More than a year and a half into his term, President Joe Biden made good on a campaign promise to lead the charge on marijuana — or cannabis — reform. On Oct. 6, Biden announced that he would pardon all prior federal convictions for simple cannabis possession, that he would urge all Governors to do the same regarding state offenses, and that he would seek to reclassify cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act.
This reversal of decades of drug policy was a slow process with quite a bit of momentum behind it — not unlike turning an aircraft carrier. While those federal changes are estimated to relieve more than 6,500 people of prior federal convictions, the number of people being held in state jails and prisons is far, far greater than in federal lockup.
The Last Prisoner Project, a non-profit that seeks to end incarceration for cannabis offenses, estimates that there are at least 40,000 people incarcerated for cannabis at any time — and likely far more.
This year, five states (Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota) are seeking to legalize cannabis — and one more, Colorado, seeks to go a step further by becoming only the second state in the union to legalize some psychedelics. If cannabis supporters score a clean sweep, nearly half of the United States will have approved recreational cannabis.
In 2016, Arkansas became the first state in the Bible Belt to approve of medical cannabis with Issue 6, a measure with 53% of voters in favor. More than 91,000 people have medical cannabis cards under that law, which allows those with qualifying medical conditions to possess up to 2 1/2 ounces of cannabis from state-licensed dispensaries.
Issue 4 would open up cannabis use to anyone over 21, allowing for possession of one ounce of cannabis for non-medical use. Medical cannabis card holders would also be allowed to purchase non-medical cannabis without it counting toward their medical allotment. It would also end taxation on medical cannabis, while imposing an additional 10% sales tax on non-medical cannabis.
Unlike other legalization amendments being discussed this year, the Arkansas measure does not include language for small, at-home growth, and it does not include an avenue for people to expunge their criminal records of cannabis-related offenses.
Polling looks favorable for supporters: in September, a Talk Business & Politics/Hendrix College survey indicated that 58.5% of 835 likely Arkansas voters polled would vote in favor of Issue 4.
But in a twist, the Arkansas chapter of NORML — the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws — has taken a stance against Issue 4, telling local affiliate KARK that the measure is “horrible,” arguing that its backers are trying to monopolize weed.
“When you control the industry, you can set the prices to whatever you want and make the people pay for it,” Arkansas NORML treasurer Melissa Fults said in July, adding that it would “destroy” the state’s medical cannabis industry.
The chairman of the Yes on 4 campaign — the campaign formed to back Question 4, Maryland’s proposed cannabis-centered constitutional amendment — might be the only political campaign chair this election cycle that has been documented bench pressing 225 pounds for 23 reps.
Retired NFL offensive tackle Eugene Monroe has advocated for cannabis as a therapeutic for chronic pain since 2016, shortly before the end of his playing career. The drug — and specifically, its non-psychoactive cannabinoid CBD — can provide non-addictive chronic pain and anxiety treatment, rather than opioid pills.
In a Washington Post opinion piece, Monroe argued that legalizing cannabis in Maryland would boost racial equity within the state, increase tax revenues and reduce unequal enforcement of cannabis-related citations — especially in communities of color.
“A criminal record can cast a long shadow and follow someone for the rest of their life, devastating entire families and communities. Because of marijuana prohibition, simply possessing a small amount of cannabis can make it far more difficult to obtain housing, education and employment,” Monroe wrote. “That will change in Maryland when we pass Question 4.”
The measure is likely to overwhelmingly succeed, based on recent polling. According to a Washington Post/University of Maryland poll conducted in late September, 73% of Maryland voters supported legalizing cannabis. That tracks with the state’s record on cannabis: the drug has been inching toward legality since 2013, when medicinal use was legalized. One year later, possession of 10 grams or less of cannabis — little more than one-third of an ounce — was decriminalized.
Opinions have wildly varied on whether or not Missouri Amendment 3 — a constitutional amendment that would legalize recreational cannabis use, create a process for release from jail and expungement of certain cannabis offenses from their records, and set up “microbusiness” licensing for people meeting specific qualifications — will get the thumbs-up from voters. Three separate polls, each conducted in mid-September, have some pretty disparate results.
A SurveyUSA poll, sponsored by a handful of midwestern television stations, shows that MA 3 would pass overwhelmingly: of the 670 voters reached between Sept. 14–18, 62% said they were in favor of the amendment, with 22% opposed.
An Emerson College/The Hill Missouri poll, meanwhile, found that fewer than half of those surveyed — 48% of 1,160 very likely voters reached between Sept. 23–27 — would vote for MA 3. But that plurality is significantly greater than the 35% that were opposed, and the 17% who were unsure.
The third poll, from Remington Research Group and the Missouri Scout newsletter, swings the other direction, finding that only 43% of likely voters are in favor, while 47% are against, with 10% unsure.
The Missouri Democratic Party has chosen to stay out of the electoral matter entirely, announcing that it “supports the legalization of marijuana” but does not have an official position on Amendment 3.
