The 2022 midterms were a mixed bag for cannabis, with Maryland and Missouri being the bright spots as the 20th and 21st states to legalize adult-use cannabis
Unlike most other major elections of the past decade, the 2022 midterms were not a resounding success for the legalization of cannabis, though two states — both widely projected to pass their measures — moved into the adult-use realm.
Maryland voters approved a constitutional amendment legalizing recreational marijuana by a margin of 67.1% to 32.9%, while Missouri passed a similar constitutional amendment by a much slimmer margin, 53.1% in favor, 46.9% opposed.
With a certain degree of irony, Missouri is expected to transition quickly from a medical-only market to a recreational one, with adult-use sales potentially beginning as early as Q1 of 2023, while Maryland — traditionally more liberal and with more widespread support of legalization and with a longer-running medical program — is expected to slow-roll its switch, with some lawmakers projecting adult-use sales won’t begin for at least two full years.
Meanwhile, Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota all rejected legalization measures. Each of the three hardline conservative states already have functioning medical marijuana programs, but strong opposition forces led to the “No” votes winning big with regards to adult-use cannabis. South Dakota was the closest to passing, with 52.9% of voters rejecting Measure 27, while North Dakota’s Measure 2 and Arkansas’ Issue 4 fell, receiving just 45.1% and 43.7% of their votes, respectively.
The result of November 8, 2022 was hardly devastating — adding two new recreational states is nothing to take for granted — but over the past six years, cannabis had become the one subject Americans throughout this vast, troubled nation could agree upon. During the 2016, 2018 and 2020 elections, 16 of the 18 legalization measures put before voters were approved. To get only two of five in 2022 — and to make no progress on medical marijuana in the last handful of holdouts — feels like a step back toward the divisive realm of partisan politics.
– The Result: Maryland was the one state during the 2022 midterms where the result of its legalization initiative was never in question. Polling throughout 2021 and 2022 showed strong support for the legalization of recreational marijuana and that proved true at the ballot box: 65% of Maryland voters supported Question 4, which passed by more than 660,000 votes.
– Why It Matters: In addition to bringing another 6 million people into the list of states where cannabis is legal, Maryland represents an important cultural and geographical milestone in the legalization landscape. Its proximity to Washington, D.C., can only be a positive in the ongoing push for national legalization, and neighboring Pennsylvania now has another prominent legal state on its border, putting further pressure on the Keystone State as the next domino to fall. And, not to be overlooked, Maryland is the first state with Black residents making up more than 20% of its population to legalize cannabis. About 32% of Maryland residents are Black, compared to the next closest rec states Virginia (18%), New York (17%) and Illinois (16%) — notable considering the historic racial disparity of marijuana possession arrests.
– The Business Angle: Maryland has one of the most well-developed medical marijuana programs in the country, with more than 160,000 registered patients and total retail sales over the past two years surpassing $1 billion. Although some lawmakers have projected the recreational market won’t launch until 2025, adult-use sales could begin as early as July 2023 — delays were incessant in getting the medical program up and running — so expect a strong, unified lobbying effort by the state’s 100-plus dispensaries to allow sales to begin sooner rather than later.
– The Social Angle: As Question 4 campaign chairman Eugene Monroe pointed out in a Washington Post guest column, Maryland is home to three of the country’s top 10 counties for marijuana possession arrest rates, while Maryland police are also facing hiring shortages and rising homicide rates. “That doesn’t make any of us safer,” Monroe wrote. Plus, the passage of Question 4 gives lawmakers a second shot at creating a more diverse cannabis industry in Maryland, after officials largely botched that goal with the advent of the medical program.
– Quotable: “Maryland voters were loud and clear in their support for legalizing the responsible adult-use of cannabis. Question 4 activates long overdue changes to Maryland’s judicial, social and economic climates. This is an important first step in the right direction,” said Losia Nyankale, executive director of Maryland NORML.
