Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect the news that Nebraska will not be voting on medical cannabis this November.
At the beginning of 2020, there were about a dozen states with either medical or adult-use cannabis legalization ballot initiatives, in various stages, in the works. However, the coronavirus pandemic proved challenging for organizations trying to collect thousands of signatures to qualify their ballot initiatives, and some campaigns had to call it quits. The landscape looks very different than it did just a month ago, and now, five states will vote on some form of cannabis legalization this November. Although Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana pulled off what many state cannabis legalization campaigns struggled with this year – collect the number of valid signatures needed to qualify for a ballot initiative in the middle of a pandemic – the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in early September that the ballot initiative violates the single subject rule as outlined in the state constitution. Here are the five states we are watching ahead of Nov. 3:
ARIZONA: Adult-Use To Appear On Ballot
After submitting more than 420,000 signatures July 1 to qualify an adult-use cannabis legalization measure for Arizona’s 2020 ballot, Smart and Safe Arizona’s campaign organizer, Stacy Pearson, said she was confident that the initiative would appear before voters this fall.
In August, it became official after a brief legal battle.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge James Smith rejected claims that the 100-word summary on the initiative to place an adult-use cannabis legalization measure on Arizona’s 2020 ballot was misleading, meaning the issue can be placed before voters this November. Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy filed a lawsuit last month to keep the measure off the state’s ballot, claiming that the initiative’s description misled people into signing the petition to put the issue before voters this fall through its definition of “marijuana” and how the law might impact impaired driving in the state.
“Everything’s tracking, so we’re confident that we’ll be on the ballot and we’ll win in November,” Pearson told Cannabis Business Times in July.
MONTANA: Adult-Use To Appear On Ballot
In mid-July, the hard work of New Approach Montana campaigners paid off: County-level data showed that a sufficient number of the organization’s more than 130,000 signatures had been verified in order to place two adult-use cannabis legalization measures before voters in November.
On Aug. 14, the Montana Secretary of State officially certified the adult-use cannabis legalization measure for the state’s November ballot, verifying that New Approach had gathered enough signatures to appear before voters this year, according to a Great Falls Tribune report.
That was no small task. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, social distancing guidelines made it difficult to gather the required signatures across an already sparsely populated state. In late April, a court ruling prevented the campaign from moving to an electronic signature drive—further dampening prospects.
But New Approach Montana prevailed. “We overcame the odds by running the most innovative signature drive ever seen in Montana,” campaign officials wrote on Facebook in July. “Now, we are focused on building support with voters from across the state.”
On the table are two complementary ballot initiatives. Statutory Initiative 190 would establish a system to regulate and tax cannabis for adult use, while Constitutional Initiative 118 would authorize Montana to set the legal age for consumption at 21. As campaign officials have stated, the two issues are meant to pass together.
Looking ahead, Dave Lewis, retired Montana state legislator and budget director for three Montana governors, said in a public statement that these issues could really galvanize a state budget that’s been hammered by economic shutdowns this year.
"COVID has done a number to the state's projected tax revenue for 2020 and 2021; it's been devastating,” Lewis said. “Adding nearly $50 million dollars a year to the state budget with legal adult use marijuana isn't just a bonus. This projected revenue has already become vital to the future budget of this state, and veterans’ services like all other services need tax revenues to continue.”
NEW JERSEY: Adult-Use To Appear On Ballot
The initiative is a constitutional amendment that would broadly legalize adult-use cannabis in the state, as well as authorize a taxed and regulated system for distribution.
“It allows certain taxations for sales tax and a local tax, but doesn’t give a lot of detail on how the regulatory process works,” Bill Caruso, an attorney with Archer & Greiner and a member of both New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform and NJ CAN 2020, told Cannabis Business Times in a May interview. “That’ll be sorted out later.”
NJ CAN 2020, a campaign coalition supporting the state’s adult-use legalization ballot initiative, has two main priorities: ensure the ballot measure is successful, and then work with industry stakeholders and the New Jersey Legislature to implement an adult-use marketplace with social equity at the forefront.
