Election Day 2020 could be a windfall for cannabis. Voters in four states — Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, and New Jersey — will decide on legalization for either medical or adult use. And voters in South Dakota will be the first ever to see both medical and adult use measures on their ballots.
Presidential elections are often targeted by legalization advocates because of the higher-than-average voter turnout. In 2016, voters passed cannabis measures in eight of nine states where cannabis was on the ballot.
In fact, if not for the COVID-19 pandemic, which presented restrictions on in-person events and signature gathering, voters in several other states could have decided on medical or adult use legalization. For example, advocates in Arkansas and Oklahoma failed to gather enough signatures, Cannabis Wire reported in a comprehensive analysis on how COVID-19 disrupted cannabis efforts this year. In addition, advocates in Florida, Idaho, Missouri, North Dakota, and Ohio suspended their cannabis campaigns amid the pandemic.
Another twist: anti-legalization advocates called on state supreme courts to pull cannabis measures from ballots. This unprecedented tactic was deployed in three states this year, Nebraska, Montana, and Mississippi. In Nebraska, it worked, and a medical cannabis measure that qualified for the ballot was subsequently pulled. In Mississippi, the top court won’t decide until after the vote. And in Montana, the court rejected the challenge.
Here’s more on the cannabis measures voters in five states will see on their ballots:
Arizona is a bit of a wildcard. In 2016, voters in Arizona were alone in rejecting adult use legalization, which passed in four other states: California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada.
Proposition 207, the 2020 measure that voters will see, would tax and regulate cannabis sales for adults twenty-one and older, allow for individuals to grow up to six plants at home, and provide for the expungement of some cannabis-related convictions. The framework would also direct money from the 16% excise tax on cannabis sales toward schools, law enforcement, fire departments, and a “highway user revenue fund.” In a revised draft, it also sets aside twenty-six licenses for applicants from communities disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.
“We’re obviously ecstatic that we got through this hurdle. But our excitement is tempered by the fact that we still have hearts and minds to win over between now and November 3,” Samuel Richard, executive director of the Arizona Dispensaries Association, told Cannabis Wire.
Polling on legalization in Arizona has been mixed, though support appears to be on the rise. An October Monmouth University poll showed 56% support for legalization, while 36% said they were opposed, up from only 51% support in September.
Mississippi voters will see two medical cannabis measures. Initiative 65A, presented by lawmakers, is a far more conservative approach to regulating medical cannabis. It would restrict legal medical cannabis access to only terminally ill patients. Initiative 65, the grassroots effort, would allow medical cannabis patients who qualify with one of more than twenty conditions to register with the Department of Health and buy medical cannabis at a licensed entity. Initiative 65 would also tax medical cannabis sales at the broader current sales tax rate of 7%, and allow the possession of up to 2.5 ounces of medical cannabis.
Polling suggests that the majority of Mississippi residents support the effort to legalize medical cannabis, though some fear that voters might be confused by seeing two initiatives.
Jamie Grantham, the communications director for the Medical Marijuana 2020 Campaign for Initiative 65, said at a final hearing hosted by the Secretary of State’s office at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson that she thinks the potential confusion is by design. Grantham also highlighted that medical cannabis has been brought before lawmakers “more than twenty times.”
“When they put 65A to be on the ballot, they robbed the voters a fair up or down vote in an effort to split the votes so that neither measure makes that required threshold to pass,” Grantham said.
Montana’s Secretary of State certified two initiatives for which the New Approach Montana campaign submitted, combined, more than 130,000 signatures in June.
I-190 would legalize cannabis for adult use, while the second, CI-118 would amend the state constitution to “allow the legislature or the people by initiative to establish the legal age for purchasing, consuming, or possessing marijuana,” which I-190 sets at 21.
If voters approve these initiatives, adults age 21 and older will be able to buy and possess up to an ounce of cannabis. Residents would also be allowed to grow four mature plants (and four seedlings) at home. Further, individuals who are “currently serving a sentence” for activities permitted by I-190 will be able to “apply for resentencing or an expungement of the conviction.”
A cannabis retail tax would be set at 20%, and 10.5% of that tax revenue would go toward the general fund, while the rest will be divided among “conservation programs, substance abuse treatment, veterans’ services, healthcare costs, and localities where marijuana is sold.”
Roughly 54% of voters polled said they will (or have) vote “yes” on Initiative 190, which would legalize cannabis for adult use in Montana, while 39% said they already have, or will vote “no,” according to the annual Mountain States Poll.
New Jersey will be perhaps the most widely watched state as voters decide on Public Question 1, the Marijuana Legalization Amendment, which would legalize the possession and use of cannabis for adults 21 and older, and regulate cultivation, processing, and sales of cannabis.
The state’s borders with New York and Pennsylvania, where Governors Andrew Cuomo and Tom Wolf have long urged legalization, could also put pressure on lawmakers in those states to move a legalization bill sooner.
Recent polling by Fairleigh Dickinson University shows that 61% of likely voters plan to cast their votes to legalize.
Days before Election Day, state records showed that the New Jersey state ballot question that would legalize cannabis for adult use pulled in $2.1 million in contributions. Top contributors included American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, and Weedmaps.
Why are voters deciding on legalization, and not lawmakers? Lawmakers voted in December, 49-21-1 in the Assembly and 24-16 in the Senate, to send legalization to voters.
“Putting the issue to a referendum is both sensible and equitable. While not our preferred method of legislating, public questions allow voters to affirm or deny massive shifts in public policy,” Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said in a statement after the vote.
This came after lawmakers failed in somewhat dramatic fashion last March to agree on legalization. At the time, Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney said that lawmakers changing votes “was like Whac-A-Mole,” and that some lawmakers are “just philosophically opposed.”
“Legalization of marijuana will get passed one way or another. I might have underestimated the challenge in getting this passed. The governor made one hell of an effort himself and we’ll be back at this,” Sweeney said last March.
South Dakota voters could make history as the first in the nation to legalize cannabis for both adult and medical use at the same time.
Voters will decide on Amendment A and Measure 26 at the ballot box. Amendment A is a constitutional amendment that would legalize cannabis for adult use and require the state legislature to craft regulations for medical cannabis and hemp by April 1, 2022. Measure 26 would establish a medical cannabis program.
Brendan Johnson, former US Attorney for South Dakota, spoke during a June news conference on the economic and criminal justice implications of the state’s legalization push.
“I think what we’re going to see in South Dakota on this issue is really a coalition of both Democrats and Republicans coming together and [saying] prohibition does not work. It has not worked in the past. And it’s time, for the interest of our economy as well as the next generation, to get this right,” Johnson said.
The South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, the campaign behind Amendment A and Measure 26, released a report, based on U.S. Department of Justice’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program data, that showed that found that one out of ten overall arrests were tied to cannabis. Showing the racial disparity in arrests in the state, Native Americans and Black residents were arrested at five times the rate of white residents between 2007 and 2016.
Public Opinion Strategies and marketing firm Lawrence and Schiller recently conducted a poll on behalf of “No Way on A,” a group opposed to adult use cannabis, that found that roughly 70% of voters support Measure 26, which would create a statewide medical cannabis regime, and about 60% of respondents would cast their vote in favor of Constitutional Amendment A, which would legalize adult use cannabis.