Marijuana legalization advocates, afraid that efforts to win ballot initiatives would go up in smoke given the challenges of a pandemic, are fired up about chances in five states this fall.
The difficulty of safely getting signatures in person helped doom marijuana legalization efforts in some states, like Idaho and Missouri. But voters will decide next month whether to legalize recreational marijuana in four states, only one of which is reliably Democratic: Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota. Mississippi will also consider a pair of ballot initiatives to legalize medical marijuana.
Despite COVID-19 risks, advocates managed to collect more than 661,000 signatures in four of those states in the 2020 election cycle to put the questions on the ballot. Some began before the pandemic hit, while advocates with later deadlines added protective steps like using individual plastic-wrapped pens.
In recent years, 11 states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana for adults 21 years old or older, while 33 states plus the District have legalized medical marijuana for some patients.
If successful, as is likely in all the states this year except possibly Mississippi, the new legalization efforts could altogether bring in hundreds of millions in tax revenue, which could help blunt the impact of states’ plummeting revenue due to the economic collapse.
Matthew Schweich, deputy director at the Marijuana Policy Project, said many supporters were already swayed by the revenue marijuana taxes bring in. The dire budget conditions of many states could increasingly become a strong argument in favor of legalization.
“Voters are aware of the fiscal pain that’s already here or coming down the road. I believe they’re seeing marijuana revenue as part of the solution,” he said.
Luke Niforatos, an opponent of legalization with Smart Approaches to Marijuana, argues that marijuana tax revenue is just a “drop in the bucket.”
Proponents also hope positive outcomes in Republican-leaning states could help propel Congress to pass federal bills to remove marijuana from the list of drugs restricted by the 1970 Controlled Substances Act.
Details of state contests
Two states — South Dakota and New Jersey — will be watched closely. A win in South Dakota would mean that Republican Senate Majority Whip John Thune represents a state with legalized marijuana.
And legalization in New Jersey could persuade nearby states to follow suit. The governors of several Northeastern states convened a summit last year in an effort to harmonize marijuana policies in the region.
Most polls show both ballot initiatives are likely to succeed.
South Dakota will simultaneously consider two separate ballot initiatives on adult use and medical marijuana use — Constitutional Amendment A and Initiated Measure 2, respectively. That’s unprecedented, according to Schweich.
A poll commissioned by the state Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the initiatives, found 60 percent of voters planned to vote in favor of marijuana for adults and 70 percent planned to vote in favor of marijuana for qualifying patients, the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls reported.
Schweich said these incremental successes are bound to stimulate action on Capitol Hill.
“Every election cycle, we pass more initiatives and it increases pressure on Congress,” he said.
Opponents don’t see it that way and continue to raise concerns.
Colton Grace, a spokesperson for Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said in an email that the group is worried about the out-of-state money supporting many ballot initiatives. They say Montana, where millions in untraceable donations have funded the pro-legalization side, is emblematic of this problem.
Montana will consider two complementary ballot initiatives. Initiative 190 would legalize marijuana for recreational use. The ballot initiative would ban marijuana advertising and put up safeguards on packaging and labeling marijuana in a way that appeals to children.
But in order to restrict marijuana use to adults 21 years old or older, another ballot initiative, CI-118, is needed to amend the state constitution. Otherwise, the initiative could be challenged as unconstitutional.
New Approach Montana, the group behind the two ballot initiatives, told the Missoula Current it plans to spend $3 million to $6 million in total on the campaign. Collecting signatures, made more expensive by the pandemic, required $1.8 million.
The group’s largest funder by far is a mysterious 501(c)4 nonprofit called the North Fund that's headquartered at a shared workspace in Washington, D.C. The North Fund gave $4.8 million to New Approach Montana, according to local station KXLH. Opponents filed a campaign finance complaint in an effort to compel the North Fund to disclose its donors under a Montana open records law.
Steve Zabawa, who filed the complaint against the North Fund, is behind a campaign to oppose the initiatives called Wrong for Montana. The auto dealer’s group put up billboards and raised concerns about the potential for marijuana dependence and risks to children. The group reported $78,000 in donations in its latest campaign finance report. Its largest donation, $30,000, came from the Montana Family Foundation, a conservative group that opposes abortion and gay marriage.
“We have great families here, and they stay here and have been here for many, many generations. That’s what it’s all about,” Zabawa said at a recent press briefing. “Our mission is to have a productive, healthy Montana. Keep [Montana] pristine.”
“When it comes to ballot initiatives, in my experience, voters are more focused on details of policy and not the donors,” Schweich said. “You’re not electing a candidate who could change his mind on an issue because of a big donor. Once a ballot initiative passes, it can't return a favor to a donor.”
Less than three weeks before Election Day, Wrong for Montana and SAM announced a petition to the state Supreme Court on Friday intended to nix the marijuana initiatives from the ballot. They argue that the proposal, which outlines how marijuana tax revenue should be allocated, violates a state constitutional provision that prohibits the appropriation of funds in a ballot initiative.
Meanwhile, proponents in other states have accused opponents of underhanded efforts to stop legalization.
In Mississippi, after a medical marijuana initiative qualified for the ballot, the Republican legislature added a competing initiative restricted to terminally ill patients. In order to be successful, the citizen-led initiative must garner 40 percent of the vote, according to the state.
Advocates like Schweich say the alternative was added to the ballot to confuse voters and sabotage a popular proposal.
Marijuana legalization could be bolstered by a summer defined by Black Lives Matter protests and increased awareness among white Americans of the harms of the war on drugs. A 2020 American Civil Liberties Union analysis found that Black Americans were nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white Americans.
Under Arizona’s Proposition 207, people could apply to have their criminal records expunged of marijuana-related crimes like possession, consumption, cultivation and transportation. In Montana, people could petition the courts to resentence or expunge the records of people serving time for marijuana-related activities made legal under the ballot initiative.
Some opponents say some of the initiatives don’t go far enough to ensure people with a prior drug conviction who want to sell marijuana can compete against large multi-state operators with more capital.
The Montana ballot initiative requires that marijuana provider licenses only be issued to state residents for one year. But the Montana Cannabis Industry Association said that’s not enough of a leg up on well-capitalized marijuana companies.
Multi-million-dollar companies like Curaleaf, GTI, Acreage Holdings and Cresco Labs could get a boost from this year’s legalization efforts, analysts say.