NJ CAN 2020 will advocate for a robust automatic expungement process (for those who qualify) in the state’s forthcoming adult-use cannabis program, among other provisions. The campaign would also like to see language included in the state’s adult-use cannabis law that allows ex-offenders to participate in the legal industry.
NJ CAN 2020 includes members of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, which comprises the ACLU of New Jersey, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, Latino Action Network, American Trade Association for Cannabis and Hemp, Law Enforcement Action Partnership and the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, as well as others.
“We’ve been advocating for a very long time on the issue of expunging criminal records—an automatic expungement process that goes back in time and erases some of these marijuana offenses off criminal records without the offender having to go back and jump through a lot of burdens,” Caruso said. “That has a cost associated with it, so cannabis revenue … helps [with] paying for that.”
The campaign would also like to see language included in the state’s adult-use cannabis law that allows ex-offenders to participate in the legal industry.
“All of these issues that we’ve been fighting for [will help] shape this industry in a positive way from a racial and social justice standpoint,” Caruso said. “This group is adamant about making sure those things are done."
Separately, the New Jersey Treasury Division of Taxation announced that, effective July 1, sales tax on medical marijuana is reduced to 4% from the previous 6.625% sales tax rate (the rate imposed under the state’s “Sales and Use Tax Act”). The tax reduction is the first of three scheduled tax reductions designed to eliminate the sales tax on medical cannabis sales in the Garden State.
The 4% sales tax rate will apply through June 30, 2021, when the tax rate will be reduced to 2% until June 30, 2022. Then, effective July 1, 2022, medical marijuana sales will not be taxed.
MISSISSIPPI: Competing Medical Measures Could Cause Confusion
Mississippians for Compassionate Care, the group behind Medical Marijuana 2020, has succeeded in putting a medical cannabis measure, Initiative 65, in front of Mississippi voters this November. State legislators have also introduced a competing measure, Alternative 65A, to appear on the ballot. Voters can choose between those two options or choose not to legalize medical cannabis in the state.
Medical Marijuana 2020 gathered 105,686 certified signatures, more than the required 86,185, for its initiative to appear on the ballot. The group gathered signatures from Mississippi’s formerly five congressional districts from 2000 (there are now four), as is required by state law, and qualified for the ballot in January, said the campaign’s communication director, Jamie Grantham, in a July interview with CBT. If passed, Grantham says Initiative 65 will provide “a robust program” to be regulated by the Mississippi Department of Health.
The state legislature passed House Concurrent Resolution 39 to put Alternative 65A on the ballot. (The state representatives behind Alternative 65A could not be reached for comment.) It contrasts with Initiative 65 in several ways. For instance, it limits smoking cannabis to the terminally ill. It also doesn’t specify possession limits, qualifying conditions, taxes, which agency will oversee the program nor a deadline for said agency to issue medical cannabis cards.
SOUTH DAKOTA: Medical and Adult-Use on the Ballot
South Dakotans have a chance to do something no other state has accomplished: legalize both medical and adult-use cannabis on the same ballot.
New Approach South Dakota, the group behind the state’s medical cannabis measure, and South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, the organization that brought the adult-use constitutional amendment, have partnered together after both of their ballot initiatives qualified for the November 3 election.
“We just saw no reason to do them separately,” says Drey Samuelson, political director for South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws. “There [are] a lot of efficiencies in doing them both at the same time.” In fact, the way Amendment A (the adult-use constitutional amendment) is worded, its passage guarantees the enactment of Measure 26 (the medical cannabis ballot measure).
Among other items, Measure 26 would: cap licensing fees for medical cannabis establishments at $5,000 (adjusted annually for inflation); implement a sliding scale for patient application and renewal fees based on household income, and require the state’s Department of Health (DoH) to issue rules within 120 days of the effective date of the act.
Amendment 2, for its part, gives South Dakota’s Department of Health until April 1, 2022, to enact rules and regulations around the licensing and oversight of the state’s cannabis industry. It also proposes a 15% excise tax on cannabis sales to consumers.
