The presidential election wasn't the only big race on the ballots this year—five states voted on major cannabis legalisation initiatives.
Cannabis is currently regulated at the federal level as a Schedule I drug, which is the most restrictive classification. Not only does that make the use and possession of cannabis illegal according to federal law, but it also makes it difficult for researchers to study the drug. However, at the state level, cannabis is legal for medical use in 33 states and for adult use in 11 states.
The research we have now suggests that cannabis can be useful in managing certain conditions, particularly chronic pain, chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting, and multiple sclerosis-related muscle spasms. So legalising cannabis use can directly affect people’s health and well-being.
Additionally, we know that the legal and criminal aspects of cannabis regulation disproportionally affect communities of colour, particularly Black and Latinx people. That has lead to mass incarceration and police violence over the past several decades. Legalising cannabis—and, ideally, expunging criminal records and implementing other equity measures—can help repair some of the harms of the war on drugs for those most affected by it.
During the 2016 campaign, it seemed like Donald Trump would be open to the idea of letting states decide how they wanted to handle cannabis legalisation. But since then it’s clear that President Trump has become a staunch opponent of the concept. In February one of his top spokespeople explicitly stated that cannabis and other illegal drugs “need to stay illegal.”
Although former Vice President Joe Biden hasn’t spoken publicly too often about his views on cannabis legalisation, it appears his opinion on the issue has evolved considerably recently. And with Senator Kamala Harris as his V.P. pick, it’s safe to say a Biden administration would be much friendlier to the idea of legalisation than Trump’s. Harris is a vocal supporter of the MORE Act, which would decriminalise cannabis at the federal level by removing it from the federal scheduling system.
The state already allows medical cannabis thanks to Proposition 203, which narrowly passed in 2010 with just barely more than 50% of the vote.
This year, Arizonans are voting on Proposition 207, the Smart and Safe Arizona Act, which would legalize the consumption and possession of cannabis for people who are at least age 21. It would also allow eligible adults to grow six cannabis plants at home. Proposition 207 also includes some criminal justice components, such as expungement of criminal records for anyone convicted of crimes related to cannabis possession, consumption, or cultivation. Additionally, the measure would establish a 16% sales tax on cannabis.
A similar measure was rejected back in 2016 with almost 49% of the vote. But this time around, polls are a little more encouraging. For instance, a Monmouth poll from mid-October found that 56% of registered voters support the measure while just 36% say they’ll vote against it.
People in Mississippi actually have the opportunity to vote for one of two medical cannabis legalization measures this year. One, Initiative 65, would allow doctors to recommend cannabis to patients to help them manage one of 22 qualifying conditions, such as cancer, epilepsy, chronic pain, PTSD, and ulcerative colitis. The initiative also leaves open the option for a doctor to recommend cannabis for any other condition that may not be named but is similar to one of the named conditions that they think the drug might be helpful for. Initiative 65 also sets up a 7% sales tax on cannabis.
The other, Initiative 65A, is much more limited. It would only allow those with terminal illnesses to use medical cannabis and would require more medical oversight for those who are allowed to use the drug. This version of the initiative leaves more up to the legislature to decide later, including tax rates. Voters in Mississippi can vote for either measure or they can oppose both.
In Montana there are two separate—but related—cannabis measures on the ballot, both of which are receiving the majority of their support from a campaign called New Approach Montana. The larger, Initiative 190, would legalize cannabis for recreational use for adults 21 and over and establishes a 20% tax on nonmedical cannabis sales. (The state voted to legalize medical cannabis back in 2004). This measure also allows anyone who served or is serving a sentence for something that Initiative 190 specifically makes legal to apply for expungement of their record or resentencing.
The other one, Initiative 118, allows the legislature to establish a legal age for cannabis use, purchase, and possession—just like the legal age for alcohol. There’s no specific age mentioned in the language of the initiative, but proponents say it would be 21.
Medical cannabis has been legal in New Jersey since 2010, but it’s been tough to pass an adult-use measure. Over the past few years, various attempts to ramp up support for recreational cannabis legislation were met with serious resistance from former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (who once vowed to veto any legalization measure that passed), and current Governor Phil Murphy's attempts collapsed in mid-2019.
Now the state is taking a different approach: This year Jersey voters had the chance to answer a Public Question on the ballot: “Do you approve amending the Constitution to legalize a controlled form of marijuana called ‘cannabis’?” The ballot specifies that legal cannabis would only be available to people age 21, and the program would be run by the commission that already handles medical marijuana in the state. Cannabis would be taxed at the state’s usual sales tax rate (6.625%), with the possibility for local areas to add extra tax on top of that.
In most cases, a state first legalizes cannabis for medical use and then does so for recreational use. But voters in South Dakota have the opportunity to be the first state to legalize medical cannabis use and recreational cannabis use at the same time. There’s Measure 26, which would legalize cannabis for medical use, and Amendment A, which would do the same for all adults—both of which are on the ballot this year.
If passed, Measure 26 would allow people with certain debilitating conditions to access medical marijuana through a doctor. Those conditions include severe pain, severe nausea, severe muscle spasms, seizures, and wasting syndrome (cachexia). Patients with one or more of those conditions would be able to grow up to three cannabis plants at home.
Then we’ve got Amendment A, which would legalize, regulate, and tax cannabis use for all adults in the state. Both measures are up against considerable opposition from the state’s conservative governor, but polling from late September suggests that voters are generally in favour of the passing of the measure. The poll, carried out by a group in opposition to Amendment A, interestingly, found that 60% of respondents were in favour of Amendment A and 70% were in favour of Measure 26 passing.