Marijuana legalization heads to red states

Photo by Scott Beale / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The marijuana legalization movement faces critical tests this fall in some of the most conservative territory in the country. 

Voters in Missouri, South Dakota, North Dakota and Arkansas will weigh in on initiatives and constitutional amendments in November that would make recreational pot legal. Maryland, which reliably votes Democratic, is voting on the issue as well.

The forays into deeply Republican territory underscore the progress marijuana legalization supporters have found in more liberal or more libertarian states. The conservative states where they are now playing offense are some of the last areas where citizens have the right to place initiatives on the ballot.

“There’s just a handful of states left in which [supporters] could use an initiative rather than going to the legislature,” said Ryan Byrne, who tracks ballot measures for the nonpartisan election website Ballotpedia. “After this election, if all of these pass, that leaves you with just a handful of Rocky Mountain states.”

Voters in several traditionally Republican states, such as Montana, Arizona and Alaska, have already approved legalization measures. Those votes illustrate the changing politics of pot: Where legalization was once an untouchable third rail in the midst of the war on drugs, voters have increasingly embraced recreational marijuana.

A Gallup survey conducted last November found 68% of Americans support legalizing marijuana, the highest level recorded in any poll the company has run over the last 50 years. Those who favor legalization include half of Republicans, 60% of those over 55 years old, and almost half of those who describe their ideology as conservative.

“Forcing that conversation within that area is part of that process of moving toward legality,” said Matt Walter, a Republican strategist who tracks ballot measures.

The path to the ballot box in the conservative states that will vote this year has not been easy. 

In Arkansas, Secretary of State John Thurston (R) has declared the measure “insufficient” to appear on the ballot, after the state Board of Elections declined to certify the measure’s ballot title. Supporters will appeal to the state Supreme Court, though Thurston’s ruling may mean the measure does not count even if it passes.

In Missouri, a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize recreational pot survived a legal battle when the state Supreme Court declined to take up a challenge. South Dakota voters approved a recreational marijuana measure in 2020, before a state court declared it unconstitutional in the face of a legal challenge led by allies of Gov. Kristi Noem (R).

North Dakota voters rejected a first attempt to legalize marijuana in 2018 by a 20-point margin — one of the widest margins of defeat ever suffered by a legal marijuana ballot measure. 

Polling on ballot measures is typically limited, but the few that have been conducted this year are not promising. 

In a poll conducted in South Dakota by the nonpartisan firm Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy, commissioned by a local news outlet and the University of South Dakota, 54% of voters said they would vote against the measure. A Missouri survey by the Republican firm Remington Research Group in September found just 43% would vote to legalize marijuana, while 47% were opposed.

Maryland, on the other hand, seems poised to join its neighbors Virginia and Washington, D.C., in legalizing pot. A Goucher College poll conducted in March found nearly two-thirds of voters backing the ballot question to legalize, which was forwarded to voters by the state’s General Assembly earlier this year.

Any states that approve legalization will join 18 other states and D.C. where marijuana is already legal for recreational use. Voters in 11 of those states plus D.C. have legalized marijuana through ballot initiatives, while voters in New Jersey approved a measure referred by the legislature.

Legislators in Vermont were the first to approve marijuana without turning to voters when they passed a bill in 2018. Illinois followed in 2019, and legislatures in New York, Virginia, New Mexico and Connecticut did the same last year.