This has been one of the most difficult and divisive years in our nation’s recent history, but one issue has united Americans across geography and political ideology: CANNABIS. This year’s election saw a clean sweep of cannabis policy reform initiatives at the state level, which only added to the already growing momentum for federal action and stands to improve the lives of millions of people across the country.
In Arizona, roughly 60 percent of voters supported an adult use initiative after narrowly defeating a similar measure in 2016. That’s a pretty big jump for any state. It was likely due to a combination of factors, including a steady climb in support for the idea of cannabis legalization generally, smart campaigning, and increased campaign funding from the cannabis industry.
One key factor missing this time around was a well-funded opposition, which was supported in previous years by disgraced fentanyl producers Insys Therapeutics and local business magnates. This long-overdue change is especially important because Arizona is the only state where simple possession is a felony, and nearly 15,000 people have been arrested for cannabis there every year. This is the first time a state has made the jump directly from felony to legality for adults. The initiative also creates a pathway for easier expungement of cannabis convictions.
In Mississippi, more than three quarters of voters supported people and patient-focused, medical cannabis. That was in spite of the conservative state legislature’s attempt to dupe voters into backing a second ballot measure they offered that was extremely restrictive..
When given the choice, voters were not only in favor of allowing seriously ill patients to use the medicine that works for them (like the vast majority of Americans), but they were clearly well educated on the nuances of the initiatives and the bizarre two-step voting process presented to them. If medical cannabis initiatives can win in the Deep South with heavy opposition from elected officials and blatant attempts to subvert the will of voters, they can surely win anywhere.
While some observers feared Montana would be a close call, voters passed an adult use initiative with 56.9 percent of the vote, according to the Associated Press. This just happens to be exactly the percentage by which Trump carried this heavily conservative state. This initiative also creates a way for people convicted of behavior that has now been made legal by the act to clear their records.
A last-minute lawsuit attempted to remove the initiative from the ballot before the election, but the Hail Mary failed and Montana’s Supreme Court rejected the motion. Still, those people responsible for that case have since renewed their challenge in a lower court and are attempting to have the initiative invalidated. Luckily, this undemocratic Hail Mary is unlikely to gain traction, given that the initiative language was previously approved by state authorities. However, it’s a stark reminder of how prohibitionists view voters and the lengths to which they will go to preserve their outdated, harmful policies.
Now, let’s talk about New Jersey. This was a standout this election cycle. After lawmakers were unable to pass similar legislation last year, roughly two-thirds of voters came out to approve their adult use ballot measure.
These are huge leaps in ballot approval margins. Before now, the most popular legalization referendum was in California where in 2016 voters approved Proposition 64 with 57 percent of the vote. That’s a 10 percent record margin increase in just four short years.
Jersey’s large population and huge market potential (more than $1.5B by 2025, according to Arcview Research) are sure to have a major impact on the industry. Regionally, passage of this initiative is certain to add urgency to adult-use cannabis regulation efforts in states like New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island, and potentially even Maryland.
And finally we come to South Dakota. This state was surprising in a couple of ways. Voters approved both a medical and an adult use initiative on the same ballot.
The fact that so many voters in a deeply conservative state approved an adult use initiative when there was an effective medical referendum on the same ballot flies in the face of historical logic on both sides of the issue. Political wisdom maintained that if voters are presented with multiple initiatives they’ll split their votes and, if anything, the more limited proposal would pass. They broke new ground by becoming the first state in the country to pass an adult use initiative (or legislation, for that matter) without first having an established medical cannabis system in place.
So what do these state victories mean for cannabis policy going forward? Some of the impacts are self-evident, but others depend heavily on what happens at the federal level.
First and foremost, the passage of the adult use initiatives means that more than 34 percent of Americans now live in states with laws making cannabis legal and regulated for adults. These four new adult use states account for roughly 60,000 marijuana arrests every year, mostly for simple possession. Thanks to local voters, every year tens of thousands of cannabis consumers will no longer have to deal with the life-altering consequences of an arrest – from the jail time or fines that accompany it, to the criminal record that then used to follow them for life.
Congressional representation of states where cannabis is legal for adults will increase by 29 representatives and eight senators. This doesn’t guarantee their support for cannabis legislation, but it certainly increases the chances of swaying some reticent legislators.
On the economic side, the estimated value of the combined cannabis markets of the five states that approved initiatives is expected to reach more than $3.1 billion by 2025, according to Arcview Research. These states are in a position to add tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in tax revenue to their economies.
Passage of cannabis policy reform initiatives in conservative states like Mississippi, Montana, and South Dakota should send a signal to Republican lawmakers in Congress (and other states) that this is an issue that they can support and one for which they will face political consequences for impeding.
Now it is up to Congress to act. In terms of what we can expect in the near future, much of it depends on the outcome of the Senate races in Georgia. As of now, Democrats would have to win both of the runoff elections in that state in order to have an even split in that chamber, which could potentially increase the chances of broader reform efforts becoming law. As it stands, incremental changes – such as providing banks and other financial institutions safe harbor to work with cannabis businesses – are still on the table regardless of which party controls the Senate.
A Biden/Harris administration in the White House is also expected to aid our efforts. While President-elect Joe Biden does not yet support decheduling and regulating cannabis at the federal level, he has shown the ability to evolve on this issue.
The fact that VP-elect and current Senator Kamala Harris was the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the MORE Act, which would remove cannabis from the schedule of controlled substances and contains numerous restorative justice measures to help undo the harms of prohibition, gives advocates hope that there will continue to be a voice for comprehensive, effective reform at the top levels of the incoming administration. At the very least, it seems extremely unlikely that Biden would stand in the way of good legislation that reaches his desk.
All in all, this was a great election year for cannabis policy reform in spite of the pandemic and the politics. Even with all the challenges facing advocates, businesses, and supportive officials, we were able to make great leaps forward in 2020 that will help millions of Americans immediately and in the years to come. There is still much work to be done, but the future looks bright.