5 Cannabis Storylines of 2021 General Election
Shannon Price | Adobe Stock

5 Cannabis Storylines of 2021 General Election

Philadelphia supports legalization, Ohio villages split on decriminalization, New Jersey and Virginia vote on which governors will oversee adult-use implementation, and Colorado says ‘no’ to tax hike.

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November 3, 2021

Editor’s note: Since this article was first published, New Jersey’s governor’s race has been called in favor of Democratic incumbent Philip Murphy, who was trailing Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli by 0.1% on Election night before making up the deficit. With 97% of roughly 2.6 million expected votes now counted, Murphy won reelection with 50.8% of ballots cast in his favor, to Ciattarelli’s 48.5%, according to unofficial results reported by Politico at 8:58 p.m. EDT Nov. 4.

There were no statewide votes to legalize medicinal or adult-use cannabis in the 2021 general election, but that’s not to say balloters didn’t have a say in cannabis-related measures Tuesday night.

In Philadelphia, 73% of voters supported Question 1 to call on the Pennsylvania General Assembly and their governor to legalized adult-use cannabis for those 21 and older.

In Ohio, seven of 14 municipalities approved local decriminalization measures to lower the penalty for misdemeanor cannabis offenses to the lowest penalty allowed by state law.

In Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe, 50.7% to 48.6%, to take control of the governor’s seat ahead of the state’s 2022 reenactment by the General Assembly to finalize legal adult-use cannabis sales provisions passed by the 2021 Legislature.

In New Jersey, as of Wednesday morning, Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli was leading by the slimmest of margins to unseat Democratic incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy in a too-close-to-call race ahead of the state’s implementation of its voter-approved, adult-use legalization measure.

And, in Colorado, voters said “no” to Proposition 119, which aimed to increase the cannabis sales tax by 5% to provide additional revenue to charter schools.

Big Win in Philly

Representing the largest city in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia voters sent a clear message to the rest of the state: legalize adult-use cannabis.

With roughly 73% of voters saying “yes” to Question 1, Philadelphians overwhelmingly supported amending the city’s charter to call on the Pennsylvania Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf to pass a law decriminalizing, regulating and taxing the sale of adult-use cannabis, according results from the Philadelphia Board of Elections.

The approved question, which is non-binding, was sponsored by Philadelphia Democratic Councilman Derek Green.

Under current Pennsylvania law, possession of up to 30 grams of cannabis is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in prison and a fine of up to $500, according to reform group NORML.

While Wolf has indicated he is in favor of legalization, a trio of adult-use efforts has yet to pick up steam among state lawmakers.

Ohio Municipalities Split on Decriminalization

Cannabis decriminalization efforts were for better or worse in Ohio.

Among the 13 villages and one city (from five counties) with decriminalization measures on the ballot Tuesday, seven were well on their way to voting in favor of adopting a “sensible” cannabis ordinance to lower the penalties for misdemeanor offenses, according to unofficial county results Tuesday night.

The largest of the 14 municipalities, Martins Ferry, a city of roughly 7,000 people on the state line with Wheeling, W.Va., voted in favor of decriminalization, 435-404, according to Belmont County Board of Elections results.

Following are the outcomes of the 13 villages, according to county boards of elections results:

  • Brookside: 74 Yes | 76 No                 
  • Dillonvale: 47 Yes | 61 No
  • Laurelville: 36 Yes | 49 No
  • McArthur: 147 Yes | 183 No 
  • Morristown: 24 Yes | 27 No              
  • Mount Pleasant: 47 Yes | 66 No
  • Murray City: 35 Yes | 29 No
  • New Lexington: 298 Yes | 259 No
  • New Straitsville: 71 Yes | 47 No
  • Powhatan Point: 86 Yes | 123 No
  • Rayland: 72 Yes | 47 No
  • Tiltonsville: 165 Yes | 153 No.
  • Yorkville (Belmont County): 47 Yes | 33 No
  • Yorkville (Jefferson County): 81 Yes | 66 No

While Ohio has decriminalized the possession of cannabis to a degree—with no threat of incarceration and up to a $150 fine for less than 100 grams—a misdemeanor offense for the possession of 100 to 200 grams can still result in 30 days of incarceration and up to a $250 fine. Typically, decriminalization means no prison time or criminal record for first-time possession of a small amount for personal consumption, according to NORML.

