Final Election Predictions: Which States Will Legalize Cannabis Today?

Published on November 1, 2016 · Last updated July 28, 2020
A voter is reflected in the glass frame of a poster while casting a ballot during early voting ahead of next week's general election in Atlanta, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016. Early voting, via mail or in-person, is underway in 37 states. In all, more than 46 million people, or as much as 40 percent of the electorate, are expected to vote before Election Day, Nov. 8. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Note: This story was updated on Monday, November 7. 

One day before election day, cannabis legalization races are tightening in all nine states with the topic on the ballot. In California and Florida, early exuberance has given way to strong, steady leads, while campaigns in Arizona and Massachusetts could win or lose by the slightest margins.

One week is an eternity in politics—this week especially. There are millions of dollars in television ads still yet to run. And remember: Undecided voters on initiatives that call for change, like legalization, tend ultimately to go against change. They see it as the safer vote. To account for this, backers of legalization initiatives like to go into election day with at least a solid, 55 percent poll number. Few measures at the moment have such a comfortable lead.

In 2016, the fate of legalization rests on whether younger voters show up. Survey after survey has documented the massive generational split on legalization. The more voters under 65 turn out, the greater the likelihood of passage. That’s the whole ballgame. The generation gap is so great, it will make the difference between winning and losing in most states.

Wagering on political elections is illegal in the United States. (Why? See this explainer at Bloomberg View.) So we’ll present our odds in the form of a “chance of passage,” which, ahem, in no way resembles the data-wonk calculations made by Nate Silver and the crew over at FiveThirtyEight. Our calculations come from a close reading of each race; it’s just to let you know which way we think the wind is blowing.

Our best, very conservative, predictions:

These adult use states will pass: California, Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada

These adult use states will not: Arizona

This medical state will pass: Florida

These medical states will not: Arkansas, Montana, North Dakota

Arizona: Adult Use. Chance of passage: 49%

What a weird, wild race. You never disappoint, dear Arizona, you Florida-of-the-West. The contest over adult legalization has featured large anti-legalization donations from the Discount Tire Store empire, fentanyl manufacturer Insys Therapeutics, a wine-wholesalers association, and U-Haul. (Why U-Haul? Your guess is as good as ours.) That money has purchased airtime for ads so misleading that Colorado legislators recently demanded that Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy pull the commercials and stop slandering Colorado with falsehoods and lies.

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Meanwhile, legalization advocates have called up a deep bench of celebrities to support their cause. Susan Sarandon, former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, US Rep. Raul Grijalva, and others have come out for Prop. 205. And they’ve hit back with ads exposing the falsehoods of their opponents’ campaign, like this one:

Result? Three polls taken during the past three weeks have come up with very different results. An Arizona Republic/Morrison/Cronkite News poll—probably the most reliable—has 50.4 percent of voters approving Prop. 205, with 41.6 percent opposing, and 8 percent undecided. HighGround Public Affairs found 50 percent supporting, 45 percent opposing, 5 percent undecided. Data Orbital found 44 percent in favor, 45 percent opposed, 9 percent undecided. At this point it’s nearly a toss-up, but we’re a bit pessimistic based on the bare-knuckle tactics of the opposition and the state’s historically deep conservative bent.

Arkansas: Medical Marijuana. Chance of passage: 45%

Arkansas has been a struggle from the start. The state’s medical cannabis legalization advocates couldn’t come together to support a single initiative, so they put two very, very similar measures on the November ballot, Issue 6 and Issue 7. Then the Arkansas Supreme Court declared Issue 7 null and void two weeks prior to the election. So citizens are still casting votes for and against both measures (the ballots had already been printed), with October polls finding little favor for either. Support for both measures in October topped out in the low to mid-40s, with opposition running a strong 50 to 53 percent against both issues. Five to 7 percent of voters were undecided.

Update Nov. 7: A new poll has moved our estimate. The University of Arkansas’ annual Arkansas Poll, traditionally one of the state’s most comprehensive and well-grounded surveys, released numbers on Nov. 3 that indicate a late surge for Issue 6, the MMJ amendment. Among most likely voters, Issue 6 saw favor with 49 percent of those surveyed, with 47 percent opposed and 4 percent undecided.

So we’re saying Issue 6 has a chance.

California: Adult Use. Chance of passage: 94%

California’s Proposition 64 started strong and has remained steady most of the  year, with a bit of an expected dip in support as the election nears. “The numbers have been favorable, consistent, and exactly where we expected and wanted to be at this point,” Prop. 64 spokesman Jason Kinney told the Los Angeles Timeslast week. Months ago, polls showed upward of 70 percent support for the idea of legalization. As voters learned more about the actual language of the proposition, those numbers dipped. Some turned against the measure as they considered the issue more seriously, while a few cannabis supporters soured on the fine details of Prop 64.

