Given the general terribleness of 2020, weed reform in the US hasn’t gone as badly as it could have.

Illinois got things off to a good start by opening its first recreational pot shops on Jan 1, 2020. In doing so, it became the first state to legalize adult-use cannabis sales through the legislature rather than a voter ballot initiative. Who says politicians don’t get anything done?

It looked like New York would soon follow suit, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing his latest attempt to legalize weed through the state’s annual budget. A further 16 states were taking steps toward putting some kind of marijuana legalization question on their November ballot.

Then the virus happened.

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Lawmakers and signature-gatherers around the country put their efforts on hold to slow the spread of COVID-19 and deal with the immediate impacts of the outbreak. Pushing for marijuana reform could no longer be a priority for weed reform advocates.

That said, in most states that had already legalized recreational or medical marijuana, dispensaries were deemed “essential” and so the majority remained open during lockdown, alongside grocery stores, pharmacies etc.

Marijuana was not only mainstream. It was vital.

Many lawmakers soon looked to marijuana legalization as a way to generate sorely-needed tax revenue as part of a COVID-19 economic recovery. Meanwhile, in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests, stronger calls for marijuana reform figured as part of the movement’s demands for racial justice.

Legalizing weed suddenly became an urgent measure to boost the country’s ailing economy and to help put an end to racial disparities in policing.

Marijuana legalization’s newfound position as a serious policy issue is reflected in the five states that weathered the COVID-19 storm to successfully put a marijuana legalization question on November’s ballot. Unlike previous years when weed reform was mainly a question for coastal, liberal states, four of the five states voting on the measure this year are largely rural and typically vote Republican in presidential elections.

Here’s a closer look at those five states and what they’ll be voting on this November.

Arizona

A 2016 ballot measure to legalize adult-use cannabis narrowly failed thanks in no small part to campaign contributions from opponents to the measure such as pharmaceutical company Insys – which definitely has no vested interests whatsoever in restricting the plant’s availability – and billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson. Perhaps because weed helps problem gamblers quit?

The 2020 ballot proposal is similar to 2016’s effort but this time round the measure contains social equity provisions and another to facilitate the expungement of marijuana-related criminal records.

The wording of this year’s marijuana legalization question was subject to a legal challenge, just like in 2016. But the case was swiftly dismissed by the court, just like in 2016.

A Republican stronghold since voters opted for Bill Clinton in 1996, Arizona is widely viewed as a swing state this year. Add to the mix that a seat in the Senate is up for grabs and there’s a lot at stake this time round. No need to tell that to Trump. He’s reportedly concerned that marijuana legalization on Arizona’s ballot could help flip the state to the Democrats.

Montana

Trump allegedly fears the same outcome in Montana. Though it’s sparsely-populated, Montana’s vote on whether to legalize recreational cannabis sales will be telling in how normalized the position has become in America’s traditionally conservative, rural heartlands where voters often split their tickets among Democrats and Republicans.

New Approach Montana’s signature gathering process was derailed by social distancing requirements and a court ruling that prevented campaigners from collecting signatures digitally. But the group bounced back to qualify two legalization measures for the ballot. One to establish a legal marijuana marketplace reserved, at least initially, for Montanan businesses. The second to amend the state’s constitution to ensure only adults aged 21 and older can take part.

New Jersey

Gov. Phil Murphy was elected on a promise to legalize recreational weed sales but a bill to do just that stalled in the Senate last year. So, lawmakers advocating marijuana reform turned to the ballot process to bypass the Republican-controlled legislature.

The result is a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize adult-use marijuana with a regulated system of production, distribution and sales, with the lowest tax rate yet put forward for a state-legal marijuana industry in the US.

Industry and political analysts think if New Jersey voters choose to legalize sales of cannabis (which looks highly likely), there’s every chance New York and Pennsylvania will soon follow given the significant potential for weed tourism – and lost tax income – across state borders.

Mississippi

More than twenty bills have tried and failed to legalize medical cannabis in Mississippi over the years. That’s right. Twenty.

Finally though, voters in Mississippi will have their say on medical marijuana legalization after a petition to put the measure on the ballot garnered 228,000 signatures.

The proposal would grant access to up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis for more than 20 qualifying conditions. But some conservative lawmakers, health officials and professional prohibitionists – such as Mississippi Horizon – believe the citizen’s initiative is “overly broad,” with Ed Langton, a member of the Mississippi Board of Health, characterizing it as a slippery slope toward full legalization.

But if you can’t beat 228,000 Mississippi voters, you should probably join ‘em, albeit on your terms. So the legislature put a competing, more restrictive medical marijuana proposal on the ballot. Their version would limit dispensary licenses, only allow terminally ill patients to smoke medical cannabis and require that marijuana products are of “pharmaceutical quality” i.e. FDA-approved. Essentially this is a backdoor prohibition on medical marijuana flower and oil.

Thankfully, polls indicate Mississippi voters are more supportive of the citizen-backed initiative than the one put forward by lawmakers.

South Dakota

South Dakota is one of three states that prohibits all and every form, type, size and shape of marijuana. Period. No exceptions.

That could change abruptly come November when South Dakota becomes the first state to vote on two separate cannabis legalization measures – one to legalize for medical purposes, another for recreational use. With the stroke of several hundred thousand pens, the state could go from full prohibition to full legalization. Clearly, South Dakota doesn’t do half-measures.

Gov. Kristi Noem is against both ballot initiatives, while the state’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry is behind the campaign opposing Constitutional Amendment A which would legalize recreational sales. If the results of a poll carried out by the opposition campaign – No Way on A – are anything to go by, the group has its work cut out though.

2020 marijuana reform at the federal level?

It’s not just state lawmakers that have been busy with marijuana legalization this year. The candidates for the Democratic nomination for the presidency were near united in support for ending federal cannabis prohibition. Unfortunately, the one candidate who’s mostly happy with the way things are won.

At the end of last year, a congressional House committee made history by approving a bill – the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act – that would decriminalize cannabis at the federal level. Rumors of an impending full floor vote on the MORE Act in the House were confirmed in an email to House members last month by Majority Whip James Clyburn. But House Majority Leader Stenny Hoyer poured cold water on the plan, arguing such a vote should take place after the November election once a new coronavirus relief bill is passed. If only Republicans felt the same way about Supreme Court justice nominations

With the possibility of a volatile election looming, House leadership clearly think a vote on marijuana legalization – with attendant Republican attacks – is a risk they can’t afford to take.

They’re forgetting one crucial thing about the measure though. It’s insanely popular!

Eight out of ten registered Democrats favor marijuana legalization. In many polls, a comfortable majority of Republicans do as well. And this support cuts across racial, class, geographic and age divisions.

At a time when Biden and the Democratic leadership is calling for unity, they should follow their own advice and get behind a position held by a strong majority of Americans, especially at a time when the country is demanding racial justice and crying out for economic relief.

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