At least nine states will charge ahead with marijuana initiatives on ballots in November — a record number — despite the federal government’s decision not to loosen restrictions on the drug, underscoring the precariousness of any type of legal recognition.
In five states — California, Arizona, Nevada, Massachusetts and Maine — voters will be asked whether they want to legalize recreational use of marijuana.
Meanwhile, those in Florida, Arkansas and North Dakota will vote on starting full-fledged medical marijuana programs, and Montana voters will decide whether to loosen restrictions on their state’s existing program.
Voters in Missouri, Michigan and Oklahoma could see medical marijuana initiatives on the Nov. 8 ballots if supporters produce enough petition signatures. Initiative supporters in Missouri and Michigan are embroiled in court battles over signatures that were thrown out and left them short of the thresholds required. Officials in Oklahoma are counting signatures turned in Thursday.
Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the number of states voting on marijuana initiatives is unprecedented.
“I think that speaks to both the public support of the issue and the maturation of the campaigns behind reforming marijuana laws,” Mr. Armentano said.
Voters in several of the states with marijuana initiatives have defeated previous measures. Legalization proponents say each election cycle with marijuana on the ballot has given advocates more experience with ballot language and generated more enthusiasm for their campaigns.
Four states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use of marijuana through voter referendums, and 25 states have approved medical marijuana programs.
The Drug Enforcement Administration last week denied requests to change the legal classification of marijuana — it’s classified as a Schedule I drug alongside heroin and LSD — shooting down advocates’ push to get the drug federally approved for medical purposes.
But drug reform advocates say approval of the ballot initiatives this year could produce enough momentum on marijuana reform to change that in coming years.
“If we win, it’s really going to accelerate our ability to change federal law,” said Tom Angell, chairman of the Marijuana Majority.
A win in California, the most populous state in the nation, would mean an additional 53 House members would represent districts in a state with a legislative interest in reforming laws that hinder the marijuana industry, he said.
“We really could start to win a lot more victories on the federal level in 2017 because of what happens,” Mr. Angell said.
The legalization movement has received unlikely support from lawmakers who haven’t necessarily been in favor of making the drug available for recreational use but who want to remove barriers for the industry now that it’s functional, said Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, which is supporting ballot initiative efforts in several states.
Although enthusiasm may be high, initiatives in a host of states are still far from achieving slam-dunk success.
In Arizona, a July poll from O.H. Predictive Insights showed an initiative to legalize marijuana was likely to lose, with 52.5 percent of likely voters surveyed saying they would vote against legalizing recreational marijuana, while 39.1 percent said they would vote in favor.
Part of the opposition to the initiative stems from another group that had sought to legalize recreational use of the drug this year. Two competing marijuana initiatives divided supporters, and only one was able to gather the signatures needed to make the ballot.
The campaign that was unable to qualify for the ballot has launched a new effort, Marijuana Consumers Against Fake Marijuana Legalization, to defeat Proposition 205. They argue that the initiative would do more harm than good by not adequately reforming marijuana laws — for instance by leaving in place felony charges for those who possess more than the legal amount of marijuana or by allowing city or county governments to ban home growth of marijuana if it becomes a “nuisance.”
They have asked voters to reject the 2016 ballot proposal and to support a 2018 legalization campaign that they say would include additional protections.
Arizona officials have said the proposed 15 percent tax on retail marijuana sales would generate more than $123 million in revenue and licensing fees by 2020.
J.P. Holyoak, chairman of the Yes on 205 campaign, said the initiative would end a “disastrous policy of marijuana prohibition.”
“Prop 205 would establish a more sensible system in which marijuana is regulated and taxed similarly to alcohol,” Mr. Holyoak said in a statement issued last week.
In Florida, where the state’s first medical pot shop in Tallahassee made its first sales of a low-dose, non-euphoric strain of marijuana in July, activists are gearing up for a ballot initiative that would allow strains with higher potency to be sold and would expand the types of illnesses for which it could be prescribed.
A similar effort failed in 2014, receiving 57 percent of the vote, shy of the 60 percent required to pass.
But a Quinnipiac University Poll from May showed that 80 percent of voters would support the Florida ballot measure and a local TV news station poll from the end of June shows support at 68 percent.
Support for legalization is more evenly divided in other states such as Maine and Massachusetts, where polls show opposition to ballot initiatives running at 41 percent and 51 percent respectively.
Losses in states could be regarded as a step backward for the movement, particularly if Californians reject the legalization initiative by a larger margin than when the issue was on the ballot in 2012, Mr. Tvert said.
But losses are likely to only reinvigorate activists, he said. Several states that have the issue up for vote this year have rejected either legalization or medical marijuana initiatives. In others where the issue is up for vote for the first time, just getting the issue on the ballot is regarded as a steppingstone that often brings together supporters to rally for the next try.
“It’s not like you’ve lost ground,” Mr. Tvert said. “When you take away the bitterness of losing on Election Day, 354 days out of the year it’s a win.”