last week. “I have resisted this for the four years I’ve been governor. ... Now, however, things have changed, mainly because all of our neighbors are moving forward” with legalization.

Massachusetts voted in 2016 to legalize adult recreational use. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are expected to do the same this year. At that point, it’s foolish to think a state, particularly one as small as Rhode Island, can enforce marijuana prohibition when it’s a legal product a short drive away. It makes more sense, Raimondo said, for the state to come up with its own system to tax and regulate pot.

That is also a noteworthy change. The first states to legalize marijuana, including Colorado, Washington and California, did it through ballot initiatives. Now, governors and legislatures are making the decision. The politics of marijuana have changed, and lawmakers are increasingly framing legalization as a progressive, good-government policy.

Cuomo, who called marijuana a “gateway drug” as recently as 2017, said in December that legalization would help address the racial disparities and inequities of how marijuana laws have been enforced. Black people and other minorities have historically been arrested and charged with marijuana crimes at much higher rates than white people.

“We must end the needless and unjust convictions and the debilitating criminal stigma. ... Let's legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana once and for all,” Cuomo said in December.

Notably, New York and Rhode Island are just the first states to act this year. Governors in New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois and Minnesota have also pledged to push for legalization in their states, and they generally have support in their legislatures.

As more states vote to legalize adult recreational use, they are creating a powerful coalition against the federal government, which continues to classify marijuana as an illegal Schedule 1 drug on par with heroin.

It becomes harder for the federal government to crack down on a state or city for licensing marijuana businesses when vast swathes of the country have decided to legalize recreational cannabis. Of course, that threat was already much reduced after former Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions — a staunch opponent of legalization — left the Trump administration.

It also becomes increasingly difficult for Congress to keep its collective head in the sand on marijuana. Amazingly, despite the fact that 10 states have legalized recreational marijuana and 33 allow marijuana for medicinal use, the federal government has still failed to acknowledge the shifting politics.

That has created an illogical morass of conflicting policies. The most obvious is that state-licensed marijuana businesses have to conduct business in cash since banks and financial institutions won’t serve pot companies for fear of being penalized by federal regulators. And it has made it more difficult for researchers who rely on federal funding to do much-needed studies on the health effects of marijuana.

A handful of pro-legalization members of Congress have, again, introduced bills to allow adult recreational marijuana and to regulate it like alcohol. It’s a bipartisan group from across the country, though tilted toward Democrats. The real question is: When will the momentum at the state level reach Congress and the White House?

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