Original art by Lizzy Oakley Photography

Coronavirus Tainted 2020 Election Results on Marijuana

On Election Day, there was one clear winner in America: drug reform. But drug reform was also a clear loser of this insane 2020 election cycle.

Sure, voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota legalized recreational cannabis, even as South Dakota, additionally, and Mississippi legalized medical marijuana. But despite these triumphs for the drug reform movement, their wins were expected to be even bigger. 

That’s because a handful of initiatives to legalize cannabis never made it on the 2020 election ballot. Measures to legalize recreational, adult-use marijuana in Arkansas, Ohio, North Dakota, and Missouri never saw the light of a ballot, while medical marijuana measures in Idaho and Nebraska were similarly left confined to the future to-do-lists of advocates. 

The main culprit was the logistical challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic, but some prohibitionist public officials intent on undermining the democratic process also played their part too. Activists are already updating their playbooks for the years to come. 

“If you look at how the election played out this year, it goes to show that this isn’t an issue tied to the coasts or blue states,” Erik Altieri, the Executive Director of NORML, told The News Station. “We do have to prepare and get over any hurdles getting [initiatives] to the ballot. But when we give the American people the chance to vote on them, we win.”

Ruined by the ‘Rona

In every state during the 2020 election attempting to pass cannabis reform measures, the coronavirus complicated signature gathering. For many, it was the kiss of death. 

Recreational legalization efforts in Arkansas, Idaho, Missouri, Ohio, and North Dakota all fell short of the necessary signatures needed to get measures on the ballot for the 2020 election. That’s in large part because they were forced to collect them in person, which became almost impossible during government-imposed lockdowns. 

“When COVID hit in March and shut everything down, that was prime [time for] signature gathering,” Erik Altieri, executive director of advocacy group NORML, told The News Station. “A lot of these states tried to get relief from state governments to find ways to get a longer deadline or collect signatures digitally, but for the most part the states were not keen to work with them on that.” 

Making the loss all the more frustrating, some campaigns were close to the finish line when COVID interfered. In Idaho, for instance, Idaho Citizens Coalition had gathered roughly 40,000 signatures before a stay-at-home order was issued on March 25. They would have needed to gather 15,000 more signatures by April 30. 

“The state of Idaho is on lockdown, so we cannot collect signatures in public,” the group wrote on Facebook on March 27.

In North Dakota, activists were even closer: they’d gathered nearly 24,000 signatures by July, and needed just 3,000 more to qualify for the ballot.

Across the country, concern for volunteers’ safely trumped signature gathering.

“COVID-19 killed it,” Melissa Fults, executive director of Arkansans for Cannabis Reform, told Cannabis Wire this July after her campaign’s ballot failed to gather enough signatures. “I couldn’t have them out there and take the risk of one of them contracting it and getting deathly ill and dying.”

Unlike many things swirling about the 2020 election, these moves to put the brakes on these campaigns made sense. 

Seeing barriers ahead of them, they ultimately suspended a lot of campaigns

Erik Altieri

Still, it wasn’t all coronavirus. 

[SUB HED Despite Bipartisan Support Legislatures Blocked Reform} 

Earlier this year, Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana gathered overwhelming support for their legalization initiative in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Spearheaded by a bi-partisan team of current and former state senators, the initiative gained enough support to appear on the ballot, and was certified by Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen (R). 

The goal posts moved though. 

As The News Station has reported, it was derailed when the former Chair of the Nebraska Republican Party, Mark Fahleson, persuaded the state Supreme Court to take up a challenge to the initiative, which they did and then eventually ingloriously shot it down. They ruled, as Fahleson argued, that it violated the state’s “single subject” rule for ballot initiatives because it called for both creating a medical marijuana market and allowing patients to consume medical marijuana. 

The justices bought that outcome, which effectively undermined the voices of the 190,000 people who signed the petition.

“It was a very unfortunate outcome,” Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), told The News Station. “That shows that the only way to defeat medical marijuana is in a courtroom, and not on the ballot.”

Republican legislators in Mississippi similarly attempted to thwart medical marijuana legislation by crafting an “alternate” ballot measure — which offered virtually no concrete language around qualifying conditions, permitted products, legal protections for patients and doctors or even a start date — and putting it on the ballot with the express purpose of confusing voters. They failed, and the initial measure passed with 74 percent of the vote.

Same in Montana, where Steve Zabawa — a prominent Republican donor who’s the focus of a 6,000-member Facebook group dedicated to boycotting his car dealerships — attempted and failed to sue the proposal into oblivion (though he’s still trying). 

And State Rep. Derek Skees (R-Mont.) drafted a bill to repeal the ballot measure weeks before Election Day, which he begrudgingly withdrew after the dual legislative initiatives (one to legalize and the other to, basically, establish a legal age for consumption) passed with 57 and 58 percent of the vote.

“We’re seeing the death throes of the prohibition movement here,” Altieri, of NORML, pointed out. “They realize they can’t beat us fair and square or in a debate with the American people. So they’re trying everything they can to throw the kitchen sink at us, from lawsuits to making it harder to gather petitions, to [the alternate bill in Mississippi].”

Schweich, of MPP, emphasized that a lack of precedent around how state courts will rule has created huge challenges. 

“Some Supreme Courts are willing to step outside of what’s considered normal practice,” he said. “I don’t think anybody saw this kind of ruling coming down [in Nebraska]. I don’t think we made mistakes. It’s just about learning lessons from unexpected events.”

Avoid Ballot Initiatives 

In the face of inevitable challenges and opposition going forward, Altieri is urging grassroots advocates on the ground in these and other states to employ two primary strategies to ensure  success in the near future. 

The first is simple: start collecting signatures as soon as you can, even if the election is more than a year away. Altieri pointed out that activists in Idaho and Missouri are already gearing up for 2022. 

They’ll be way ahead of the game this time around

Erik Altieri

He also explained that NORML will re-focus its energies next year on legislative action instead of ballot initiatives. He says legislators in Rhode Island and New Mexico are both likely to take up legalization in 2021. 

”Not only do we have to prepare for ballot initiatives in 2022, but take the momentum these victories have given us and parlay that into legislative victories at the state level,” Altieri said.

For Schweich, legislative action is always preferable to ballot initiatives. 

“I would love to be put out of business as a marijuana reform ballot initiative campaign manager,” he said.

Schweich was also optimistic about 2021, citing Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut as likely contenders to pass legalization through their legislatures, especially now that New Jersey voters green-lit recreational cannabis.

“I want legislatures to take action and pass good laws so that we don’t need to do these ballot initiative campaigns,” Schweich said. “I think we’re about to see a bunch of legislative victories.”

Max Savage Levenson is a writer and podcast producer living in Missoula, MT. His work has appeared in outlets including Pitchfork, NPR Music, Leafly and the San Francisco Chronicle. He has released precisely one hip-hop album.

Max Savage Levenson is a writer and podcast producer living in Missoula, MT. His work has appeared in outlets including Pitchfork, NPR Music, Leafly and the San Francisco Chronicle. He has released precisely one hip-hop album.

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