– The Result: Although the vote was a little close for comfort, Missouri residents ultimately approved Amendment 3 by a margin of 126,787 votes (53.1% to 46.9%). With an established and growing medical marijuana industry, Missouri will likely be able to transition quickly to adult-use sales, much like Arizona did following the 2020 election.
– Why It Matters: The Show-Me State has already shown the rest of the country that it is possible to move quickly in launching a legal cannabis program. Missouri went from full-on prohibition state to having medical dispensaries open in just 23 months, following the 2018 passage of Amendment 2, which legalized cannabis for medicinal use. However, more than 800 lawsuits filed by rejected business license applicants marred the otherwise smooth launch, and many of those lawsuits remain unresolved to this day — almost as if the state of Missouri followed the Silicon Valley playbook, “Move fast and break things.”
– The Business Angle: The rapid launch of Missouri’s medical marijuana program was bolstered by solid patient enrollment numbers. As of October 2022, the state had nearly 205,000 registered patients, leading to total retail sales of $529.5 million in the first two years of dispensaries being open. With sales expected to begin in early 2023, BDSA forecast adult-use sales to reach $277 million in year one. With a population of 6.2 million people, Missouri is the first big deep-red state to legalize recreational marijuana. It’s also safe to assume Missouri, much like Illinois to its east, will generate a fair amount of revenue from out-of-state shoppers, with Kansas, Iowa and other prohibitionist states sharing borders.
– The Social Angle: In the lead-up to the November election, Politico reporter Mona Zhang wrote an excellent article on how Missouri’s legalization measure was pitting advocates against industry. Some lawmakers and activists fear the legalization measure will exacerbate the existing racial disparity in arrests and criminal charges for cannabis (in Lafayette County, for example, Black people are more than 10 times more likely to get arrested for marijuana than white people). Also raising concerns is that the new rules will give too much power to the existing state-licensed dispensaries and cultivators, while not providing enough opportunities for new entrants and more diverse applicants to join the legal industry.
– Quotable: “You don’t get to give me a poop sandwich and put a sprinkle on top and think I’m going to be satisfied,” state Representative Ashley Bland Manlove said to Politico, in regards to Amendment 3.
– The Result: Arkansas voters made their voices heard loud and clear regarding Issue 4, rejecting the cannabis legalization measure by a margin of 56.3% to 43.7%. It was the widest margin of defeat for a medical or recreational legalization measure since North Dakota residents shot down a ballot measure for recreational marijuana in 2018 (59.5% to 40.5%). It was only the third legalization measure of the past decade to receive less than 45% support (the other being Ohio’s wildly unpopular swing at adult-use cannabis in 2015).
– Why It Matters: The Arkansas vote showed quite clearly that powerful and well-organized opposition can still influence voters significantly, even though the legalization of marijuana, on paper, is supported by a huge swath of the American population and generally crosses over demographics and political party affiliations. Issue 4 had a who’s who of right-wing Arkansas politicos lining up with all sorts of reasons why residents should oppose the measure. Pro golfer John Daly, who spoke up in favor of the measure, apparently couldn’t swing enough support.
– The Business Angle: Potentially one point that cannabis activists and opponents alike could agree on was that Issue 4 might have given too much power to existing medical marijuana businesses in Arkansas and not provided enough opportunity to new entrants. The measure would have granted the owners of eight existing medical marijuana cultivation facilities a second license to grow adult-use cannabis, and would have required the state to issue an additional 12 adult-use cultivation licenses. The measure also would have automatically given the 40 existing dispensaries licenses to sell adult-use cannabis. State-licensed dispensaries generated about $500 million in revenue over the past two years.
– The Social Angle: After becoming the first state in the Deep South to have a comprehensive medical marijuana program, Arkansas missed an opportunity to take the next step as a leader among the South in terms of cannabis reform, so the vast majority of the state’s 3 million residents will continue to be potential targets for arrest, prosecution and discrimination for marijuana-related offenses.
