Cannabis legalization efforts saw some successes and some failures at the ballot box in November. Maryland and Missouri voters said yes to referendums that allow cannabis use for adults ages twenty-one and up. Arkansas, North Dakota, and South Dakota voters, meanwhile, rejected similar measures.
But in three states where voters aren’t able to bring binding initiatives to the ballot, state-level elections may have, to varying degrees, enhanced the chances of cannabis legalization in other ways.
Here is a look at those three states, all in the Great Lakes region:
One of the biggest winners in Minnesota’s 2022 election may have been cannabis. The state’s Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party gained the coveted governmental trifecta, meaning the party has control of the governor’s office and both chambers of the legislature. In past sessions, a Republican-controlled Senate stood in the way of efforts to legalize cannabis for adult use. But in November, the DFL won a one-seat majority in the chamber—thirty-four seats to Republicans’ thirty-three.
Governor Tim Walz has already signaled that he would sign cannabis legalization legislation, saying that prohibition does more harm than good. And in late December, outgoing House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, who led efforts to legalize in the legislature, as Cannabis Wire reported, was announced as campaign chair of the 2023 MN is Ready campaign to legalize adult use cannabis.
“This is something that the Democratic Party candidates running in the state basically told the electorate was going to be a high level priority for them,” Leili Fatehi, the campaign manager for MN is Ready and a lawyer with the cannabis consulting firm Blunt Strategies, told Cannabis Wire.
According to Fatehi, twenty-eight DFL senators have confirmed their support for cannabis legalization. The remaining six were elected to office for the first time last year and Fatehi says their positions aren’t yet known. In the House, sixty-two members of the DFL have confirmed their support for legalization, while two have voted against legalization in the past. However, there are two Republican House members who have voted in favor. The House passed a legalization bill, HF 600, in 2021. As with the new senators, Fatehi says the position of eight new House DFL members is unclear. But if the current numbers hold, pro-legalization lawmakers would only need to persuade three of them to gain a pro-legalization majority.
Last year, Minnesota lawmakers legalized edibles containing THC—although, as Cannabis Wire reported at the time, Republicans may not have fully understood what they were passing. While Democrats saw a victory, in part, with this legislation, they also expressed concern that it left out a regulatory framework for THC products. “If anything, Democrats are even more eager to move forward with a comprehensive legalization bill because it will put in place the cannabis management board that would provide the overall oversight for this industry and these products,” Fatehi said, noting that THC products are already on the market.
The state’s legislative session began on January 3.
Pennsylvania’s path to legalization is steeper than the one in Minnesota, but “I think that we are in the best position that we’ve been in since this movement started here in Pennsylvania,” Meredith Buettner, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Cannabis Coalition, told Cannabis Wire.
After a dozen years of Republican control of the state legislature, Democrats won a slim majority in the House for the first time since 2010. Democrat Josh Shapiro also won the race for governor. Buettner says both Shapiro and the lieutenant governor-elect, Austin Davis, have been vocal advocates of the legal adult use of cannabis.
Still, the Republican-controlled Senate isn’t likely to take up the issue. But Buettner notes that the win of an outspoken advocate for cannabis legalization in the U.S. Senate race, John Fetterman, alongside Shapiro’s win, signals that voters statewide are comfortable with the idea.
Another motivating factor: the proximity of other legal states, including Maryland, which legalized cannabis in November. “Half of the population of Pennsylvania lives within a half an hour drive of New York, New Jersey, or Maryland,” Buettner said. “We really will be, at some point here in the very near future, doing ourselves a disservice as a Commonwealth to not consider cannabis policy.” Pennsylvanians could soon be going across the border for cannabis and bringing it back home. Beuttner says they also could be crossing state lines to work in states where jobs in the industry are more plentiful.
Also, if Pennsylvanians travel across state lines for cannabis, it means lost tax revenue. Whether this will be a motivating factor for the Republican-controlled Senate remains up in the air.
Cannabis was approved for medical use in Pennsylvania in 2016. Its 2023 legislative session began on January 3.
Wisconsin is among a shrinking minority—just thirteen states—without a medical cannabis program, and it could remain that way. Yet, there are two reasons to believe the state’s voters are interested in not only a medical program but the full legalization of cannabis.
The first reason is the reelection of Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat who included legalization in his 2021-23 budget proposal and promised before the election to include it in his next budget if he won the race.
The second is in the results of the election itself: In counties and cities across the state, Wisconsinites voted on non-binding referendums asking if they supported the legalization of cannabis for adult use. (Wisconsin does not allow ballot initiatives to change state law.) The results were overwhelmingly in favor, with the measures passing in every locality where they appeared. In Dane County, home to Madison, more than 80% of voters said yes. At least two-thirds of voters supported similar measures in Eau Claire County and Milwaukee County, and the cities of Appleton, Kenosha, Racine, and Stevens Point. Even the small northern Wisconsin town of Superior, population 677, approved a measure with nearly 80% in favor.
Jay Selthofner, the director and founder of the Wisconsin Cannabis Activist Network, says the city of Superior is an interesting case. It’s a Democratic stronghold, but as the maps are currently drawn, it will be represented by Republicans in the state legislature.
Selthofner says because of the new maps from redistricting, representation for the small town flipped from Democrat to Republican, but he says because there was support for the referendum, “the Republicans that were running for office in that area and that were elected were supportive of marijuana reform. So it’s kind of a dynamic switch where we lost the seats in the Dems, but gained some good allies in the Republican Party.”
Selthofner contends that gerrymandering in favor of state-level Republicans in large part determines the politics of cannabis in the state. He points out that while the Democratic incumbent, Tony Evers, won 51% of the vote for governor, his party will only control about a third of state legislative seats this year because of gerrymandering. That said, while Democrats won the governor’s office and other executive level races, Republicans did win statewide races for the U.S. Senate seat and for state treasurer, suggesting Democrats don’t have a majority in the state, despite concerns that gerrymandering has significantly warped the state legislature.
Selthofner says legislation decriminalizing cannabis possession will have the best possibility of progressing this session. A bill on medical cannabis could also make an appearance. He says Republicans supportive of cannabis for adult use could make inroads behind closed doors but says the prospects that they will bring any legislation to the floor are slim: “I don’t think they have a chance in hell.”
However, Wisconsin could soon face a similar situation to Pennsylvania. If Minnesota lawmakers to the north approve cannabis for adult use, Wisconsin will be virtually surrounded, with the already-legal states of Michigan to the east and Illinois to the south.
Fatehi, with MN is Ready, says that her state was in a similar situation to Wisconsin only a few years ago. Now the Land of 10,000 Lakes is on the verge of full legalization. She says plenty of people told her that cannabis legalization was a long shot in the state when the campaign began in earnest five years ago.
“The reason we had to start it was all the national legalization groups said, ‘Minnesota is so far off from legalization—you just have too many structural and inherent barriers.’ And we were able to come up with an effective strategy over the course of those years to change that,” Fatehi said.
Wisconsin’s legislative session began on January 3.