Polls show that the ballots initiatives have support in Arizona, Montana and New Jersey.
“It’s really showing the kind of breadth of acceptance that we’re seeing around the country with respect to cannabis,” said Steven Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group that works with many of the ballot initiatives.
The initiatives would only be the first step in the process, said John Hudak, deputy director at the Brookings Institution who specializes in state and federal marijuana policy.
Should voters approve the measures on November 3, he said, the state legislatures normally would need to set up regulatory structures within each state.
Polling strong in Arizona
Advocates credit higher support for this year’s effort to a reworked ballot question. Besides legalizing marijuana, it would also set up a pathway to strike prior convictions for marijuana from criminal records, and includes a provision for home growers.
Arizona’s Republican Gov. Doug Ducey opposes this year’s ballot measure, asking voters to again vote “No.”
If Arizona votes to fully legalize this November, Julie Gunnigle, the Democratic candidate for Maricopa County attorney who supports Proposition 207, said it would be a powerful bellwether to other parts of the country.
“If Arizona can do it, the rest of the country is ready,” she said.
South Dakota could ‘leapfrog’
South Dakota has two measures on the ballot:
There’s a term for what South Dakota could do: Leapfrog.
Many states have followed a multi-year path toward full legalization, starting with decriminalization, followed by medical use, and then full legalization. But South Dakota is poised to enact both medical and adult-use in one fell swoop — via two ballot questions.
The state could be the first to simultaneously approve both.
South Dakota currently has tough penalties for possession of small amounts of cannabis.
If it does pass, Hudak said, “it would be a pretty significant step toward understanding just how progressive people are ready to be, in unlikely states, around this issue.”
Montana revamps its signature drives
In Montana, the window to gather the tens of thousands of signatures needed to place its two legalization questions on the ballot collided with the early months of the pandemic and stay-at-home orders.
The state also has two initiatives:
Once the stay-at-home order was lifted in late April, organizers had to get creative to collect the 76,400 signatures required to make the ballot in June. They relaunched the signature drive with new health protocols in place, including hand sanitizer, distancing, temperature checks for volunteers and a new pen for every signer.
“We took a series of steps to make sure the pandemic didn’t take away Montana’s constitutional ballot initiative process,” said Matthew Schweich, deputy director at the Marijuana Policy Project and one of the leaders of the Montana and South Dakota ballot efforts.
New Jersey navigates mail-in ballots
In New Jersey, state lawmakers, unable to drum up enough support to pass a bill to fully legalize marijuana agreed to place the question directly to voters: “Do you approve amending the Constitution to legalize a controlled form of marijuana called ‘cannabis’?”
Gregg Edwards, executive director of Don’t Let NJ Go to Pot, called the move to change the state’s Constitution “pretty extreme,” saying, “Now cannabis is going to appear in the New Jersey Constitution alongside the freedom to associate. And once it’s in the Constitution, the likelihood of it coming out is slim or next to none.”
Edwards said that normally, he’d be speaking with parent teacher organizations and local chambers of commerce to build support for the opposition effort, but this year “they just haven’t been available to us.”
“We would have liked to spend the spring, summer and fall talking to folks,” he said. “It’s just been next to impossible.”
“We have to drill down on making sure people know they have to flip the ballot over,” said Tara Martin with NJ CAN 2020.
Mississippi’s medicinal push
Mississippians will consider two dueling proposals to legalize medical marijuana. The state’s unique ballot’s structure asks voters whether they are for approving either Initiative 65 or Initiative 65A, or against both.
Even if a person votes against both, they still have the opportunity to choose between the two.
Should either measure pass, Hudak said, “it would signal a pretty significant change in politics around cannabis in the South in a way we really haven’t had a good test of yet.”
End of the road for legalization via ballot measure?
Advocates say they first pursued the piecemeal ballot measure process to legalize cannabis because it has been easier than navigating the time-consuming efforts in state legislatures. But they’re running out of states that use ballot measures to shape public policy, Hudak said.
“Conversations are getting more serious,” Hudak said. “A lot of progress has been made at the legislative level, even if there’s not a lot to show for it.”
But Schweich hopes voters’ decisions come Election Day will serve as a tipping point toward a national conversation.
“The reason there’s a conversation in Congress is because of all of the victories that we’ve already incurred at the state level,” Schweich said. “If we can win in New Jersey, Mississippi, South Dakota, Montana and Arizona, it’s going to send a really loud message to Congress that it’s time to fix this at the federal level in 2021.”