A mixed bag for cannabis legalization efforts in five states
It was a mixed night for cannabis advocates as measures to legalize adult-use recreational marijuana passed in Maryland and Missouri but were soundly rejected in reliably red Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota.
The two wins mean 21 states, D.C. and two U.S. territories have now legalized cannabis for recreational use. Sixteen states and two territories have legalized marijuana for medical use.
Missouri will now create a statewide licensing program to grow and sell marijuana. The Maryland vote allows state lawmakers to set up the parameters of the state's recreational cannabis industry. Both measures will establish procedures to expunge records for those charged with non-violent, low-level pot possession.
But the results in Arkansas and the Dakotas are a clear disappointment for the legalization movement. Arkansas was aiming to become the first state in the Deep South to legalize recreational pot. The measure lost with 56% voting against. Proponents had hoped for legalization breakthroughs in the Dakotas after multiple fits and starts in recent years. South Dakota voters approved legalization in 2020, only to have it thrown out by the state Supreme Court. North Dakota voters in 2016 passed a measure allowing medical marijuana use in the state.
"It just goes to show that in the Deep South people tend to want things a certain way and that was proven on election night," Eddie Armstrong with the pro-legalization group Responsible Growth Arkansas tells NPR. "It's unfortunate that politics got in the way of a citizen's effort to really bring forth brighter futures and opportunities for Arkansas."
The message by the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana North Dakota, which led the fight against the measure, seemed to resonate with voters there. They argued that legalization was a ploy by large pot producers, "today's version of big tobacco," to make a quick buck, market cannabis to children, and would worsen substance abuse across the state.
"As we saw in Arkansas and the Dakotas, there is still work to be done," says Mason Tvert with the cannabis policy firm VS Strategies.
"After decades of anti-cannabis laws and propaganda, it comes as little surprise that many voters have concerns. It's not really a question of whether these states will end cannabis prohibition, but a question of when," he says.
Other legalization advocates argued that the two state wins, plus victories in several city and regional ballots to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana amounted to significant progress.
The local votes include five cities in Texas affecting more than 400,000 people in the Lone Star State.
"That's significant because Texas is the state leader in annual marijuana arrests," says Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, which advocates nationally to legalize marijuana. "It's yet another indication that there exists this chasm between where the average voter stands on the issue of marijuana legalization and where so many of their elected officials stand," Armentano tells NPR. "We're going to continue to see voters go to the ballot box state by state, year after year, and incrementally advance these policies."
In other drug policy votes, with more than 80 percent of the vote in, a "yes" vote on Colorado Prop. 122, also known as the Natural Medicine Health Act, has a slight lead. The measure decriminalizes and regulates psilocybin and other psychedelics for medicinal use. The 'yes' vote is ahead 51.1% to 48.9%.
The vote legalizes the compounds psilocybin and psilocin found in "magic mushrooms" for use in therapeutic settings. If that lead holds, adults 21 and older will be able to use the substances under the supervision of licensed professionals. It also decriminalizes the growing, use and sharing of psilocybin and psilocin, as well as mescaline, ibogaine, and dimethyltryptamine, or DMT for adults. It does not allow for storefront or dispensary sale of the drugs.
Research shows psilocybin and other psychedelic-assisted therapies have enormous potential in the treatment of severe depression, post traumatic stress disorder and other often hard to treat mental health challenges.
Psychedelics company Compass recently announced it was entering Phase 3 clinical trials on psilocybin's efficacy for treatment-resistant depression. Drug companies often apply for approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration after a successful Phase 3.