Propelled by successful campaigns in Western states to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, some advocates and legislators say a marijuana legalization race is developing in New England, with millions of dollars in tax revenue riding on the outcome.

Lawmakers in five of the six New England states will consider legalization bills this year and two – Maine and Massachusetts – may put the question to voters in 2016. In New Hampshire, lawmakers are considering bills to decriminalize the drug and establish a study commission to look at legalization.

Some advocates say the first New England state to legalize pot stands to reap tens of millions of dollars in extra tax revenue and marijuana tourism dollars. But opponents question whether the region is ready for legalization and say it could harm Maine’s family-friendly reputation. Some who work in the medical marijuana industry say they support legalization, but are taking a wait-and-see approach as laws develop before deciding whether to prepare for expansion into a legal recreational market.


The legalization push comes at a time when public opinion on marijuana is undergoing a shift, with more than half of adults now in favor of legalizing pot. Polling released in March by the Pew Research Center suggests 53 percent of U.S. adults favor marijuana legalization, up from 32 percent in 2006.

“Legalization has gone from being what people saw as a fringe issue to one that is now popular,” said Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, which led the successful legalization drive in Colorado.

The national group is now backing legalization efforts in several other states, including Maine. “It’s been interesting to see this go from a question of if we should (legalize) to a question of how it can best be done,” Simon said.

Opinion polls show support for legalization is slightly higher in some New England states than nationally. For instance, a survey in Vermont done by the Marijuana Policy Project had 57 percent of voters supporting legal pot and 34 percent opposing it.

No polls on marijuana legalization have been done in Maine, but possession has long been decriminalized here and medical marijuana has been legal since 1999. Advocates say Maine is ready to follow Colorado, Washington state, Oregon and Alaska into a legal recreational marijuana market.

Some who work in the medical marijuana industry in Maine are keeping a close eye on legalization efforts because they stand to benefit. Medical marijuana caregivers and businesses that sell growing supplies were among the early financial contributors to Legalize Maine, a group that is leading one of two referendum drives to legalize recreational use here.

Becky DeKeuster, co-founder of Wellness Connection of Maine, which operates four medical marijuana dispensaries, believes it would be natural for dispensaries to take on recreational sales if allowed to do so. That would boost dispensary sales, which are now limited to patients with certain conditions, she said.

“I think the eight medical dispensaries have a proven track record of producing a quality product, controlling inventory and of patient education,” DeKeuster said. “Those are things you want to be expanded into an adult-use market. You want public safety, you want facilities that blend into and support their communities and you want the patient or adult user to be educated about the law and how to be a responsible consumer.”

Chris Gillard, owner of Indoor Plant Kingdom in Portland, opened his business in 2009 and said his sales of growing supplies increasingly have been to registered caregivers. If recreational use is legalized in Maine, he believes companies that sell products used to cultivate marijuana will see a surge in sales and that plenty of people will want to get into the business.

“It will create jobs for people who love being a part of it,” he said. “I think it’s a real positive thing for the state.”

But Gillard said he doesn’t want the medicinal value of marijuana to get lost in the rush to legalize recreational use. As tempting as it would be to increase retail sales, he is likely to hold off on expanding so he can continue to focus on being a resource for growers and the community, he said.

“I’m not focused on just making money,” he said.

Scott Gagnon, director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine, a group that opposes legalizing recreational use, said he can see how some businesses – particularly dispensaries and others already operating in the medical marijuana market – would benefit if recreational pot sales are allowed, but he doesn’t see legalization as a positive thing overall.

“I think there are some pitfalls,” he said. “In Maine we have a brand that is really about being family-friendly and our communities providing nurturing places for our kids to grow up in. I see marijuana as not being a positive thing for our brand.”


Maine lawmakers this session will consider two bills that would legalize pot use by adults, tax sales and create a regulatory structure for retail stores and cultivators. Two political action committees have also launched citizen initiatives aimed at putting the legalization question to state voters in 2016.

Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage, said the governor would not comment on his position until a bill reaches his desk.

Lawmakers in Connecticut and Massachusetts are considering bills to legalize marijuana, but those bills appear to lack widespread legislative support. The Massachusetts Senate has established a study commission to look at legalization.

Separate efforts in Massachusetts could lead to statewide referendums.

The Marijuana Policy Project is supporting a ballot initiative led by the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Massachusetts that would allow residents to vote on the issue in 2016. Another group, Bay State Repeal, is also sponsoring a ballot initiative next year, said Scott Mortimer, an activist with Bay State Repeal.