Neither bill proposes a cap on licenses nor do they put forth a mandated minimum number of licenses, instead leaving that up to the discretion of the DoH.
“I think voters are enthusiastic about both initiatives,” says MPP deputy director Matthew Schweich. “We've got a great group of people in South Dakota that have been working for a number of years to get medical passed, and they haven't gotten anything out of the legislature. So, we're excited to work with them and bring this issue straight to the people.”
Initiatives Thwarted by COVID-19, Other Challenges
NEBRASKA: Close, but Medical Cannabis Will Not Go Before Voters
Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana received news Aug. 26 that the organization had collected enough signatures to qualify for a medical cannabis amendment on the November ballot.
“We crushed the 122,000 voter signatures needed statewide — and we qualified in 48 counties!” the group posted on Facebook. The organization collected more than 182,000 signatures, and enough were verified to move forward. “The ballot isn’t certified yet, so we’re still waiting to hear the final word from Secretary of State Bob Evnen. But there’s no doubt that we met the constitutional requirements for signature collection.”
Two days later, Evnen approved the medical cannabis legalization measure, according to an Associated Press News report, despite opponents urging Evnen to reject the proposal, arguing that the measure violates the state constitution.
Evnen said opponents raised “several valid points” about issues with the initiative’s language, AP News reported, but he ultimately decided that the measure met all the necessary legal requirements to go before voters. The ballot language, which would have amended the state constitution, would have legalized possession, consumption and the purchase of cannabis for individuals with serious medical conditions if recommended by a licensed physician or nurse practitioner, and granted access by also allowing private entities to cultivate, process, produce, test and sell medical cannabis products, among other details.
However, the same day Evnen approved the measure, Lancaster County Sheriff Terry Wagner filed a challenge. Like other opponents of the measure, Wagner argued that it violates state rules that mandate ballot initiatives must focus on a single question.
In September, the Nebraska Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the ballot initiative violates the single subject rule as outlined in the state constitution, and that the measure could not go before voters in November.
However, just two weeks later, Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana filed new petition language with Evnen that the committee intends to qualify for the November 2022 ballot in Nebraska with one single, simple proposal: “Persons in the State of Nebraska shall have the right to cannabis in all its forms for medical purposes.”
OKLAHOMA: Adult-Use Campaign Suspended
The state gave proponents of State Question 807 the green light to collect signatures, but petitioners said gathering the nearly 178,000 signatures required to get the issue before voters is unlikely during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the news outlet reported.
State Question 807 was drafted to legalize adult-use cannabis in Oklahoma, a state still riding the wave of a medical cannabis business boom ushered in by a 2018 vote, but the ongoing coronavirus pandemic threw a massive obstacle at campaign organizers. Gov. Kevin Stitt’s March 15 emergency declaration included a stay on signature-gathering efforts. Then, a legal challenge brought by a competing reform campaign dragged the SQ 807 team into court.
Only in late June, when the legal challenge was dismissed, did a judge give the SQ 807 campaign a chance to go out and collect signatures. What was needed was just shy of a miracle: 178,958 certified signatures by Aug. 24.
IDAHO: Medical Campaign Suspended
Coming up short on the signatures it needed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Idaho Cannabis Coalition initially suspended its pursuit to place the Idaho Medical Marijuana Act on the November 2020 ballot early this summer.
But the initiative received a fresh breath of life when a federal judge ruled in June that the state must allow another unrelated campaign in the state, Reclaim Idaho, to either collect signatures online or automatically place their issue on the ballot, reports the Idaho Press. The state permitted Reclaim Idaho to collect signatures electronically. The Idaho Cannabis Coalition had hoped the ruling would apply to its campaign as well, but after sending two letters to the secretary of state asking for guidance on how to proceed, the answer was unclear. “The coalition is now in the process of assessing its options and whether there is a path forward,” Tamar Todd, the legal director for New Approach PAC (which is assisting the campaign), told Cannabis Business Times in July.