– Quotable: “Arkansas failed at the first time it tried medical. It passed on the second. Now we’ve tried rec. It failed. It may be successful the next time,” Lance Huey, co-chair of Responsible Growth Arkansas, said in an interview with Local Memphis/WATN.
– The Result: For the second time in four years, North Dakota residents rejected a ballot measure to legalize recreational cannabis. The ballot initiative on the 2022 midterm election was Measure 2, which lost 54.9% to 45.1%. On the positive side, it was about 5 points closer to passing than its 2018 iteration, though voter turnout was substantially higher four years ago.
– Why It Matters: It doesn’t. In the grand scheme of things, it’s disappointing for North Dakota’s 775,000 residents and for the businesses that were looking forward to either expanding into adult-use cannabis or joining the legal cannabis industry from square one, but North Dakota’s rejection is not indicative of a greater trend or increasing difficulties in passing cannabis reform laws. Measure 2 faced an uphill battle in a midterm election, with low voter turnout, and opposition forces led by the North Dakota Medical Association, the North Dakota Police Chiefs Association and the North Dakota Sheriffs and Deputies Association, largely using Reefer Madness methods of fear and intimidation to scare off any on-the-fence voter. The measure failed, but it’s important that the issue is being put in front of voters and getting serious discussion and consideration.
– The Business Angle: In such a sparsely populated state — and one with traditionally conservative roots — it’s hard to imagine medical marijuana businesses thriving without the ability to expand their customer base to all interested adults. As of November, North Dakota had eight dispensaries open and almost 8,700 active patients.
– The Social Angle: Again, the disappointing aspect of Measure 2’s failure is the number of North Dakota residents who will continue to be potentially targeted by law enforcement for actions that are now legal in 21 other U.S. states.
– Quotable: “It’s unfortunate that North Dakotans will not have access to recreational cannabis for a little while longer. However, the success that New Approach North Dakota had in collecting signatures shows that there is significant support for recreational cannabis in the state. We look forward to a day when the shadow of the War on Drugs lifts over North Dakota,” Travis Copenhaver, a partner at law firm Vicente Sederberg, said in a press release.
– The Result: On the surface, South Dakota’s result is a bit of an enigma. Voters rejected Measure 27, which would have legalized adult-use cannabis, by a margin of 52.9% to 47.1% — somewhat surprising considering voters approved a legalization measure two years ago that was ultimately struck down by an overzealous state Supreme Court.
– Why It Matters: It’s another hard lesson learned for activists in South Dakota. After working so hard to get a bill passed in 2020, only to have the Supreme Court override the will of the people, changes were made in the language to avoid the high court’s ire. As Leafly editor Bruce Barcott explained in a post-election column, “Measure 27 would have legalized cannabis possession for adults, but contained no provisions for legal regulated sales.” So cannabis would be legal. But there would be no stores to sell it? Barcott imagines voters responding collectively with a four-letter expletive. The lesson in 2022 might be that people don’t just want legal weed … they also want a way to buy it … and that might require another fight with the Supreme Court.
– The Business Angle: Just like medical marijuana businesses in North Dakota, it’s going to be a tough couple years for South Dakota entrepreneurs to keep their operations running until an adult-use bill can be passed. That said, it just feels like South Dakota is not that far off.
– The Social Angle: Like North Dakota, South Dakota is relatively small in terms of population — about 900,000 people live there — but every year that goes by without an adult-use bill, more people are going to be arrested, charged and discriminated against in all manner of ways from housing to health care … and it’s time to stop the damage.
– Quotable: “I think there was a lot of other political things in the background that prevented this from passing. But the one positive thing I can say out of Measure 27 being done and over with is now for us as owner-operators, it gives us direction. We know what we need to do now to succeed. There’s no more waiting for recreational to be approved this year or even next,” said BJ Olson, co-owner of Unity Road in Hartford, South Dakota, in an interview with Marijuana Venture.