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Legalization wins in a landslide: A tipping point for cannabis nationwide?

Cannabis legalization won big at the ballot box with republican and democrat voters, demonstrating a significant political shift nationwide. What could this mean for states like New York who have seen setbacks and delays in legalizing for adult-use?

On election day, voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota headed to the polls not only for the hotly contested presidential election but also to vote on ballot referendums to legalize cannabis for adult-use. All four referendums passed. As the push towards legalization nationwide grows, these results alone are not particularly surprising. What is especially interesting, however, is what this means politically in these states and for legalization efforts across the country.


Arizona has historically voted Republican. Every election year since 1994, which itself was an anomaly in Arizona’s history, the state voted for the Republican candidate in the general election. This changed in 2020, as Joe Biden narrowly won the state’s electoral votes. Coinciding with this blue shift was the passage of Proposition 207, a marijuana legalization bill that legalized possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and which creates a regulatory system for its cultivation and sale.

The proposition passed with nearly 60% of the vote, with 1.6 million people voting “yes” compared to 1.1 million voting “no.” Although this success might be considered part of the democratic shift which chose to elect Biden in 2020, the support for prop 207 significantly outperformed Biden – as of November 6, Biden leads the state with a narrow 50.1% of the vote, compared to 48.5% for President Trump.

Like the other bills which passed this election day, Arizona’s support indicates growing popular support for marijuana legalization amongst a historically republican populace. Further, it is clear that legalization support grew independently from democratic support in general – in 2016, a similar proposition failed by less than 3 points, while the state elected Donald Trump. Coming off this momentum, popular support continued to grow, despite republican Governor Doug Ducey’s calls for the state to vote “no.”

Advocates credited the reformed ballot question for marijuana’s success this year. Compared to the last election, this proposition also included provisions that would allow for home grow and striking marijuana convictions from criminal records.


Like Arizona, Montana is a historically Republican state, having voted for the democratic candidate in the general election only once in the past fifty-five years (1992). This trend continued into 2020, as the state voted for Trump with nearly 57% of the vote, compared to Biden’s 40%. Nevertheless, the state successfully passed Initiative 190 on election day, legalizing marijuana, and preparing for retail sales to begin in 2022. The measure passed with a 57% yes vote.

According to previous polls, there was a stark partisan divide on the measure - 77% of Democrats said they were in favor compared to only 31% of republicans. 63% of independents also voiced their support.

One republican Montana lawmaker, Rep. Derek Skees, previously vowed to immediately put forth a bill reversing the initiative if it passed. However, citing higher support than expected, Skees decided to postpone this plan.

Other opposition also planned to squash the initiative with a lawsuit just before election day, but were turned down by the state Supreme Court.

According to the county result map, most of the counties in favor are located along the state’s interstate highways and near the state’s major cities – Missoula, Butte, Helena, and Billings, amongst others. A few counties on the Canadian order also voted yes, while most opposition counties are loosely located in the flat, agricultural, central and eastern parts of the state. This electoral map may provide some insight into the initiative’s success – counties with easier access to interstate roads and urban areas tended to vote more favorably than in the state’s more rural, agricultural regions. General younger populations combined with economic opportunities in these counties likely persuaded many voters. Further, located around Montana’s main tourist attractions and national parks, these counties likely saw economic opportunities from out-of-state travelers.

New Jersey

New Jersey passed its legalization referendum with nearly 2 million yes votes, nearly 67% of the total. Of the four states, New Jersey legalization is the least surprising, having historically been a majority democrat state – both Joe Biden and democratic senator Cory Booker received 60% of votes in the 2020 election. Previous polls have also continuously demonstrated statewide support for legalization, including majorities amongst democrats, independents, and republicans.

Legalization thus comes as no surprise from a majority democrat population. But these efforts were echoed by lawmakers themselves. State lawmakers such as Gov. Phil Murphy have been outspoken supporters of adult-use cannabis, largely citing promises of economic opportunities and social equity reform.

Governor Phil Murphy (D) tweets after the NJ marijuana referendum passes

The New Jersey ballot illustrates the discord between popular support and lawmaker’s abilities to push through legalization bills. Neighboring states such as Pennsylvania and New York, despite significant popular support, have thus far been unable to legalize marijuana, largely due to legislative breakdowns and partisan biases amongst lawmakers. On the other hand, New Jersey’s popular referendum demonstrates great voter support for marijuana reform, resulting in immediate and effective action. It will certainly put pressure on neighboring states to follow suit.

South Dakota

Of the four states, South Dakota is the most conservative. They haven’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since the 1964 election, and in 2020 the state overwhelming supported Trump with nearly 62% of the vote compared to Biden’s 36%.

More interestingly, South Dakota held completely prohibitionist policies towards cannabis prior to the referendum. In 2019, Gov. Kristi Noem went as far as to veto a hemp legalization bill last year, which she then reluctantly approved this past May. Beyond hemp, she has been an avid opponent of both medical and adult-use, infamously saying “I’ve never met someone who got smarter from smoking pot.”

