Marijuana's 2020 Election Sweep Means Fifteen States Have Legalized

Four states passed adult-use cannabis laws and two passed medical marijuana initiatives during the 2020 elections.
Four states passed adult-use cannabis laws and two passed medical marijuana initiatives during the 2020 elections. Westword archive
With the presidential race is still taking the main stage the day after the November 3 election, it's easy to forget about the fate of recreational and medical cannabis ballot initiatives in five states. But the voters in Arizona, New Jersey, Mississippi, Montana and South Dakota sure remembered, with pot sweeping the polls before the night ended.

Every statewide cannabis legalization measure on a ballot passed last night, as Arizona, New Jersey, Montana and South Dakota voters all approved recreational cannabis possession and sales. Meanwhile, South Dakota and Mississippi voters approved new medical marijuana programs in their respective states.

Since Colorado and Washington voters led the way in legalizing recreational pot in 2012, thirteen states (and Washington, D.C.) have joined them. And more states legalizing cannabis is good for national cannabis legislation efforts, according to National Cannabis Industry Association media relations director Morgan Fox.

“While state representatives aren’t beholden to representing the interests of their constituents in terms of policies, I think that with every state where you pass one of these laws, there’s that much more potential representation in congress,” Fox explains.

It's likely to take anywhere from one to two years before regulated cannabis will be available to consumers and patients in the newly regulated states, but based on the ballot initiatives, here is what regulated cannabis might look like in Arizona, New Jersey, Mississippi, Montana and South Dakota.

Proposition 207, also called the Smart & Safe Act, allows adults 21 and older to purchase and use regulated cannabis. The Smart & Safe Act passed with 60 percent of voter approval despite open opposition from Governor Doug Doucey.

The Arizona Department of Health Services will hand out marijuana licenses for cultivation, retail and processing facilities; businesses can apply for an early license as soon as January 2021, and established medical marijuana growers will be given application priority. A fiscal analysis released by the Arizona Joint Legislative Budget Committee staff estimates that the 16 percent sales tax and licensing fees from recreational cannabis would bring in $166 million in revenue per year. Revenue generated from legal cannabis sales will cover administrative costs for cannabis regulation, with remaining revenue to be distributed to district community colleges, firefighters, law enforcement agencies, the Governor's Office of Highway Safety, and the Justice Reinvestment Fund for communities most impacted by the War on Drugs.

Arizona's successful ballot initiative also opens the door for those with prior cannabis crime convictions to expunge their records after July 12, 2021. Individuals convicted with marijuana possession (2.5 ounces or less), cultivation, consumption or transportation can petition Arizona courts to have records of arrests and convictions expunged.

Two ballot initiatives for recreational cannabis use passed in Montana. Ballot Initiative 190 legalizes recreational cannabis use for adults, and Constitutional Initiative 118 amends language in the state constitution specifying that the legal purchasing age of cannabis for adults will be 21.

I-190 allows adults age 21 and older to possess 1 ounce of marijuana and grow up to four cannabis plants in their private residences. Licensing and regulation will be overseen by the Montana Department of Revenue, which will impose a 20 percent sales tax on marijuana products. After covering administrative costs, all revenue generated by regulated cannabis will fund nature conservation programs, substance abuse treatment and prevention efforts, veterans' services and health care. The act also allows individuals serving sentences for marijuana-related offenses legalized by I-90 to have their sentences reduced or charges expunged. The Montana Department of Revenue will accept growing, processing and retail applications by January 1, 2022.

Mississippians didn't vote on recreational cannabis this year, but they did pass a constitutional amendment allowing medical marijuana use for patients with “debilitating medical conditions” after voting in rank-style system on competing MMJ initiatives. About 67.9 percent of voters supported medical cannabis legalization overall, with 74 percent of voters preferring Initiative 65 to the alternative measure, 65A. Voters were asked if they supported either initiative or opposed both initiatives, and were then asked which initiative they preferred more; those who opposed both could still specify their preference between the two.

Initiative 65, the winning amendment, specifies 21 qualifying medical conditions for medical marijuana, including cancer, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder and AIDS. The new laws also give doctors the discretion to recommend marijuana for equally debilitating medical conditions when “the use of medical marijuana would reasonably outweigh potential health risks,” according to I-65. The medical marijuana program would be overseen by the Mississippi Department of Health, and caps patient marijuana possession at 2.5 ounces every two weeks. Marijuana sales would be taxed at 7 percent or lower, with the MDH set to have regulations in place by July of next year.

The alternative Initiative 65A would have also allowed medical cannabis use for patients with debilitating conditions, but many details about the implementation would have been left up to state legislators to decide. There were no listed conditions to qualify patients for medical marijuana, nor were there other details, like the responsible regulatory agency of the program, an implementation timeline or product taxation.
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Clara Geoghegan is a recent graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder, where she majored in anthropology with an emphasis on public health. She worked at Radio 1190’s News Underground and freelanced for Denverite. She is now the cannabis intern at Westword.
Contact: Clara Geoghegan