Voters across the country broke drug policy milestones Tuesday, passing ballot measures to grant legal access to recreational marijuana in three states — including California — and to give Americans in more than half of the 50 states access to medical marijuana.
Nearly 5 million Californians voted in favor of marijuana legalization, garnering 56 percent support and making the state the most populous in the nation to legalize use of the drug. Six years ago, California voters rejected a legalization initiative. In the time since, four states ventured into the legal pot market, approving initiatives to allow the sale and tax of the drug.
With marijuana now legal along the entire West Coast, advocates saw the California victory as a monumental step toward broader drug policy reform.
“Last night’s results send a simple message: The tipping point has come,” said Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association. “More than 16 million voters, including in two of the three most populated states in the nation, chose legal, regulated cannabis programs that promote safety, boost the economy, help sick patients and address social injustices.”
Erik Altieri, executive director of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, noted that with legalization in California, another 12 percent of the American population will be able to use the drug recreationally without fear of criminal prosecution.
“Combined with our other recent victories, federal prohibition is truly on its last legs and it is just a matter of time before federal policy is reformed to accept this new reality,” Mr. Altieri said.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and those opposed to legalization called on the federal government to enforce its laws and for local communities that disagree with their states’ ballot initiatives to take action to block the influx of cannabis-related businesses.
“We now urge the people of California who voted to oppose legalization and who see the negative impacts to continue to call on the federal government to enforce the Controlled Substances Act against commercial marijuana operations, trafficking, advertising and sales,” said Carla Lowe, founder of Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana. “We also urge every jurisdiction, city, county, community to enact land use policies that will block marijuana drug dealers from setting up shop in their communities and to create fines and penalties that will help pay for the enforcement necessary to stop this insidious public health and safety plague.”
Adult use of recreational marijuana also was legalized in Massachusetts and Nevada on Tuesday. But legalization hit its first stumbling block of the night in Arizona, where 52 percent of voters opposed a measure. Results were too close to call in Maine.
With Donald Trump’s election, some have questioned whether the president-elect will side with what traditionally has been his party’s opposition to legal access to the drug. The Marijuana Policy Project gave Mr. Trump a C+ rating for his stance on drug policy.
But Project spokesman Mason Tvert said there is little concern that Mr. Trump will roll back states’ marijuana decisions and notes that any move to trample states’ rights or to shutter the emerging marijuana economy would run counter to some of the president-elect’s most basic ideals.
“There is not any specific thing he has said that suggests he would act in a hostile way toward what states have done,” Mr. Tvert said. “It would be strange if Donald Trump, of all people, were to say the federal government is going to step in and violate states’ rights and shut down thousands of small businesses.”
Massachusetts become the first East Coast state to legalize recreational marijuana, with 54 percent of voters supportive of the measure. The District of Columbia previously eliminated criminal penalties associated with possession of the drug and allowed residents to grow their own, but the city has not legalized its sale.
“Western states have led the way on legalizing marijuana, but the victory in Massachusetts powerfully demonstrates that this movement is now bicoastal and soon to be national,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Indeed, I’d wager that the next states to legalize marijuana will also be in the Northeast — and they’ll be the first in the country to do so through the legislature rather than the ballot box.”
Expansion of the legal marijuana market has the potential to generate billions of dollars in revenue.
Analysis released by New Frontier and Arcview Market Research this year projected that California’s legal marijuana market could grow by nearly $4 billion over the next four years if voters legalized recreational use of the drug.
Previous analysis of the national cannabis market predicted sales of $14 billion to $17 billion this year, with the potential to reach $44 billion by 2020.
Legalization wasn’t the only expansion of the marijuana market on Election Day. Vters also expanded Americans’ access to medical marijuana.
Ahead of the elections, half of the 50 had approved medical marijuana programs. That number grew to 29 with Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota approving measures Tuesday.
The measure passed handily in Florida, with 71 percent support. It allows physicians to approve prescriptions of medical marijuana for patients who suffer from a variety of debilitating diseases — including cancer, AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder and epilepsy — as well as for patients who suffer from similar types of ailments.
Two years ago, Florida voters rejected a nearly identical measure.
Arkansas voters made their state the first state in the Bible Belt to adopt medical marijuana laws. Garnering 53 percent support, the initiative allows qualifying patients to obtain medical marijuana and for the establishment and regulation of marijuana dispensaries and cultivation facilities. The measure does allow voters to ban marijuana dispensaries and cultivation facilities in their municipalities.
Voters in Montana and North Dakota opted to open access to medical marijuana in their states, a surprise to many drug policy reform advocates.
“To be candid, very few people in our movement expected this result, and it happened with almost no coordination or major assistance from national organizations,” said Tom Angell, chairman of the Marijuana Majority. “The fact that North Dakotans approved medical cannabis with an effort that was largely off the radar of most political operatives shows that truly any state could be the next to change its marijuana laws.”
Other issues that voters weighed in on Tuesday included the death penalty, minimum wage, criminal justice reform and various tax proposals.
⦁ Maine, Arizona, Colorado and Washington voted to increase the minimum wage to at least $12 an hour by 2020, and South Dakota rejected a measure to lower the minimum wage for non-tipped workers younger than 18.
⦁ Voters in California, which has the most inmates on death row, rejected a proposal to eliminate the death penalty and passed a measure to speed up the death penalty appeals process. Nebraskans opted to reinstate the death penalty, while Oklahomans approved a referendum that declares the death penalty not to be considered cruel and unusual punishment.
⦁ Colorado voted to make assisted suicide legal “among patients with a terminal illness who receive a prognosis of death within six months.”
⦁ Missouri passed a constitutional amendment requiring photo identification to vote.
⦁ New Mexico passed a constitutional amendment that bans the detention of criminal defendants solely because they cannot afford to pay bail.
⦁ Tax proposals were a mixed bag. States where new taxes failed include the rejection of a tobacco sales tax hikes in Missouri, Colorado and North Dakota; and Oklahoma’s rejection of a 1 percent sales tax. Missouri also passed a measure prohibiting new sales or use taxes. Meanwhile, Maine and California said yes to additional income taxes for those who make more than $200,000 annually.