Voters in five states, including four that are among the most conservative in the country, are deciding on whether to legalize recreational marijuana this election. If passed in each state, Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota would join 19 other states and the District of Columbia where cannabis has already been legalized for personal use.
All except Maryland backed Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, underscoring that the legalization effort increasingly spans the political spectrum and is even gaining support in some of the most overwhelmingly Republican parts of the nation.
A recent poll from Monmouth University shows 68% of the American public supports legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. The support crosses gender, age, income and education differences, polling shows. In addition to the 19 states that have legalized personal recreational use, 37 states now allow pot for medical purposes.
"The more people learn about cannabis and cannabis policy, the more we see them support making cannabis legal and regulating it and treating it like alcohol," says Mason Tvert a partner at the marijuana policy and public affairs firm VS Strategies. "This is an issue that is broadly supported by Americans of all political stripes, conservatives and progressives," he says.
Arkansas's Issue 4, a proposed amendment to the state constitution, could make the state the first in the deep South to legalize recreational marijuana. "A vote for Issue 4 brings forth job creation, bolsters our economy by bringing new general revenue money," Eddie Armstrong tells NPR. The former Arkansas House minority leader now heads Responsible Growth Arkansas, the group advocating for legalization. "It brings for us opportunities to support our law enforcement and support cancer research accreditation in the state of Arkansas. So it's a good thing for the state to move in this direction," he says.
The debate over the amendment is drawing millions of dollars for TV and radio ads from opponents and supporters alike. A recent poll shows 50.5% support legalization and 43% oppose it, with the rest undecided.
Opponents of legalization point out that the cannabis industry including cultivators, dispensaries, wholesalers and distributors as well as advocates have, so far, funneled nearly $10 million into the ballot initiatives in four states.
The Arkansas group Safe and Secure Communities criticizes the "marijuana industry that profits from an addictive substance." The group has raised more than $2 million to oppose the ballot measure.
They and other opponents, including the Arkansas Family Council Action Committee argue that legalization will worsen petty crime, substance abuse and won't eliminate the black market for weed. High-profile opponents include former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and his daughter Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is expected to win the office her dad once held for a decade in solidly red Arkansas.
"We know this is going to harm people, this is going to harm children," said J.D. "Sonny" Tucker in a video posted to YouTube. He's the director of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention.
Proponents say that's the kind of baseless fear-mongering that fueled the failed, decades-long 'war on drugs' and its accompanying mass incarceration that disproportionately harmed people of color.
Like the other ballot measures this fall, Arkansas's initiative includes a cannabis justice equity provision. "A vote for Issue 4 would now mean that if you were indeed in possession of one ounce of marijuana or less, that you wouldn't have to pay a lifetime for one simple possession," says Armstrong with Responsible Growth Arkansas.
In 2016, Arkansas voters approved a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana. This year's proposed amendment would allow those 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of cannabis and create state-licensed dispensaries to sell recreational pot.
Legalization initiatives in other majority Republican states also look too close to call.
"We think we have a great shot of winning but it's likely to be fairly close," says Jared Moffat the campaign director for New Approach North Dakota and a campaign manager for the Marijuana Policy Project.
The initiative, called Measure 2, is based on legislation that passed North Dakota's House of Representatives but failed in the state Senate last year. Voters said no to an earlier 2018 statewide ballot initiative to legalize pot. Moffat says this one, however, was vetted by state lawmakers and "is much more carefully tailored and sort of carefully crafted to address people's concerns" around oversight.
Fargo's leading newspaper and online news outlet The Forum is backing a "yes" vote in an editorial calling to "finally make official what so many people across the world already are recognizing: that marijuana should be a legal substance, just like alcohol, for those 21 and older. It also should be regulated and taxed, which isn't happening now."
If approved, the state would follow a version of the template set up in other states by establishing a regulatory system to oversee a limited number of retail dispensaries for adults 21 and over to purchase marijuana, as well as licensed cultivators to produce products around the state. The state would likely apply a 5% statewide sales tax and a local 3% tax. The measure also would allow adults to cultivate up to three plants in the residence.
South Dakota's vote, called Initiated Measure 27, marks the latest effort to legalize recreational marijuana use in the state. Voters approved it in 2020, only to have it thrown out by the state Supreme Court.
It's unclear if President Joe Biden's recent announcement that he is pardoning thousands of people federally charged for simple marijuana possession will have any impact on these five state-level measures. Biden also called for his administration "to initiate the administrative process to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law." Under federal law, marijuana is currently on par with heroin, LSD and other hard drugs. "We classify marijuana at the same level as heroin – and more serious than fentanyl. It makes no sense," Biden said in a tweet announcing the review and pardons.
Cannabis policy advocate Mason Tvert thinks the White House moves will help the state measures. "When the most powerful political leader in the world says something, it goes a long way," he says. "The president's comments really show that the country is moving toward an end to cannabis prohibition. And if these states want to keep up with the rest of the country, they need to pass these measures," Tvert says.
Polling on the issue in the five states, when it's been done, shows that the measures are close.
But some past surveys on this issue have proved unreliable, wildly inaccurate or contradictory. This year is no exception. For example, recent polls in Missouri are all over the place: two show it close and one says Amendment 3, as it's called, will roll its way to a double-digit victory.
"Whether these initiatives pass or not, this is really moving the ball forward," says cannabis policy advocate Tvert. He says history shows the more people hear details about legalization, the more they tend to support it.