Marijuana had Big Night as Ballot Measures Push America Towards Legal Weed

Marijuana had a big election night as ballot measures were voted through meaning America moves closer towards full legalization. Voters in five states—Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota—weighed in on marijuana reform ballot initiatives on Tuesday.

While final votes are still being counted, the legalization of the sale and possession of cannabis for adult use in Arizona, Montana and New Jersey has been voted through. Votes are still being counted in Mississippi but the initial results indicate that the vote for medical cannabis to become legal looks likely to be voted through. South Dakota will become the first state to legalize both medical and recreational marijuana at the same time, though the vote on recreational cannabis is yet to be finalized.

That will mean marijuana is now legal for adults in 15 states and Washington, D.C., a significant increase from 2012, when Colorado and Washington were the first states to do so. Medical marijuana is legal in 35 states. Voters in Washington D.C. also voted to decriminalize psychedelic plants like mushrooms, though this still has to go through a Congress consultation where it may still be blocked.

Going even further, Oregon has voted to decriminalize all drugs and to expand access to treatment for addiction and health services for drug users. Cannabis for medical and recreational use had already been made legal.

John Hudak, an expert on marijuana policy and senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, said Tuesday's election continues the "upward trajectory" of cannabis legalization at the state level over the past eight years.

"It really shows the real drive in America away from a system of prohibition and that these ballot measures can win anywhere," he told Newsweek. "The idea that cannabis can win everywhere is starting to become a reality anyway, but for that to be so true on one night, in one election, I think really signals how pervasive this effort and this movement is."

One sign of progress was that many of this year's marijuana initiatives were in conservative states with largely Republican congressional delegations. In Mississippi, a deep-red Bible Belt state, about two-thirds of voters approved of a measure to legalize medical marijuana even after state lawmakers attempted to kill the proposal.

protest us capitol cannabis policy reform 2019
Activists from the DC Marijuana Justice (DCJM) wave flags during a rally to demand Congress to pass cannabis reform legislation on the East Lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C on October 8, 2019 In 2020, five states considered ballot measures dealing with marijuana policy reform. Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

Ellen Flenniken, managing director of development at the Drug Policy Alliance, said it was "remarkable" how many ballot measures made it to the November 3 election, given the difficulty of gathering signatures amid the coronavirus pandemic. Without the public health crisis, there likely would have been more measures in Idaho, Nebraska, Missouri and other states.

"When I think about what's next, I see the dominoes continuing to fall," Flenniken told Newsweek. "I see this momentum continuing to build, without a doubt."

When I think about what's next, I see the dominoes continuing to fall. I see this momentum continuing to build, without a doubt.
Ellen Flenniken, Drug Policy Alliance

New York and New Mexico leaders have said they are confident that state legislatures will consider marijuana legalization in 2021. Axel Bernabe, the top cannabis advisor to Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.), previously said legalization legislation will be introduced again through the state budget in January, with the goal to enact the reform by April. The adviser also said the policy being introduced will serve as a "model" for other states, as it would prioritize social equity and economic development.

The advancement made in the 2020 election cycle likely will put more pressure on lawmakers to reform drug policy at the federal level. Despite the legalization efforts in the states, cannabis remains illegal under federal law. It shares the same drug classification (Schedule 1) as heroin, ecstasy and LSD.

There is legislation to remedy that: the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which would deschedule marijuana, expunge prior convictions, impose a federal tax on marijuana sales, provide funding for small marijuana businesses, and allocate revenue to people most-impacted by prior drug enforcement laws.

The House of Representatives delayed their vote on the legislation, originally expected for September 21, to later this year. The bill could have trouble in the Republican-controlled Senate, but Flenniken said that conservatives in Congress are more likely to support federal reform if their constituents have already spoken on the issue through ballot measures.

Still, advocates said there is more work to be done on marijuana policy—especially when it comes to criminal justice.

"For us, this is a movement around racial, social and criminal justice," Flenniken said. "After all these years and all these wins, the fact remains that our country still arrests almost one person every minute for marijuana possession. Our work won't be done until no one is ever arrested for marijuana."