When cannabis came up for a vote in the 2022 midterm elections, it wasn’t a clean sweep like two years prior.
Adult-use legalization made it to the ballot in five states but succeeded in only two: Maryland and Missouri. Initiatives failed by relatively slim margins in Arkansas, North Dakota, and South Dakota, all historically Republican states. But in a tougher election year, experts were not especially surprised and maintained hope of future reforms on the state and federal levels.
“It's disappointing, but it's not terribly unexpected,” said Morgan Fox, the political director at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
“Generally, younger voters and Democratic voters tend to be much more supportive than older and conservative voters,” he added. “And this was taking place during, not only a midterm election, which generally means that there's going to be less youth vote turnout, it was during a midterm election that was immediately following a Democratic presidential election, which traditionally has also seen a pretty heavy conservative backlash.”
During the 2020 presidential election, voters in all five states with cannabis-related initiatives on the ballot approved those measures by wide margins, representing a clean sweep for the industry.
Cannabis is a popular issue on both sides of the aisle, given some 91 percent of Americans approve of some form of legalization, according to Pew Research. But it is still more popular among Democrats. About 72 percent of Democrats or Democrat-leaning adults approve of medical and adult-use legalization, but only about 40 percent of their Republican and Republican-leaning counterparts feel the same.
“The devil’s in the details, too. While support for the concept of legalization is pretty broad, people start to disagree when faced with some of the details of individual amendments or initiatives or legislation. So, really, it's just a matter of figuring out exactly what voters specifically want,” Fox said.
The states where cannabis failed are all historically conservative. And in some cases, Fox said, the opposition to cannabis reform was deep-seated and well-funded. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, for example, is a long-time cannabis opponent who came out against the initiative. He’ll be replaced in 2023 by former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the first woman to be elected governor of Arkansas.
South Dakota’s results were a bit more surprising. The Mount Rushmore State made history in 2020 by becoming the first to pass adult-use and medical cannabis at the same time, although the adult-use portion was overturned after a legal challenge. Gov. Kristi Noem, who just won her reelection campaign, is also staunchly opposed to legalization.
Cannabis did succeed in one historically red state: Missouri. According to the Associated Press, about 53 percent of voters approved Constitutional Amendment 3, whereas about 37 percent were opposed.
The amendment would enable adults 21 and older to purchase, possess, consume, deliver, manufacture, and sell cannabis for personal use. It also permits limited personal cultivation with a registration card, establishes a lottery system for licenses, and implements a 6 percent tax on cannabis. Certain individuals with non-violent cannabis-related offenses will also be allowed to petition for release from incarceration or parole and to have their records expunged.
“In what was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Missouri voters made history in this election by approving recreational sales of cannabis in a way that helps to fund critical needs of Missouri while addressing some of the injustices of the failed War on Drugs,” said Jason Nelson, the CEO of BeLeaf Medical, which operates Swade dispensaries across Missouri.
Cannabis advocates and the industry also saw a major win in Maryland, the only historically blue state with cannabis on the ballot for the midterms. According to the Associated Press, about 66 percent of Maryland voters voted in favor of cannabis legalization and 34 percent voted against.
The constitutional amendment will permit adults 21-years-old and older to possess up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis and grow two plants at home, starting in July 2023. Until then, cannabis will not be legal but will be decriminalized. Legislators are responsible for working out further details in the months ahead.
"We’re thrilled with the Maryland outcome, of course, as we have four dispensaries in the state, and it’s also great to see states like Missouri also adopting adult use,” Curaleaf CEO Matt Darin said in a statement. “And even though it didn’t pass, seeing more Republican-leaning states like North Dakota and Arkansas continue to have cannabis on the ballot is encouraging.”
Maryland’s adult-use market could drum up as much as $600 million in sales, just in its first year, and up to $1 billion by the fourth. That plus its strategic location along the East Coast, which has seen a wave of legalization in recent years, has made the cannabis industry bullish about it.
“With today’s vote, the industry continues its upward growth trajectory, and the pathway to federal legalization gains momentum as more states pass adult-use cannabis policies. I expect Maryland lawmakers, business owners and others in the region to quickly see its immense economic and social benefits,” Entourage Effect Capital founder and managing principal Matt Hawkins said in a statement.
With the midterm elections behind them and the tally of U.S. states where Americans have access to adult use cannabis rising to 21, cannabis advocates and the industry have their eyes fixed on future reforms, particularly on the federal level.
“Our federal leaders must catch up to their constituents across the nation who are loudly proclaiming their desire for access to safe, regulated and taxed cannabis products for recreation, wellness and medical purposes. Now that the Midterms are behind us, it is time for Congress to come together to pass sensible federal legislation,” Nancy Whiteman, Wana Brands CEO said in a statement.
Many in the industry are hopeful Congress could enact some change in the lame duck session on the back of comments from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that the Senate was “very close” to introducing and passing a version of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, Marijuana Moment reported.
Although the original version of SAFE Banking does not include measures that would permit U.S. cannabis companies to list on major U.S. exchanges, some cannabis executives are preparing for just that. Curaleaf CEO Matt Darin told Cheddar News on the back of the company’s third quarter earnings report that the company is in talks with Nasdaq and the Toronto Stock Exchange to uplist its shares.
“I've never been more optimistic, and we've never been closer to getting some federal reform,” he said, adding that, “it's encouraging that Nasdaqis entertaining these conversations.”
Nasdaq did not respond to Cheddar News’ request for comment.
Fox said he is “cautiously optimistic” about incremental reform in Congress, much of that depends on the makeup of the two houses, once the results of the 2022 midterms are fully determined.
“If Democrats maintain control of both chambers, while I am very confident that there’s still going to be a big move to pass incremental legislation in the lame duck, it will kind of lessen some of the urgency to pass that because Democrats will know that they have the opportunity to be able to move legislation in the next Congress,” Fox said. “Same thing with a total Republican flip of both chambers. There's really not too much motivation for Republican members of the Senate to go along with current Senate leadership's motions.”
A split chamber, however, could provide the urgency Congress needs to pass legislation, Fox said.
In October, President Joe Biden pardoned some 6,500 individuals convicted of federal marijuana possession and ordered a review of federal drug policy. It’s unclear just what that review might yield or when Attorney General Merrick Garland and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra might come back with recommendations, but it has fueled a lot of optimism in the cannabis industry.