How did Cannabis Fare on Election Night 2018?

by Kohl Neal

The midterm elections this year were contentious, momentous and highly anticipated. More than any before these midterms were seen as a referendum on the President and the political climate. It could also be seen as a demonstration of the divisions between Democrat and Republican voters. But for many activists, these elections will carry a heavy impact on the future of legal cannabis in the US.

There are two ways that these midterm elections impact cannabis laws and activism. The first is in direct ballot measures that passed or failed in states that voted on different cannabis measures. The second is in the candidates that vocally support or oppose legalization, and how they fared. Together these results set the groundwork for the battle for legalization, on the state and federal levels, for the next two years.

For the ballot initiatives, the most direct indicator of support for cannabis, four states had questions around legal recreational or medical cannabis, and three of them passed. In Michigan voters approved Proposal 1, fifty-six percent yes to forty-four no, which legalizes recreational cannabis and sets up a system of taxation and regulation. This makes Michigan the first Midwestern state to legalize recreational cannabis, a positive sign for other Midwest areas that lean Democratic with large conservative constituencies.

Utah voters approved Proposition 2 which allows medical cannabis for qualifying conditions. The details of which patients qualify for medical cannabis will be determined in special legislative sessions. Local NORML chapters and other activist organizations will be calling on Utah legislators to consider modern science on the benefits of medicinal cannabis and keep it accessible for all patients that would benefit from its medicinal effects. This could go as far to provide treatment for patients with PTSD, epilepsy or cancer.

Missouri is another Midwestern state that voted in favor of cannabis, passing Amendment 2 to allow medical cannabis. Unlike other states with a list of qualifying conditions, the Missouri amendment leaves qualification up to physicians, allowing medical dispensaries to provide cannabis to patients with the approval of their doctors. This provides much more leeway for patients and doctors to choose treatment options that address their specific needs, and avoid potentially harmful side-effects of addiction or accidental overdose.

The cannabis measure that failed on election night may have been the most progressive. North Dakota rejected Measure 3, which not only would decriminalize cannabis, but also would automatically expunge marijuana drug charges from the record of anyone convicted while over the age of 21. Though the measure failed by a vote of fifty-nine percent against and forty-one percent for, activists consider placing the measure on the ballot and turning out supporters a major success. Future ballot initiatives in any state may follow the example of pressing for expungement and restoration for those convicted of drug crimes along with legalizing and taxing cannabis.

Finally, though not directly related to cannabis, Florida’s passing of Amendment 4 by sixty-three percent is a significant win for criminal justice and advocates against the war on drugs. Amendment 4 restores voting rights to convicts who have served the entirety of their sentence. Florida was one of only four states that prohibit felons from voting. This disproportionately affects black constituencies in Florida, as it prevented approximately 418,000 black adults from voting in Florida in 2016, twenty-percent of Florida’s black population. With the passage of Amendment 4, a potential 1.5 million eligible voters are added to the swing state.

In most of these states cannabis measures fared well despite Republicans winning state elections, like Missouri which elected a Republican Senator and six Republicans to the House out of the eight seats up for election. And the progressive Florida amendment passed with overwhelming support despite an extremely narrow race between Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum for Governor. Part of this is the bipartisan appeal of cannabis, the voting public largely approves of cannabis legalization, particularly medical cannabis. But it is also a case of partisan voting winning out over change in policy.

That said, Democratic wins these midterms could mean huge progress for cannabis even in the next legislative session. Democrats took control of the House and elected representatives in key districts. Texas Republican Representative Pete Sessions was voted out of his district, losing to Democrat Colin Allred. The election shows huge strides for Texas Democrats, and also is a good sign for progressive legislation. Sessions repeatedly blocked cannabis legislation from being voted on in the House as Chairman of the Rules Committee, and his ouster could mean more progressive bills being voted on and passing. Though Republicans still control the Senate, it is very possible some will be more favorable to moderate cannabis legislation coming out of the House.

The sweeping win of Democratic Governors is could also means progress for cannabis laws at the state level. Here in Illinois Democratic Candidate J.B. Pritzker beat out Republican Governor Bruce Rauner by a wide margin. Pritzker made legalization and taxation of cannabis a key issue in his campaign, and has already talked about legalizing as soon as possible since his election. Democratic wins for Governors in Maine, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Kansas could also have big impacts for cannabis legislation. All of these states have large conservative constituencies that have shown support for legal marijuana in the past, and with a Governor that won’t veto any decriminalization or legalization bill that passes their desk, there could be real progress.

These midterms had significant wins for Democrats, and some key wins for Republicans, but it remains to be seen if that will carry into any changes in policy. The appeal of criminal justice reform, healthcare, cannabis or any policy does not usually translate into to support for candidates over party. People support legal cannabis, they want the accessibility and tax benefit for their state, and want fewer people in prison for a drug that most see as harmless. But they must be willing to hold their elected officials accountable to those positions even when they aren’t up for election.

Kohl Neal