For such an important race, California has been relatively quiet. Prop. 64 advocates have far outstripped their opponents when it comes to fundraising, and there’s no charismatic leader standing up against the measure, aside from the ever-reliable Kevin Sabet and a law enforcement lobbyist in Sacramento.

The latest Public Policy Institute of California poll showed Prop. 64 still going strong with likely voters: 55 percent support, 38 percent opposition, and 6 percent undecided. If you add every last one of the undecideds to the opposition, you still only get 44 percent. Something major would have to happen between now and Nov. 8 to undermine legalization in California.

Update Nov. 7: Since late October, when this article was originally published, we’ve increased our confidence in the passage of Prop. 64. If it goes down to defeat, the polling industry should scrape its current methods and start over.

Florida: Medical Marijuana. Chance of passage: 87%

All hail Florida, land where titans clash. In this rematch of 2014’s medical marijuana campaign (in which legalization advocates netted 57 percent of the vote but still lost, because constitutional amendments in Florida require 60.1 percent approval), Florida attorney John Morgan has once again pitted his millions against the combined financial muscle of Sheldon Adelson, Mel Sembler, and Publix heiress Carol Jenkins Barnett.

This year, it looks like Morgan and his allies will take the prize. Recent polls have put support for Amendment 2 at 69 percent, 71 percent, 73 percent, and 77 percent—well above the 60 percent threshold, regardless of the pollster.

The only thing that could get in the way of medical marijuana’s approval is a massive dip in voter turnout among people under 65. Here, as in other states, the generation gap is enormous. The more young people who vote, the greater the chances are of Amendment 2 sailing to victory.

Maine: Adult Use. Chance of passage: 65%

Maine’s adult-use legalization measure, Question 1, enjoyed a 15-point advantage in September polling. That lead has shrunk to 9 points (50 percent favoring, 41 percent opposing), with 9 percent of voters still undecided.

As Leafly’s chief Maine correspondent Crash Barry has noted, the strongest support is coming from southern and coastal residents, and from younger voters under 50. In more rural, conservative districts, Question 1 pulls only a 46 percent approval rating. As in other states, the age gap is enormous. Nearly 70 percent of the 18-to-34 age group favors legalization, while only 35 percent of those 65 and older plan on voting yes.

Maine and California are separated by a wide swath of continent, but they both contain a small, committed core of cannabis supporters vehemently opposing their state’s legalization measure. In Maine, that opposition has coalesced around the idea of outside “big marijuana” forces driving out local growers, and around the fear that Question 1 could interfere with current patient access to medical cannabis. (Crash explored both issues in his most recent piece for Leafly.)

Which way will Mainers go? They’re an ornery, independent bunch. But I’m betting they’ll tilt in favor of legalization. Any measure that allows Mainers a greater measure of personal freedom—and tells the federal government to go shag a duck—stands a good chance of gaining their vote.

Massachusetts: Adult Use. Chance of passage: 53%

Voters in Massachusetts abruptly flipped a couple months ago. Early summer polling had that state’s adult-use measure, Question 4, trailing badly. By October, those numbers turned and ran in the other direction, with 55 percent of voters approving and 40 percent against. The most recent survey, conducted last week, showed Question 4 with a slimmer lead, 49 percent to 42 percent. Those two polls were taken by separate organizations, so there’s a bit of an apples-to-oranges issue. But still, a 15 percent lead shrinking to 7 within a week is pretty dramatic.

Now, in the home stretch, Question 4’s opponents are benefitting from an influx of money from big donors. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson gave $1 million to the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts; a few days later the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston followed up with an $850,000 donation.

That money will buy a lot of ad time for prohibitionist ads like this one, which is running around the state.

Money matters in all campaigns, of course. But it’s especially important in Massachusetts.

The archdiocese money brought to mind something a Yes on 4 campaign official told me back in May. “Almost all ballot questions in Massachusetts are won by the side with the most money,” he said. And church money can be especially powerful. In 2012, a death-with-dignity issue that was neck-and-neck went down after the Catholic church helped raise millions of dollars to defeat it. “That was a game-changing amount of money,” he said.

Will the one-two punch of the Adelson-Archdiocese money prove to be a game-changing amount? Possibly. But this time the pro-legalization forces have their own war chest built up. As of Oct. 20, the Yes on 4 campaign had raised $6.3 million, to the $2.8 million banked by opponents. And the surprising endorsement of the staid Boston Globe, which backed Question 4 last week, could prove to be a game-changer of its own.

