Results have not yet been determined in Arizona, Montana and Mississippi, nor for South Dakota’s simultaneous ballot question on legalizing recreational marijuana.
The initiatives would only be the first step in the process, said John Hudak, deputy director at the Brookings Institution, where he specializes in state and federal marijuana policy.
New Jersey navigates mail-in ballots
In New Jersey, where medical use already is legal, state lawmakers, unable to drum up enough support to pass a bill to fully legalize marijuana, agreed to place the question directly to voters: “Do you approve amending the Constitution to legalize a controlled form of marijuana called ‘cannabis’?”
Gregg Edwards, executive director of Don’t Let NJ Go to Pot — the group formed in opposition to the ballot question — called the move to change the state’s constitution “pretty extreme.”
“Now cannabis is going to appear in the New Jersey Constitution alongside the freedom to associate,” he said. “And once it’s in the Constitution, the likelihood of it coming out is slim or next to none.”
Edwards said that normally, he would have spoken with parent-teacher organizations and local chambers of commerce to build support for the opposition effort, but because of Covid this year this year “they just haven’t been available to us.”
“We would have liked to spend the spring, summer and fall talking to folks,” he said. “It’s just been next to impossible.”
“We have to drill down on making sure people know they have to flip the ballot over,” said Tara Martin, with NJ CAN 2020, which is leading the campaign in support of the ballot question.
South Dakota could ‘leapfrog’
South Dakota had two measures on the ballot:
Measure 26 is poised to pass, CNN projects — and if Amendment A also passes, there’s a term for what South Dakota could do: leapfrog.
Many states have followed a multi-year path toward full legalization, starting with decriminalization, followed by medical use and then full legalization. If South Dakota enacts both medical and adult use, it would be the first state to simultaneously approve such measures.
South Dakota currently has tough penalties for possession of even small amounts of cannabis.
If it does pass, Hudak, of the Brookings Institution, said, “It would be a pretty significant step toward understanding just how progressive people are ready to be, in unlikely states, around this issue.”
Polling strong in Arizona
Advocates credit higher support for this year’s effort to a reworked ballot question. Besides legalizing marijuana, the proposition would set up a pathway to strike prior convictions for marijuana from criminal records, and includes a provision for home growers.
Republican Gov. Doug Ducey opposes this year’s ballot measure, asking voters to again vote “No.”
If Arizona votes to fully legalize this week, Julie Gunnigle, the Democratic candidate for Maricopa County attorney, said it would be a powerful bellwether for other parts of the country.
“If Arizona can do it, the rest of the country is ready,” said Gunnigle, who supports Proposition 207.
Montana revamps its signature drives
In Montana, the window to gather the tens of thousands of signatures needed to place its two legalization questions on the ballot collided with the early months of the pandemic and stay-at-home orders.
The state had two initiatives:
- Initiative 190, which would allow adults in the state to possess and buy cannabis for recreational use and defined a 20% tax on recreational cannabis. It would also allow people serving sentences for certain cannabis-related acts to apply for resentencing or records expungement.
- Initiative 118, the second question, would amend the state’s constitution to establish 21 as the legal age to purchase, possess and consume cannabis.
“We took a series of steps to make sure the pandemic didn’t take away Montana’s constitutional ballot initiative process,” said Matthew Schweich, deputy director at the Marijuana Policy Project and one of the leaders of the Montana and South Dakota ballot efforts.
Mississippi’s medicinal push
Mississippians considered two dueling proposals to legalize medical marijuana. The state’s unique ballot structure asks voters whether they are for approving either Initiative 65 or Initiative 65A, or against both.
- Initiative 65 would allow physicians to recommend medical cannabis for patients with any of 22 qualifying conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and post-traumatic stress disorder. The constitutional amendment would establish a regulatory program for businesses to grow and sell medical cannabis and for the products to be taxed at a 7% rate.
- Initiative 65A would limit the smoking of medical cannabis to people who are terminally ill, and would leave the regulatory framework up to the Legislature.
Even if a person voted against both, they still had the opportunity to choose between the two.
Should either measure pass, Hudak said, “it would signal a pretty significant change in politics around cannabis in the South in a way we really haven’t had a good test of yet.”
Is it the end of the road for legalization via ballot measure?
Advocates say they first pursued the piecemeal ballot measure process to legalize cannabis because it was easier than navigating the time-consuming efforts in state legislatures. But they’re running out of states that use ballot measures to shape public policy, Hudak said.
“Conversations are getting more serious,” Hudak said. “A lot of progress has been made at the legislative level, even if there’s not a lot to show for it.”
But Schweich, of the Marijuana Policy Project, hopes voters’ decisions on Election Day will serve as a tipping point toward a national conversation.
“The reason there’s a conversation in Congress is because of all of the victories that have already occured at the state level,” Schweich said. “If we can win in New Jersey, Mississippi, South Dakota, Montana and Arizona, it’s going to send a really loud message to Congress that it’s time to fix this at the federal level in 2021.”