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What the Recent Cannabis Summit of Northeastern US Governors Could Mean for Cannabis Legislation

Flickr @ Katheirne Hitt

Not too long ago, the Northeastern United States was considered the next hotbed of cannabis legalization. The region saw Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont first pass adult-use laws. In and around that time, speculation swirled about the prospects of similar legislation passing in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, among other states in the region. Rumors of the impending legalizations even prompted reluctant lawmakers in New Hampshire and Rhode Island to consider the measure – despite their own convictions. 

Yet, to date, nothing has come to fruition. The Northeast has not seen any significant movement in the bid for adult-use legalization in months. After setbacks in the region, attention shifted to the Midwest, where Michigan and Illinois picked up the charge for such legislation. 

The region now sits at an impasse where many believe a bill will pass but remain uncertain of when. The issue is further compacted by the looming fears stemming from the vaping crisis that saw thousands of cases of lung injury from a yet-to-be-concluded element in vapes and e-cigarettes.

To combat the issue, governors from the Northeast convened on October 17, 2019 to align their views on cannabis legislation and the vaping matter. Joining governors Ned Lamont (Connecticut), Phil Murphy (New Jersey), Andrew Cuomo (New York) and Tom Wolf (Pennsylvania) were representatives from Colorado and Massachusetts. Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo was not in attendance, but did send aides. 

The all-Democrat meeting saw the state leaders agreeing to key parameters around regulation, social equity, taxes and other measures. The summit’s resolutions were billed as a “set of core principles” in a press release announcing the meeting. 

Key agreements include establishing a tax structure focused on benefiting communities most impacted by the war on drugs. Among its parameters, key goals include supporting the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act as well as prioritizing small and diverse business participation in the space. 

The summit also focused on public safety, health and enforcement. Packaging and advertising were also discussed, with an agreement reached to prohibit vape and cannabis products aimed at youth. A deal to create programming and public health campaigns geared at young people was also agreed upon. A limit on flavored products nicotine and cannabis products was mentioned as well, but not elaborated on.

The resolution acknowledged the limitations law enforcement faces. The press release cited a lack of reliable field tests for cannabis impairment. It mentioned Drug Recognition Experts (DREs) and lab blood tests as viable ways to determine if a person is intoxicated. However, no standard method exists at this time. 

As such, each state agreed to several measures to improve cannabis impairment assessment. They include having a uniform treatment of DRE evidence. A uniform standard for both saliva and blood tests, which applies to lab and roadside tests when available, was reached. The states agreed to share information on enforcement tactics as well as information on suspected “bad actors” in the legalized space.

All of the states acknowledged concern for youth consumption, vaping and the recent wave of lung injuries.

As of November 5, 2019, the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) recorded 2,051 cases of lung injury, affecting every state but Alaska. While unsure of the exact cause, the damage does stem from e-cigarettes and vaping. Most of the reported cases have occurred in Texas, California and Illinois. That said, much of the eastern portion of the country was affected as well. Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey had between 50 and 90 cases each. Connecticut experienced between 10 and 49 cases. 

The summit led to agreements on vape product safety standards, which applies to cannabis, nicotine and other cannabinoid products. Measures will also be implemented for cutting agents and other additives. Regulation around temperature controls on devices was also discussed, as was increasing enforcement of sales to people under 21 years old. 

Andrew Glassman is a member of the law firm Pullman and Comley, where he practices in New York and Connecticut. His firm represents several cannabis businesses in Connecticut. Glassman noted hurdles each state will have to clear as resolutions turn to regulation. He mentioned differences, such as New York’s current ban on smokable flower while Connecticut bans edibles that resemble candy. 

Glassman noted that the state’s differences may influence the governors to act on legislation. He cited Gov. Lamont’s willingness to advance cannabis legislation playing a possible role in influencing Gov. Cuomo, who had a long history of opposition until recent years. He did not say if the same could be said for Pennsylvania’s Wolf, who first voiced support for the measure in September and New Jersey’s proponent Governor Murphy. 

Despite the hurdles, Glassman commends the efforts made so far. “As we have already seen with Massachusetts…consumers in this region will readily cross state lines to purchase cannabis products despite laws prohibiting them from doing so. This means that some level of coordinated regulation makes great sense.”

Andrew Freedman is the co-founder of Freedman and Koski. He is also a partner with Advocates for Human Potential, Inc. (AHP), a research firm in the health and behavioral health space. Freedman and AHP have worked with Maine on its rules and policy implementation. The legal expert called the summit “historic,” commending its efforts to shape cannabis policy in the region. “This wasn’t a publicity event to stake out positions of legalization for political gains; it was a policy event to think through the complexities of legalization and how best to move forward,” Freedman stated. 

Another pressing topic, social equity and justice reform, was also a focus of the summit. The states won’t have to align on social equity policy, per se, according to Pullman and Comley’s Glassman. However, he said learning from one another may help shape legislation around complex issues like record expungement. 

In all, the first cannabis and vaping summit left some with hope for additional cannabis progress in the region. While much is to be figured out, the meeting appears to lay the groundwork for what could eventually become a more regulated, legal cannabis industry in the Northeast. 

So far, Glassman is encouraged by the progress and its impact on social equity. “There seems to be general agreement among them that it’s important to use this transitional moment to right the historical wrong of the communities of color disproportionately affected by previous cannabis enforcement policies.”

If executed properly, more regions of the country could follow suit with such summits. Though, that is purely speculation at this time.