Going Green: The Five States Voting On Cannabis This November
Eight years ago, Colorado and Washington took the seismic step of legalizing adult-use cannabis for retail sales, allowing cannabis to emerge from the shadows and become an economic driver for states and municipalities. Ever since, the U.S. cannabis industry has grown rapidly, with estimated total sales landing between $10.6 billion and $13 billion in 2019.
On November 3, the people of New Jersey, Arizona, Montana, South Dakota, and Mississippi will vote on their cannabis futures. Each state has its own proposal and own twist on opening up the market. Here is an outline of what’s at stake for the industry.
In 2017, shortly after winning election and seven years after medical cannabis was legalized in New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy promised to legalize adult-use cannabis, stating in June 2017 how prohibition “only served to clog our courts and cloud people’s futures,” according to a story by Tom Angell in Marijuana Moment. Three years later, the people of New Jersey may help Governor Murphy keep his promise.
New Jersey’s ballot measure would create a constitutional amendment to legalize the cultivation and sale of cannabis for adult use. Though Governor Murphy has failed to advance cannabis legalization through the New Jersey Congress multiple times, handing the choice to voters could produce favorable results. One recent poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University shows that 61% of likely New Jersey voters will approve this measure. From my perspective, New Jersey’s measure has the brightest prospects.
The picture in Arizona is less clear. Arizona’s ballot measure would also legalize adult-use cannabis retail, and, if passed, would give lawmakers until April 5, 2021 to design a regulatory framework. Arizona voters have previously displayed skepticism toward legalization.
Arizona first tried to legalize medical cannabis in 2002 via Proposition 203, which failed with 42.7% of the vote. Arizona eventually approved an altered Proposition 203 by the smallest of margins in 2010, which received 50.13% of the vote. Five years later, Arizona sought to establish an adult-use cannabis market, but the idea was rejected by 52% of voters. Though this year’s measure has been polled to have 55-56% support from the public, its future is less than certain.
Montana’s upcoming adult-use cannabis ballot measures present voters with two choices. First, voters will be asked the question of whether adult-use cannabis should be legalized. Second, they will be asked to set the age requirement to purchase adult-use cannabis at 21 years old. While current polling indicates the measures have a decent chance of passing, this dynamic has the potential to leave voters perplexed.
Chaos within Montana’s cannabis system is nothing new. Though Montana legalized medical cannabis in 2004, numerous legal challenges severely hamstrung the program, leading filmmakers to document the messy situation. Montana has since corrected its medical cannabis system, but clearly, this year’s ballot measures are less straightforward than we’ve seen in other states.
Voters in South Dakota are also left with multiple decisions on legalizing cannabis. Since South Dakota is one of the few remaining states with no legal cannabis industry, it is taking the unprecedented step of allowing constituents to legalize both medical and adult-use cannabis. In a state as conservative as South Dakota, the all-in approach could prove risky. On the other hand, if the measure succeeds in a state as red as South Dakota, I agree with the Marijuana Policy Project’s Matthew Schweich, who observed to ABC News: “If we’re successful, it will send a message to Congress that they need to address the discrepancy between the state and federal laws on marijuana.”
Voters in Mississippi have a puzzling choice. Mississippi is bringing competing medical cannabis legalization ballot measures to voters this November, which one might expect to be a simple proposition. Yet, the devil is in the details.
One measure, Initiative 65, is being backed by a campaign known as Medical Marijuana 2020, according to The Reflector, and would set clear deadlines to define a regulatory framework and open the market. The other, Initiative 65A, was designed by Mississippi state lawmakers and gives the legislature authority to shape the system. The Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA) and the American Medical Association have urged voters to reject Initiative 65, according to Brendan Bures in The Fresh Toast, arguing it prioritizes profits over care. Given that an FM3 Research survey indicates 81% of the state supports legal medical cannabis, it seems the question now is which proposal wins.
An Industry Bound to Expand
If these measures pass, they will mean significant new tax revenues and fees, as other states have achieved, filling a critical need during the pandemic and budgetary hard times. For example, Robert Channick of the Chicago Tribune reported that Illinois has already collected more than $100 million in adult-use cannabis tax revenue after less than a year of the market opening. If one or more of these fail, I think legislatures in those states will continue to work toward legalization in ways that suit the tastes of their citizens. The economic opportunity will be too great to forfeit, and rising public sentiment for some form of legalization will be too strong to ignore.