Why marijuana had a terrible night in the 2022 midterm elections
Voters in three states rejected ballot measures that would have legalized recreational use of marijuana
The push to legalize marijuana for recreational use in deep-red states failed on Tuesday as voters in Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota rejected ballot measures on the issue. In Maryland and Missouri, voters approved legalization measures.
The failure of three out of five of these marijuana ballot measures this year is largely due to lower voter turnout in a non-presidential election—and opposition from prominent conservative voices who were staunchly against the measures, experts tell TIME.
Legalization efforts in Arkansas faced heavy opposition from groups like the Arkansas Family Council Action Committee, which worked with former Vice President Mike Pence to encourage citizens to vote no on the measure.
Popular South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem followed suit in a campaign ads warning about the dangers of legalizing marijuana. “It’s not good for our kids. And it’s not going to improve our communities,” she said in the video.
The ballot measures were also likely hampered by a lack of other competitive races in the Midterm election—which might have drawn more younger, more liberal voters to the polls in greater numbers.
“This is a tougher issue to succeed on in an off year where you just don’t have on the same kind of turnout from younger voters, where this is especially popular, as you do in a presidential year,” Alex Kreit, Director, Center on Addiction Law & Policy and Assistant Professor of Law at Northern Kentucky University, told TIME.
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia allow recreational use of marijuana; 13 states outlaw it entirely. The rest of the states—including Arkansas, South Dakota and North Dakota—allow its use for medicinal purposes. It remains illegal under federal law.
More than two-thirds of Americans now support legalizing marijuana, compared to less than 50% ten years ago, when Colorado and Washington first legalized recreational cannabis.
Here’s a rundown of how the efforts fared on election night.
With 92% of votes counted, more than 56% of Arkansas voters rejected Issue 4, which would have legalized cannabis.
Under the proposed regulation, adults over 21 could possess and use up to an ounce of marijuana. Grants would be given to eight existing medical marijuana facilities so they could obtain a second license for non-medical sales.
Arkansas voters previously voted in favor of medical marijuana in 2016.
The Arkansas Family Council Action Committee opposed legalizing recreational marijuana, arguing that it would increase petty crime and substance abuse. That group and others enlisted the support of prominent political figures including former Vice President Mike Pence and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson to oppose the measure.
Maryland residents overwhelmingly supported legalization, the Associated Press reports.
“Statewide polling had consistently shown that a supermajority of Marylanders support legalizing cannabis, and the outcome of this referendum was never in doubt,” Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said in a press release. “Now it is incumbent upon lawmakers to move swiftly to adopt rules to oversee a regulated cannabis marketplace in accordance with voters’ demands.”
Passage of this amendment triggered a complementary bill that will expunge convictions for conduct that became legal under the new law, provide grants to better support minority and women-owned businesses in the cannabis industry, and remove criminal penalties for possession of 2.5 ounces or less of marijuana.
Purchase and possession of 1.5 ounces of cannabis is now legal for those above the age of 21, and adults can grow up to two cannabis plants for personal use.
Implementation of the referendum will take time. Possession of marijuana will become a civil offense on Jan. 1, 2023, with legalization for up to 1.5 ounces happening six months later.
“This legalization will help right the wrongs of the drug war and help, you know, help those affected communities,” Kris Furnish, president of Maryland Marijuana Justice, told WOBC. “It’s been an attack on black and brown people since day one and it is still true today.”
Missouri voters have approved Amendment 3, a ballot measure legalizing recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older and expunging most records of past arrests and convictions, by 53.1% in favor and 46.9% against, with 89% of the vote counted.
The details of the new measure in Missouri are not entirely clear. Amendment 3 would allow people with marijuana-related non-violent offenses to “petition for release from incarceration or parole and probation and have records expunged.”
The state would also create a lottery system to provide licenses and certificates and impose a 6% tax on cannabis to benefit certain programs.
But, KDSK reports, people can still be fined for smoking in public. Municipalities also have the authority to bar recreational marijuana through a public vote.
Traditional cannabis legalization supporters were flipped on the issue, with the Missouri NAACP against the initiative, while the Missouri ACLU was in favor. Many feared that the measure would disproportionately affect Black people, who are already 2.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people.
Missouri voters passed an amendment in 2018 to legalize medical use of marijuana.
With 99% of votes counted, about 55% of North Dakota voters said “no” to Measure 2 that would have legalized marijuana.
Marijuana opposition remained strong in even the more liberal areas of North Dakota. Burleigh County, home to the state capital of Bismarck, voted against legalization by 58%, according to the New York Times. Cass County, where the city of Fargo is located fared better, but it was not enough to counteract the more conservative areas of the state.
The ballot measure was similar to a house bill that passed in the state’s House of Representatives in 2021.
Similar to Arkansas’ amendment, the initiative would have legalized the possession of one ounce of marijuana for adults aged 21 and older. Up to three plants could also be cultivated in residents’ homes.
North Dakota also voted against cannabis legalization during the 2018 Midterm Elections.
In South Dakota, with 99% of the expected vote counted, according to NBC, nearly 53% of voters rejected Measure 27 that would have legalized possession and use of marijuana for people over 21.
The ballot measure does not explain the state’s expected regulatory policies, but does say that state and local governments could ban its use in buildings that are “owned, leased, or occupied” by a government body, according to Marijuana Movement.
South Dakota voters supported marijuana’s legalization once before, in 2020, with 54% voting in favor. A legal challenge spearheaded by Gov. Noem stopped the reform from moving forward.
Kreit, of Northern Kentucky University, also points out that many South Dakota residents highly value Gov. Noem’s opinion. Noem, who won reelection by an overwhelming majority on Tuesday, told voters she would not get in the way of marijuana legalization a second time around, should the initiative pass. But she was also seen urging people to vote against the ballot measure in campaign ads.
What is the future of cannabis on the federal level?
Despite promises from Democratic leaders about federally legalizing marijuana, this issue remains at a standstill in Congress.
President Joe Biden most recently issued an executive order that pardoned more than 6,000 people with federal charges of possession of marijuana. The President also asked the Department of Health and Human Services and Attorney General Merrick Garland to look into marijuana classification under federal law. It is currently classified as a Schedule 1 drug, the highest regulatory level.
John Hudak, deputy director at the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution, told TIME he is not optimistic that changes on a state-by-state basis around marijuana’s legalization will change much on the national level. “The idea that the number of states passing legal cannabis will suddenly shift something in Congress just has not been borne out in the experience of cannabis policy in the United States,” Hudak said. “We have three quarters of American states that have legalized medical cannabis that has not moved medical cannabis policy at the federal level”.