Before Tuesday’s election, 23 Ohio cities, including Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo, already approved measures to decriminalize low-level cannabis possession offenses, either via local city council ordinance or ballot initiative, according to NORML.

Meanwhile, Ohio’s Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol began collecting the 130,000 signatures required to present an adult-use cannabis legislative proposal to the state Legislature.

Youngkin Wins Virginia Governorship

The next governor of Virginia will be Republican Glenn Youngkin, who was leading Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe by a two-point margin (roughly 70,000 votes) with 95% of precincts reporting, according to results from the Virginia Department of Elections.

McAuliffe served as Virginia’s 72nd governor from 2014 to 2018 but could not run in the following election because the state’s constitution forbids governors from serving successive terms.

While Virginia sitting Gov. Ralph Northam signed adult-use cannabis legislation April 21, allowing adults 21 and older to possess up to 1 ounce of cannabis and grow up to four plants per household starting July 1, 2021, the majority of provisions included in the roughly 300-page bill are subject to a reenactment, meaning a second review and vote by members of the General Assembly in 2022.

Although Democrats flipped both congressional chambers in 2019—gaining control of both the Legislature and governor’s office for the first time in more than two decades—Youngkin will now hold the executive pen while Virginia moves to implement commercial cannabis sales.

Youngkin’s campaign indicated in early July that he would not seek to repeal cannabis legalization, but during a Feb. 28 candidate forum, Youngkin said, “Do not count on the revenue from legalized marijuana to amount to anything. It hasn’t work in Colorado, it hasn’t worked in California, it hasn’t worked in Oregon. This has been a false advertisement,” The Washington Post reported.

Since launching in 2018, California’s $11.7 billion in taxable adult-use cannabis sales has provided a total program revenue of $2.8 billion through the first half of 2021—a 3 1/2-year period.

New Jersey Too Close to Call

As of early morning Nov. 3, New Jersey’s governor’s race between Democratic incumbent Philip Murphy and Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli was too close to call with 88% of expected votes counted, according to unofficial results from Politico.

Ciattarelli had roughly one-tenth of a point lead, or fewer than 1,200 votes, among more than 2.3 million ballots cast between the two candidates—with more precincts to be counted.

Murphy signed adult-use cannabis legalization bills into law Feb. 22, following New Jersey voters’ approval of a constitutional amendment in the 2020 general election.

“This process may have had its fits and starts, but it is ending in the right place. And I firmly believe this process has ended in laws that will serve as a national model,” Murphy said

It took six months after the governor’s signing for the state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC) to adopt its first set of rules to regulate cultivation, manufacturing and retail operations, and more than 70% of New Jersey municipalities opted out of participating in the adult-use industry. In addition, CRC missed its Sept. 18 deadline to start accepting and processing business license applications.

Meanwhile, Ciattarelli supports decriminalization but opposes legalizing cannabis, NJ.com reported Oct. 11.

“We could have addressed social injustice with the decriminalization of marijuana, not the approval of recreational marijuana,” Ciattarelli said during the first gubernatorial debate in September. “And it’s not an accident that of our 565 towns in New Jersey, 400 have now passed local ordinances that have said no dispensary in my town.”

Colorado Voters Shut Down Tax Hike

Colorado voters rejected an attempt to raise taxes on adult-use cannabis sales with a 54.5% majority saying “no” to Proposition 119, which called for a 5% increase by 2024 on the state’s 15% sales tax at retail, according to results from the Colorado Secretary of State website.

The increase sought to raise $137.6 million a year for out-of-school education programs, with a priority on children from low-income households.

About $20 million a year would also go toward the enrichment programs from the Colorado Land Board Trust, according to a Common Sense Institute report, though that number could fluctuate depending on state land revenue, according to The Denver Post.

In 2020, Colorado cannabis sales hit $2.2 billion, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue. The state’s 2021 sales figures are on pace to pass that mark.