Marijuana Is About to Be Legal for Half of the U.S.

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This week, Maryland and Missouri became the 20th and 21st states to legalize marijuana for adult use. Four of the five states with cannabis on the ballot in the 2022 midterms were conservative, with Arkansas, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota asking voters to weigh in. (Maryland was expected to vote yes). And 10 years after becoming one of the first states to legalize recreational cannabis, Colorado decriminalized psychedelics.

Colorado and Washington first legalized weed in 2012, with red states lagging in passing marijuana reforms. But since then, 19 states and the District of Columbia have legalized adult-use cannabis. With Maryland and Missouri’s passage, more than 50 percent of Americans now have access to legal marijuana. 

Americans overwhelmingly think marijuana should be legal, with 91 percent favoring some form of legalization, according to an April 2021 Pew Research Center survey. In October, President Biden announced that he would pardon federal convictions for simple cannabis possession and review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law (it’s currently classified as Schedule I, the same level as heroin and LSD). Cannabis advocates say that more legalization will add to the immense pressure on the Biden administration to act on decriminalizing and descheduling (or rescheduling) cannabis. 

“The current and obvious tension between federal law and state policy is untenable,” Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), tells Rolling Stone. “As more states join the list of legalized localities, it further compels elected officials to act on what is clearly the will of the majority of Americans.”

As conservatives recognize legalization’s value in generating tax dollars, they’re becoming more tolerant, says Bridget Hennessey, vice president of public affairs at Weedmaps. “Advances in any state bring us closer to achieving our goals at the federal level. But we still have a long road ahead.”

Not all cannabis reforms are created equal, though; they vary in scope and purpose from state to state. In Arkansas, where legalization was defeated with 56 percent of voters rejecting Amendment 3, progressive cannabis advocates campaigned against the measure, banding together with unlikely allies including religious leaders and pro-Trump conservatives. Pro-cannabis critics claimed that the measure would have allowed existing medical marijuana businesses to dominate the adult-use market. This kind of tension — which also occurred in Missouri — in the cannabis movement isn’t necessarily a bad thing, says Jason Ortiz, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). 

Ortiz cites Connecticut as one example where progressives failed to support a legalization bill, and ultimately felt justified. “Their fears of a system dominated by wealthy out-of-state corporations were well-founded after seeing the results play out,” Ortiz says. “When a bad law is put forward, it deserves to be defeated.”

In addition to the five states voting on cannabis reform, Colorado voters faced a historic measure to decriminalize psychedelics. Here’s a look at what went down in drug law reforms across the country on Wednesday.

Arkansas voted NO on Issue 4

Arkansas voters considered a measure that would have modified the state’s existing medical marijuana program, which was enacted in 2016. A September survey found 59 percent of Arkansas voters were in favor of the initiative, which was largely funded by the medical cannabis industry. Issue 4, which was heavily criticized by reform advocates, would not have allowed any home cultivation, and contained no expungement of past records for cannabis convictions or any social equity provisions. “The Arkansas measure would have actually added money to law enforcement,” says Ortiz.

Maryland voted YES on Question 4

Maryland voters approved a marijuana legalization referendum, with over 65 percent saying ‘Yes’ to Question 4. Home cultivation of up to two plants for personal use and gifting will be permitted under the new law, with purchase and possession of up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis made legal for adults 21 and older. Past convictions will be expunged, while those currently serving time for cannabis offenses will be eligible for resentencing. People with convictions for possession with intent to distribute will be able to petition to have their records expunged three years after serving their sentence. “It Includes a majority of the criminal justice issues that will help make real the promise of legal cannabis,” says Hennessey. The measure will go into effect starting July 1, 2023.

Missouri voted YES on Amendment 3

Missouri’s legalization measure makes it legal for adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to three ounces of non-medical cannabis, and allows for registered home cultivation. It also contains a critical piece of marijuana law reform: record expungement for any person with a nonviolent marijuana charge. Records for prior marijuana offenses will be reviewed and expunged by the courts by June 8, 2023. (Cases will be expunged in order of the severity of the case, so less severe cases will be expunged first.) “Thousands of Missouri residents will finally receive justice and be able to move on with their lives without the collateral consequences of a marijuana charge,” Altieri says.

North Dakota voted NO on Measure 2

The legalization measure in North Dakota would have allowed adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis and four grams of cannabis concentrate, as well as cultivate up to three plants for personal use. Measure 2 failed by a vote of 55 to 45 percent. The initiative, backed by a coalition called New Approach ND, was crafted to prevent large companies from monopolizing the cannabis market by preventing anyone from owning more than one cultivation facility or four retail stores in the state. Measure 2 would have implemented child custody protections for parents who used cannabis in compliance with state law, but did not provide a pathway for record expungements. This is the second time legalization has been rejected in the state; North Dakota voted down a similar ballot measure in 2018, 59 to 41 percent.

South Dakota voted NO on Measure 27

In the most infuriating defeat for cannabis reform advocates, South Dakota voted no on legalization, despite having approved a measure two years ago. In 2020, 54 percent of voters approved legalizing cannabis, but, following a legal challenge spearheaded by Republican Gov. Kristi Noem, the state Supreme Court invalidated the vote on procedural grounds, upholding a ruling that found the measure wasn’t narrowly focused enough to meet the state’s single-subject rule for constitutional amendments — under South Dakota law, a ballot initiative can only address one topic.

This time, 53 percent of voters said no to Measure 27, which would have allowed adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to an ounce of cannabis, as well as grow up to three plants for personal use. To avoid another court battle, the measure did not touch on regulatory policies concerning taxing cannabis sales, licensing, or social equity. “They could certainly have done better in the ballot language,” Hennessey says.

Colorado voted YES on Proposition 122

Colorado voters were split on a ballot measure to legalize low-level possession of a variety of psychedelics, passing it by a margin of less than three percent. Four years after Denver became the first U.S. city to decriminalize psilocybin, a.k.a. magic mushrooms, the state could potentially become the second in the nation to authorize supervised psilocybin services. (Oregon was the first state to legalize psilocybin for personal use for those over age 21 in 2020.)

“Prop. 122 would be a huge step forward for the nation in expanding the legalization conversation beyond cannabis and toward a broader end to the war on drugs in its entirety,” says Ortiz. “The criminalization of all drugs is the underlying failed policy. That being said, I think the concerns of those who fear the corporatization of psychedelics will go the way of cannabis are well-grounded.”

Sam D’Arcangelo, director of the Cannabis Voter Project, says that if Prop 122 passes, he expects similar efforts to pop up in states that first embraced cannabis reform, like Washington and California. “I don’t think anyone will be surprised if psychedelic reform follows a similar pattern,” he says.

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Now that over half the country lives in a state with legal weed, what’s next for the marijuana movement? D’Arcangelo cautions that it’s still a long road to federal reform, especially if Republicans take the Senate. 

“Sen. McConnell has made no indication that he’s interested in federal legalization; almost no Senate Republicans have,” he says. “That could open the door for President Biden to score a win by rescheduling or even descheduling marijuana federally, but it’s far from a certainty.”