Cannabis 101Politics

How to Change a State Cannabis Law

Published on April 7, 2017 · Last updated July 28, 2020

Are you passionate about changing your state cannabis laws (or introducing them, for that matter)?

Once you’ve found an issue that you strongly care about, such as cannabis legalization, it can be infuriating to watch your legislators discuss and reject the issue over and over again. However, enacting change at a state level as a citizen is not as daunting a task as it may seem.

If you’re not a born leader, it can be hard to step up to the plate and take the reins, but if you’re willing to put in the time, effort, and determination, you can enact positive policy change at a level you will directly benefit from.

Follow these steps to make change happen:

1. Determine whether your state allows voter initiatives or referenda.

The simplest and most effective way to propose major changes to state law is to write a voter initiative. This will involve a bit of research on your part to determine whether your state allows voters to propose initiatives, state statutes, constitutional amendments, or referenda to alter current state law.

2. My state doesn’t allow voter initiatives. What now?

Some states do not allow voter-proposed initiatives or referenda, but you can still get involved! Go to your local government public hearings. When there are opportunities for public comment, speak up. You will have limited time, so come prepared with comments on why this issue is important and why your city council or representative should support the issue when it comes to a vote.

3. My state allows voter initiatives and referenda. What now?

First, you’ll have to draft the initiative. Now is the time to do your homework! We recommend reading similarly written state statutes on similar topics to see what will be essential in drafting your initiative. What sort of definitions are needed? Does it require ballot title approval?

For this step, joining forces with a local advocacy group or politician can make a world of difference. Chances are a larger advocacy group has experience drafting legislation, and with the support of a state politician, you’ll gain an ally who can fight for your cause politically.

4. I have drafted a voter initiative that I want my state government to consider.

To move forward with a drafted proposal to change state law, you’ll need to gather signatures. This is where your leadership and organizational skills will be put to the test. The number of signatures required to make it onto the ballot vary from state to state, so check your state’s requirements. Generally, the number of required signatures is based on the total number of registered voters in the state, and usually lies somewhere between 3 and 10 percent of the number of votes cast for the governor in the previous election.

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5. I have gathered the required number of signatures for my initiative.

This step is one of the most crucial to ensure that your initiative has a fighting chance. Most groups who collect signatures try to gather significantly more than the required number. Once you’ve submitted your petition and signatures for review, the Secretary of State will need to validate the signatures. Some signatures may be deemed invalid for various reasons–if a voter changed addresses or registered twice, for example, their signature may no longer be valid. Submit your petition to your state election officials and proceed to play the waiting game.

6. My initiative was not approved. What now?

Often, initiatives may need to be revised before being approved for the ballot. A ballot title or description may be rejected for lacking a thorough description of the measure, and officials may ask for certain areas of the measure to be addressed. Don’t be discouraged if your petition doesn’t make it through the first time! Some measures may take countless revisions and a whole lot of support before being placed on a ballot for voters to decide on.

For example, the Arkansas Secretary of State rejected seven separate petitions for medical cannabis since taking office in 2014 due to slight discrepancies on the ballot title and description before finally approving a measure to be on the ballot in 2016.

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7. My ballot title was approved–huzzah!

Now things are heating up. You’ll need to team up with local advocacy groups and legislators to gain support. If you have a well-funded campaign, airing commercials in support of the issue on local channels will help raise awareness. Circulating signs and flyers and spreading the word through a grassroots campaign will give your ballot a boost.

One of the most important steps is to gain government allies. This can be your state representative or senator, governor or mayor, or city council member. These allies will represent you in Congress and their support will give your initiative a powerful boost stronger than a grassroots movement alone.

Making a lasting change to a state law takes months, and often even years. It may seem fruitless to try, but it truly is the best way to learn how your state government works. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day! The very first time cannabis legalization was proposed was in California in 1972. It took more than 40 years of hard work, persistence, and dogged determination on a national scale before legalization was finally approved in Colorado in 2012. Keep these efforts in mind as you take the necessary steps to effect change–your strength, patience, and persistence will pay off in the long run.

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Lisa Rough
Lisa Rough
Lisa is a former associate editor at Leafly, where she specialized in legislative cannabis policy and industry topics.
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