Mortimer, who believes both Maine and Massachusetts will legalize marijuana in 2016, said that would pressure other states to follow suit.

“I think that would get the state legislatures moving when they see money going across the state borders,” he said.

In Vermont, lawmakers are meeting each week to develop what they have dubbed the “Vermont way to legalize.” Their efforts could result in a bill that lawmakers will likely consider next year.

In the meantime, they will consider two pieces of legalization legislation this session, including a bill introduced by state Sen. David Zuckerman that would allow adults to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana and nine plants for personal use. Zuckerman, a Democrat who has worked on reforming marijuana laws for more than a decade, said legalizing cannabis would allow for regulation and raise revenue that could help the state address the abuse of other drugs, including opiates.

Zuckerman said he doesn’t believe legalization efforts in other states will influence the process in Vermont.

“We don’t have enough money for drug treatment programs for opiate addicts. That’s more important to Vermonters than whether other states are doing it first,” he said.

Advocates regard Rhode Island as the most likely to legalize this year. Rhode Island lawmakers are expected to vote on a legalization bill in June. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Joshua Miller and Rep. Scott Slater, has been introduced in three previous years, but momentum behind the bill is growing, said Jared Moffat, director of Regulate Rhode Island, a group that backs legalization.

Miller, who was the lead sponsor of a 2012 decriminalization bill, said he supports legalization to address the “inappropriate incarceration of minorities and others” and because of the dangers inherent in an underground market, but that other bill supporters recognize the potential economic benefit of legalizing before other New England states.

“Similar to the growth of gambling in New England, those who are (legalizing marijuana) first have the best ability to take advantage of the revenue,” he said. “If you’re focused on the revenue, it’s important regionally to come out first.”

Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana and director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida, questions whether there is as much legalization momentum in New England as advocates contend.

“I think there isn’t a huge groundswell of support to legalize. That’s the narrative of advocates who say it’s inevitable,” he said. “I think it’s a lot of smoke and mirrors, literally and figuratively.”


A Vermont report on legalization commissioned by the legislature and released in January examines the connection between legalizing first and potentially gleaning the most tax revenue from pot sales. The report estimated that the state could generate $20 million to $75 million in annual tax revenue, but only if other New England states don’t legalize first. The perceived loss of tax revenue to Vermont could motivate other states to legalize, the report said.

If Vermont legalized before any other state in the Northeast, “marijuana tourism and illicit exports could be substantial and could, in theory, put Vermont’s annual tax revenues in the hundreds of millions,” the report said.

“Indeed, because legal marijuana can flow across borders in either direction, Vermont’s prospects of deriving considerable tax revenue even from its own residents would become much less promising if one of its immediate neighbors were to legalize with low taxes,” the report said.

Rhode Island could receive from $21.5 million to $82 million in annual tax revenue from marijuana sales, according to a policy report from OpenDoors, a Rhode Island-based nonprofit that supports former jail and prison inmates. The report does not estimate how that revenue might be affected if marijuana is available in neighboring states.

Moffat said it is clear there will be an “early adopter” advantage for the first New England state that legalizes marijuana sales, in much the same way states that first allowed gambling saw a competitive edge.

“There is going to be a regional market,” he said. “Whichever state moves first is going to have more businesses set up in that state and will likely get more jobs and more tax revenue.”

In Maine, Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, a sponsor of one of the legalization bills, agrees “it would be helpful for Maine to be first” because that could “bring in a significant amount of revenue, maybe even more than Colorado.”

In 2014, the year after legalization took effect, Colorado businesses reported $700 million in marijuana sales – about $313 million of that for recreational pot – and $63 million in tax revenue from the two combined, according to a report in The Washington Post.

Paul McCarrier, president of Legalize Maine, said it is “imperative” for Maine to be the first state in the region to legalize to capitalize on the tourism market. The group’s proposal would allow “social clubs” where people, including tourists, could consume marijuana, which would be banned in public.

“Maine has around 34 million tourists come to our state every year,” he said. “They may want to buy a joint and sit by the lake.”

Many tourists may choose where they’ll go on a ski or beach trip based on where they can also use marijuana, said David Boyer, manager of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. “There are a lot of adults who don’t want to be punished for using marijuana and that will play into their decision on where to go for vacation.”

But Sabet, the national anti-legalization leader, said the race to be first in New England is “kind of ridiculous.”

“I think people need to think about if their neighborhood is better off with a marijuana store down the street,” Sabet said. “Legalization is not about righting the wrongs of the war on drugs. It’s about one thing: getting rich.”