However, that momentum was halted July 30 when the Supreme Court blocked the federal judge’s decision to allow the other campaign to collect signatures electronically, as reported by CNN, effectively ending the Idaho Cannabis Coalition’s efforts.
The medical marijuana campaign had gathered about 40,000 voter signatures of the 55,057 required to quality for the ballot, reports Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).
“…We will not be voting on medical marijuana in 2020. We will be preparing for our 2022 campaign, now with more financial support, better logistics, lessons learned, and more time,” the Idaho Cannabis Coalition posted on its Facebook page. “Thank you all for your support and know that we will not stop until Idaho joins the 21st century along with almost all of the states surrounding it and stops punishing patients who use cannabis as medicine.”
Todd said in July that without COVID-19, the initiative would have been “well on its way” to qualifying.
“Idaho is one of the few states where people who need it still can’t access medical marijuana,” he says.
ARKANSAS: Adult-Use Campaign Looks to 2022
Two groups that had hoped to place adult-use cannabis legalization initiatives on Arkansas’ 2020 ballot have refocused their efforts on the 2022 election after falling short of the required number of signatures needed to qualify, facing a shortage of funding an unforeseen circumstances stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Arkansans for Cannabis Reform had been relying on mail-in petitions to gather the nearly 90,000 signatures required by a July 3 deadline to get its proposed constitutional amendment before voters this fall. A judge ruled in May that ballot initiative campaigns could collect signatures remotely, but the state’s attorney general filed an appeal, and an appeals court then placed a stay on the original ruling until the case is heard.
“Once they put out that stay, we were done,” the campaign’s executive director, Melissa Fults, told Cannabis Business Times in July. “There was no option for us.”
Arkansas True Grass faced similar hurdles in qualifying its proposed constitutional amendment for the 2020 ballot and has started gathering signatures to qualify the measure for the 2022 election instead.
“Support is here,” campaign organizer Briana Boling said. “The more people that hear about it, the more volunteers we get.”
NORTH DAKOTA: Campaign Suspended in April
Advocates looking for cannabis reform in North Dakota had best train their eyes on 2022. The campaign to land a “compromise” measure on the 2020 ballot was overwhelmed by the challenges posed in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Legalize ND cut its campaign in April.
The setback follows a failed ballot measure in 2018 that would have legalized a fairly liberal setup for cannabis in North Dakota. That year, Legalize ND picked up 41% of the vote. The group came back with plans to scale down the reach of its legalization measure and present the issue more palatably to an electorate that turned out in droves for President Trump in 2016.
“There are political realities,” Legalize ND campaign chairman David Owen said after ending the 2020 efforts. “You have to compromise. You don’t compromise on your first ask. On your first ask, you ask for everything you want and then you work backwards from there. But what we found was that nearly a two-thirds majority of North Dakotans are opposed to home grow, just lock, stock and barrel. I get it, we all want the best possible bill, but at a certain point, the key word there is possible, and possible doesn’t mean I can write it down. Possible means I can sell it.”
Watch for Legalize ND to make a run at the 2022 ballot.
MISSOURI: Missourians for a New Approach Say Support for Adult-Use Legalization is Likely in 2022
Missourians for a New Approach’s 2020 ballot initiative to pass adult-use cannabis legalization in the state ended because of the coronavirus pandemic that has swept the nation. Now, the group is looking ahead to the 2022 ballot.
Dan Viets, an attorney who chairs the group’s advisory board, says the task of gathering signatures from 8% of voters in six out of Missouri’s eight congressional districts, as governed by state law, required numerous resources but was feasible until the pandemic struck. (Viets is also both secretary of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and that organization’s state coordinator for Missouri.)
Viets noted a recent Gallup poll showed that 70% of Americans consider smoking cannabis to be morally acceptable. “By November of 2022, I think—I'll just speak for myself on this point—but I think we will probably be approaching the same support we had for medical in 2018, and that was 66%," he said.
He contributes that prediction to the following: “It's partly the aging of the population, but it’s also the fact that across the nation, obviously, cannabis is now much more accepted."