In 2016, as many as 16 states could vote on legalization through ballot initiatives or through state legislators. But don't get your hopes up about America leaping from 4 to 20 legal states by New Year's 2017. Many of those initiatives won't make it onto the ballot, or make it through legislative votes.
But don't despair, either. There is a strong chance that the U.S. could double the total number of legal states in 2016. Here are the five most likely to legalize, and the biggest hurdles that they'll face in 2016.
Bernie Sanders' home state stands a strong chance of becoming the first to legalize cannabis through its legislature. According to a Castleton poll released in February 2015, 54 percent of Vermonters support legalization and only 40 percent are opposed. Meanwhile, approximately 80,000 residents use cannabis regularly, spending about $175 million annually on the illegal market. The legislature is currently mulling 10 marijuana bills, including legalization as well as taxation, regulation and expansion of the state's medicinal cannabis program.
On top of that, Governor Peter Shumlin (D) openly supports legalization. So what's the hold up? Shumlin hasn't set a date to vote on legalization: "I gotta be candid with you," the governor told reporters on Nov. 16. "I'm focusing on a lot of other things, like the budget, creating jobs. We will get to that, but I haven't made a decision."
So the fate of cannabis in Vermont may hinge on the governor getting over his cold feet - hopefully before his term ends next year.
If the Grand Canyon State's ballot question passes on Nov. 8, 2016, it will be a slim victory. A poll released by the Arizona State University in December 2015 suggests that 49 percent of voters support legalization, while 51 percent are opposed. But an earlier poll conducted by the Behavior Research Center and released in June 2015 suggested that a slim majority (53 percent) of voters favored legalization. So the ballots could be cast either way.
The biggest difficulty faced by activists is a deep, hostile division between competing ballot initiatives: the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which is backed by the Marijuana Policy Project, and the grassroots Arizonians for Mindful Legalization. Both groups are currently gathering signatures to get their initiatives on the 2016 ballot. And tempers have flared. Simply put, the grassroots group feels that the MPP-backed campaign is too restrictive and exploitative, whereas the MPP-sponsored group thinks that the grassroots activists need to compromise on having tighter regulations and market controls.
The fate of legalization in Arizona may hinge on these groups making a New Year's resolution to work together.
The state is poised to legalize recreational cannabis use, with 56 percent of likely voters supporting legalization, according to a June 2015 poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California.
So the biggest hurdle for activists in the Golden State isn't getting people interested in legalization. It's uniting activists around one initiative.
Currently, there are more than a dozen competing proposals to put legalization on the 2016 ballot, and nine have been approved to gather signatures. The frontrunner is the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which is backed by billionaire and early Facebook investor Sean Parker. It has won over many activists, and certainly has the money to mount a strong campaign. But those strengths are the reasons why grassroots activists to fear "Big Marijuana" setting up shop in California.
Compared to Arizona and California, the legalization campaign in Massachusetts looks easy. As in Arizona, there were two competing initiatives - Bay State Repeal, a grassroots campaign, and the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which is sponsored by the Marijuana Policy Project. And like in Arizona, the grassroots group proposed a looser regulatory framework, whereas the MPP backed initiative stressed tighter restrictions.
The main difference is that the campaigns got along more or less while competing to submit their signatures before the deadline in December 2015. CRMLA managed to gather enough signatures to submit their proposal, but BSR fell short and had to concede. Some BSR supporters have pledged to defeat CRMLA, but many others have decided to put the goal of legalization ahead of their ideological differences.
The state legislature will now decide whether or not to support the proposal. If they decide not to, voters wil still likely get a chance to vote on the issue if CRMLA gathers an additional 10,792 signatures. So there are considerable hurdles ahead, but those will seem like bumps in the road compared to the potholes faced by activists in California and Arizona.
We've saved the best - that is, the brightest hope - for last. Nevada is the safest bet to legalize in 2016, according to Leafly. Campaigners for the Initiative to Regulate and Tax Marijuana was the first group in the nation to gather enough signatures to put legalization on the 2016 ballot. And they did it with gusto, handing in a total of 170,000 signatures - nearly 60,000 more than the 101,667 autographs required to get onto the ballot.
And in October 2015, it got an unofficial endorsement from Bernie Sanders. Hopefully both will come out winners on election day 2016!