Update Nov. 7: A recent WNEU Polling Institute statewide survey (Oct. 23 – Nov. 2) finds Question 4 trending up among likely voters. 61 percent of likely voters surveyed support Question 4, with 34 percent opposing and 5 percent undecided. That’s a major shift from one month earlier, when the same survey found 52 percent support and 42 percent opposition among likely voters. As late as last Friday were holding to our prediction that Question 4 would not pass. Now, on Monday afternoon, we’re going against Gandalf on Question 4 and saying THIS SHALL PASS. Why? The closer we draw to election day, the smaller looms the late-money contributions of Sheldon Adelson ($1 million) and the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston ($850,000). That cash can only buy more airtime for television ads that are not working. Do you hear us, Kevin’s MomIt’s not working. 

Check out these incredibly telling numbers. The WNEU Polling Institute survey drilled down into their data and found that 60 percent of voters who do not have children under the age of 18 support legalization. And they found that 63 percent of parents with children under the age of 18 support legalization. In other words: Parents with kids under 18 actually show stronger support for legalization than voters without young kids. That is a powerful piece of data. And that’s what ultimately moved our prediction from “reject” to “approve.”

Montana: Medical Marijuana. Chance of passage: 30%.

What a difference 12 years makes. More than 60 percent of Montanans legalized medical cannabis back in 2004. But in 2011, when the number of medical cardholders skyrocketed and dispensaries proliferated, many residents questioned the legitimacy of the system. “I think that a real initiative on medical marijuana would have a chance in Montana,” political scientist Craig Wilson told the Missoulian. “But this one is tainted by the past and also the extent to which Steve Zabawa”—founder of the anti-drug group Safe Montana—“and his folks have weighed in against it.”

If Initiative 182 fails, Montana will still retain an extremely minimal and strict medical cannabis system, one that bans storefront dispensaries and limits caregivers to serving three patients apiece. Read Leafly correspondent Lynsey G’s firsthand report on the effects of that on Montana patients, here.

The latest October polls have 51 percent of Montana voters opposing the initiative, with only 44 percent favoring, and 5 percent undecided. That Lee Newspapers poll was strongly sourced, polling more than 1,000 registered voters in a sparsely populated state. A slight majority of Democrats favor the initiative, but an overwhelming 72 percent of Republicans oppose it. And in Montana, Republicans run the show.

Nevada: Adult Use. Chance of passage: 70%

Here’s the thing about Nevada. Nobody can really come up with a good reason why cannabis should not be legalized and regulated here. Even the opposition has a hard time coming up with a decent argument. The home page for Nevadans for Responsible Drug Policy, the group fighting Question 2, posits “a loss of Nevada jobs” with legalization. Which is a curious claim, given that every adult-legal state has added thousands of documented jobs. The group quotes Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper calling legalization a “bad idea,” but that was four years ago. Hickenlooper more recently has admitted that when it comes to legalization, “it’s beginning to look like it might work.” A few days ago on 60 Minutes, the worst he could say about it was to offer this advice: “I urge caution.”

Nevadans seem to realize that they can regulate cannabis just as well as they’ve regulated other pieces of polarizing adult commerce. Marijuana is just another part of the portfolio. In early autumn, one poll here had legalization passing by a whopping 57 percent to 33 percent. A more conservative survey, taken by KTNV News/Rasmussen Reports, recorded a 50–41 split in July, and used similar questions to find that approved had moved to 53 percent in favor, 39 percent opposed in mid-September.

Where do things sit now? Hard to say. Nobody’s got reliable polling data from late October, when local casino owner Sheldon Adelson kicked $2 million into the coffers of the anti-legalization campaign. Adelson, who made his fortune peddling alcohol and dice in the gaming halls of Las Vegas, has made it his personal mission to defeat cannabis legalization—and he’s doubled down on his home state, contributing twice as much in Nevada as he’s given to prohibitionists in Massachusetts. As of Nov. 1, though, FCC records show no television commercial bookings by any of the known groups opposing Question 2.

North Dakota: Medical Marijuana. Chance of passage: 50%

Nobody knows. Seriously. Nobody has a clue about what the voters of North Dakota think about Measure 5, the medical marijuana initiative on the November ballot. The last poll taken in this state found that North Dakotans favored the idea of medical marijuana, 47 percent to 41 percent. But that was two years ago.

Why not turn to the local press for coverage? We tried that. We turned up this piece from the Bismarck Tribune. The headline says it all: “Voters to determine right to use medical marijuana.” Yep. They sure will.

Voters, decide. Prognosticators, flip a coin.

Lead Image: David Goldman/AP

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Bruce Barcott
Bruce Barcott
Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott oversees news, investigations, and feature projects. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.
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