Red States Are Embracing Cannabis Legalization, Expanding Access

Published on July 10, 2018 · Last updated July 28, 2020

Last month’s vote in Oklahoma to legalize medical marijuana caught a lot of people by surprise. Who knew such a deeply red state would embrace cannabis in a 57% landslide?

Legalization has passed an ideological tipping point in law-and-order states.

But it was no fluke. Yesterday we got two more indications that legalization has passed some sort of ideological tipping point in historically law-and-order states.

In North Dakota, leaders of the North Dakota Marijuana Legalization Initiative delivered more than 18,000 signatures to the secretary of state’s office in Bismarck. If state officials verify at least 13,482 of those autographs (and barring a legal challenge), voters will decide in November whether to legalize cannabis for adults 21 and older.

Surprised? Don’t be. Less than two years ago, North Dakota voters caught national legalization advocates off-guard when they passed a medical legalization measure.

An even bigger win came last night in Maine, where state legislators vigorously overrode Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a medical marijuana bill. With a nearly unanimous vote, the Maine Legislature eliminated qualifying conditions altogether (leaving it entirely up to the physician’s discretion), allowed dispensaries to operate as for-profit enterprises (like drug stores and pharmacies), and increased the allowed possession limit for patients from 2.5 ounces of cannabis to 8 pounds.

With a nod to local control, the new law allows new medical cannabis dispensaries only in municipalities that vote to allow such stores. The law will become effective 90 days after the legislature’s current special session ends.

Maine has voted Democratic in presidential elections since the 1990s, but the state’s famously independent-minded residents installed LePage, an erratic Tea Party Republican, in the governor’s mansion in 2010—and re-elected him in 2014. LePage is a die-hard cannabis prohibitionist, but the same voters who put him in office just keep on legalizing despite the governor’s best efforts to hold back the tide of change.Looking for Medical Marijuana?

Utah, Missouri Are on the Way

Meanwhile, Utah’s campaign to legalize medical marijuana hums quietly along, surviving every legal challenge the state’s prohibitionists lob at it. Barring anything unexpected, voters will have their say come November. And in Missouri, there are at least three (and maybe four) active medical marijuana initiatives aiming to make November’s ballot.

Those fighting the losing battle are increasingly tossing up Hail Mary attempts to discredit the growing evidence on medical cannabis. “Medical marijuana activists, just drop the charade of pretending there is a shred of science backing this medicine-via-pot-shops model,” Maine prohibitionist Scott Gagnon recently tweeted.

The science backing the cannabis-as-medicine model, in fact, can be found in a number of reputable journals. They include The New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, reports by the World Health Organization, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and papers published by the London School of Economics.

The steady march toward legalization by red states—and in particular, by citizen voters—is yet another sign that the partisan divide on cannabis is disappearing. While Republican voters might side with legalization for slightly different reasons than their Democratic neighbors, the gap between them is closing. Rather than cling to Drug War era propaganda, elected officials would do well to respond to their constituents’ evolving views.Curious About Cannabis?

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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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