“As written, Amendment 3 may negatively impact minorities, people of color, and low-income earning Missourians,” the party wrote in a statement. “Democrats have concerns about the expungement provisions laid out in the amendment, as well as making it difficult for those who do not currently have a license to enter the industry.”
But if the past is any indication, it’s worth noting that Missouri approved of the 2018 Missouri Amendment 2, a medical cannabis question, with 65.59% voting in favor.
2022’s Measure 2 isn’t the first swing that North Dakota — which has already approved medical cannabis — has taken at legalizing recreational weed. In 2018, voters rejected Measure 3, which sought to legalize recreational cannabis use for people older than 21 and expunged convictions for legalized controlled substances, among other things. But that measure was crushed, 59.45% to 40.55%. Supporters tried again in 2020, but were stymied by the pandemic.
In the meantime, North Dakota Governor Dug Burgum in 2019 signed legislation into law decriminalizing possession of half an ounce of cannabis — though concentrates are still illegal. The state legislature also discussed a legalization bill in 2021, though the state senate defeated the legislation after it won support in the state house.
This year, cannabis supporters were able to move forward with an ballot initiative campaign that won more than 23,000 valid signatures to move to the November general election.
The bill would allow people over 21 to use, possess and transport up to two ounces of cannabis, create a state regulatory commission, and impose a 10 percent tax on all retail cannabis products sold. It would also allow municipalities to regulate where and how retail cannabis businesses might operate, and allow a court to seal criminal records of a person convicted of a misdemeanor cannabis offense, so long as that person isn’t charged with another offense for one year.
There isn’t much polling data in North Dakota, but fundraising by the New Approach North Dakota Ballot Measure Committee, which supports Measure 2, shows that more than $550,000 has been raised to date this election cycle. Healthy and Productive North Dakota, which opposes the measure, has not yet filed statements indicating contributions to their campaign.
Two years ago, South Dakotans approved of Amendment A, a citizen-led ballot initiative that got recreational cannabis on the ballot. Within the year, Republican South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem sued to have the constitutional amendment overturned on the grounds that it inappropriately addressed too many subjects. She was successful, and at appeal the state Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision overturning the law.
“It is clear that Amendment A contains provisions embracing at least three separate subjects, each with distinct objects or purposes,” Chief Justice Steven Jensen wrote in the majority opinion, which found recreational marijuana, medical marijuana and hemp each to be separate issues.
Initiated Measure 27 is considered by backers to be a pared-down version of Amendment A, focusing specifically on legalizing cannabis use, possession and distribution by anyone age 21 and over. It also allows for growing cannabis at home, but only in areas where retail cannabis isn’t available.
But despite recent voting booth success, passage of IM 27 isn’t assured. A University of South Dakota Chiesman Center of Democracy poll conducted in July suggests that IM 27 could very well fail. According to the poll, which was commissioned by South Dakota News Watch, 54.4% of the 500 registered voters surveyed were opposed to the legislation.
The SDSU Poll, a research group at South Dakota State University’s School of American and Global Studies, finds a much closer split. SDSU’s poll of 565 South Dakota voters, conducted between Sept. 28 and Oct. 10, found 45% in favor, 47% against, and 8% undecided, with a 4% margin of error in the survey.
Colorado’s been at the vanguard of drug legalization for decades, legalizing medical use in 2000 and legalizing recreational use back in 2012. But, in the case of Proposition 122, which seeks to decriminalize personal use and possession of hallucinogenic plants and fungi — or "magic mushrooms" for people over 21, Colorado’s behind the times.
Oregon legalized mushrooms and decriminalized psychedelics in 2020 with Measure 109, allowing the administration of psilocybin in clinical settings. Prop. 122 would set up a similar framework to regulate “healing centers” and “natural medicine services” where psilocybin users could take the drug in licensed facilities.
Proponents from the New Approach PAC — which sponsors the proposition — argue that the drug can provide a new avenue for people suffering from certain mental health challenges.
"Our goal is to make the healing benefits of these natural medicines available to people they can help, including veterans with PTSD, survivors of domestic or sexual abuse, people with treatment-resistant depression, and others for whom our typical mental-health treatments just aren’t working," Ben Unger, New Approach PAC's psychedelic program director, told Denver’s Westword.
Though there are some opponents raising concerns that psilocybin legalization is an avenue to public harms, the co-founder of the Society for Psychedelic Outreach, Reform and Education feels the measure is a “corporate power grab” putting “profit over people and commercialization over the community.”
“In order for policymaking to support the people it is designed for, reform should be led by the most impacted communities through an equitable, participatory process,” Matthew Duffy wrote in a Denver Post opinion. “This foundational work may take more time than big business, and the overzealous want to wait. However, taking our time to build a foundation for medicine stewardship based in community trust is worth it if we’re truly committed to healing.”