Obviously, the state disagreed with Gov. Noem’s stance. 54% of voters approved Amendment A, which legalizes adult-use marijuana, while a whopping 70% of voters approved Measure 26, which established a medical marijuana program in the state. This makes South Dakota arguably the most conservative state in the country to legalize marijuana. It also makes South Dakota the first state to legalize medical-use and recreational marijuana on the same day.

According to polls taken before election day, younger voters constituted the bulk of the support, with 57% of the fifty and under population in favor of legalization. 73% of Democrats and 58% of Independents supported the bill, while only 34% of Republicans said they were in favor. Medical, on the other hand, enjoyed far greater support from both sides of the political spectrum. Nevertheless, Gov. Noem was quick to condemn the decision, saying South Dakota voters made “the wrong choice.”

The geographical county split was not uniform, but most of South Dakota’s cities – Aberdeen, Sioux Falls, and Watertown – voted in favor.

NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri spoke on the success, saying “these votes are a stunning rebuke to those elected officials that for decades have refused to move forward with substantive marijuana law reform legislation, and they are yet another indication of the near-universal popularity of these policy changes among voters in all regions of the United States.”

The success of these initiatives, especially in such a conservative state as South Dakota, indicates a general popular shift amongst both sides of the political spectrum towards marijuana reform.

What do these referendums mean for cannabis nationwide?

Ultimately, the success of these legalization referendums indicates that younger Republican voters are more likely to view marijuana positively, even in the notably conservative states. They also demonstrate that the general population can be more effective in pushing forward legalization than state lawmakers who are often occupied with legislative challenges. This shifting legalization landscape could foreshadow increasing bipartisan support for marijuana in the future.

Of course, legalization has immediate practical benefits in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic – many states and voters foresee great economic opportunities from legal markets and tax revenues which could contribute to budget deficits. Further, legalization promises social equity, as many voters feel that people should not be criminalized or arrested for marijuana possession.

Beyond these well-known explanations, however, lay a fundamental shift in the popular perception of marijuana, which could have a drastic influence on the industry moving forward.

Polls indicate that younger generations are much more likely to hold a favorable view towards marijuana than their elders. A 2019 Pew Research Center study shows that while only 35% of the Silent Generation and 63% of Boomers support legalization, over 75% of millennials were in favor. Amongst millennials, 78% of Democrats as well as 71% of Republicans support legalization. These studies indicate a generational shift towards marijuana – as younger generations continue to strengthen their foothold in politics, marijuana legalization becomes less of a partisan issue.

This bipartisan support for legalization undoubtedly helped contribute to marijuana’s success in historically conservative states such as Montana and South Dakota. This also might indicate that younger voters are less likely to vote exclusively according to party lines - young Trump supporters, for instance, undoubtedly played a large role in conservative states which legalized marijuana.

Beyond generational and partisan lines, the nature of legalization in these four states might reveal another fundamental shift in legalization politics. All four of these states legalized adult-use cannabis through ballot referendum, often against the wishes of state lawmakers. This reveals a significant divide between lawmakers and the general populace.

For instance, polls show that 61% of New Yorkers support legalization, while only 30% oppose. New York lawmakers have also introduced legalization bills every year since 2015. Yet, every year these efforts have failed. These failures were not the result of public opposition, but bureaucratic breakdowns, legislative biases, and the inability of lawmakers to pass a bill representing the wishes of New Yorkers.

Meanwhile, polls in states such as South Dakota demonstrated less popular support than New York, at 57%, in a state without a history of marijuana legislation. Nevertheless, legalization was able to pass on account of popular referendums. Whereas Republican lawmakers are often unwilling to support marijuana reform, Republican voters are less likely to blindly abide by their party’s stance. This boost in popular bipartisan support was a key factor in passing legalization efforts during this election cycle.

Overall, the success of marijuana in Arizona, Montana, South Dakota, and New Jersey marks a watershed moment for marijuana reform nationwide. It also indicates shifting perspectives amongst the Republican party, which has been generally opposed to legalization in the past. As conservative states successfully push through adult-use legislation, they will likely put pressure on their neighbors to follow suit. Lawmakers in states like New York will undoubtedly see legalization as a necessary step in upcoming legislative sessions. More broadly, however, these referendums demonstrate that younger voters on all sides of the political spectrum view marijuana much more favorably than their predecessors. As popular referendums better represent their political beliefs than lawmakers, it is possible that future states will push marijuana legalization through ballot initiatives, leaving regulations to be established afterward.


Castetter Cannabis Group is hosting the next installment of its webinar series on November 19, 2020. This webinar will address the newly-released New York State hemp extract regulations, providing a complete breakdown of its provisions, and answering attendee questions. For more information, click here to register.

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