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Will the 2020 elections produce a Green Wave or small wake? Nobody knows for sure. Elections are all about who shows up to vote. In the past, state and local cannabis initiatives were often the most buzzworthy issue on the ballot, energizing voters and benefiting Democratic candidates in particular.
But even Republican leader President Trump informally acknowledged cannabis’s impact on the vote at an August 2020 rally, suggesting his party should try to keep cannabis legalization off the ballot if they want to win. His statement may prove prescient, given that Arizona and Montana are among six states voting on adult-use cannabis legalization as well as on Senate races that have the potential to help flip U.S. Senate control to Democrats.
Across both political parties, there’s a sense that the stakes have never been higher for the future of our country, with control of the Senate, a stalled second coronavirus relief package, and Supreme Court vacancy in play. Racial justice and social equity are also at the forefront of many peoples’ minds. How these concerns drive voter turnout and impact this fall’s cannabis initiatives remains to be seen. Here’s what we do know.
1. Six states will be voting on cannabis in 2020There are six states with cannabis initiatives on the ballot in November. Recent opinion polls on cannabis initiatives are promising, but the 2016 presidential election showed the risk of being overconfident in early numbers.
In the Deep South, Mississippi voters decide between two separate medical initiatives—the citizen-driven Initiative 65 or a more restrictive version developed by the state legislature, Alternative Measure 65. Recent polling shows strong public support for Initiative 65, which would designate 22 qualifying medical marijuana conditions and create an unlimited number of licenses for medical marijuana businesses.
Elsewhere, South Dakota votes on both Amendment A (adult-use) and Initiated Measure 26 (medical) cannabis, making it the first state to put both issues on the same ballot. According to local polling, public support is strong for both medical and adult-use legalization, though opponents suggest that voters may be confusing the two ballot items.
New Jersey, Montana, and Arizona all look to expand legalization to adult-use cannabis after previously approving medical cannabis. In particular, Arizona will be the state to watch since an adult-use initiative was narrowly defeated there in 2016, yet recent polls show substantial support this go-around. Passage of adult-use cannabis in Arizona would also pressure nearby states, including Texas, to start making changes. Once Texas passes something, it’s game over. There’s no way the federal government could avoid the question of federal legalization at that point.
2. Support for cannabis is higher than its ever been. Young people are more likely to hit the streets demanding change, but older voters more reliably show up when it comes to the ballot box. In the 2016 presidential election, more than half the votes were cast by people over the age of 50, according to Pew Research data.
Previously, an older demographic may have signaled trouble for cannabis legalization. Still, Gallup and Pew Research surveys show overwhelming support across both major political parties and nearly all age groups, including Baby Boomers.
But the 2020 election is anything but ordinary. A sharply divided electorate is focused on the federal government’s handling of the economy during the pandemic, as well as issues around police brutality, racial justice, and the future of the Supreme Court following Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing.
3. The Supreme Court may affect the vote. There’s a chance that Ginsburg’s vacancy may impact the election in unexpected ways, energizing a subset of voters who sense an opportunity to lock down a conservative court majority by giving Trump another term. Many of these voters likely identify as evangelical, a group that’s more evenly divided on cannabis when compared to most Americans’ significant support for legalization.
Will this group of voters turn out in large enough numbers to influence other ballot issues, including legalization in six states? Or will their impact be blunted by turnout from moderate and progressive voters who are fired up by the political maneuvering around the court vacancy? The battle over the Supreme Court is just beginning, and no one can claim to know how it will play out leading up to Election Day.
4. States need revenue and cannabis can help. The ongoing pandemic also weighs heavily on everyone’s minds as the U.S. approaches 200,000 COVID-19 deaths. Mask mandates and social distancing restrictions have divided voters, closed many businesses, and moved schools and churches to Zoom earlier this year. But voters mostly agree on the need for a second stimulus, based on a recent Gallup poll.
Despite widespread public support, it’s increasingly unlikely we’ll see a second stimulus released before November 3 due to partisan gridlock that even the aptly-named bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus has been unable to break through. This lack of federal action could bolster support for state cannabis legalization to provide a much-needed revenue boost at the local level.
5. The Senate may flip.It’s easy to get fixated on where the Presidential candidates stand on cannabis. However, President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden aren’t the full story regarding potential federal legalization in 2021.
Republicans hold a slim 53-47 majority in the Senate, giving Majority Leader Mitch McConnell control of the agenda. He’s used that power to block the SAFE Banking Act from being included in COVID-19 relief and indicated he would oppose the MORE Act. The MORE Act would decriminalize and remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act as well as eliminate conflicts between federal and state laws.
McConnell is favored to win re-election this fall, polling comfortably ahead of his Democratic challenger. However, with six other Republican seats considered ‘toss-ups’ in the November election, including in Arizona and Montana, odds are looking good for the Senate to flip, handing Democrats control.
6. Federal legalization is coming, regardless of election outcomesIf the Senate flips, then both the SAFE Banking Act and MORE Act will likely move forward in 2021, providing a significant victory for states whose legal markets have been constrained by federal prohibition. This legislation would also create an irresistible incentive for Texas and other holdouts to jump into the game.
Even if the Senate doesn’t flip, pressure is building on other fronts. In addition to the six states voting to enact or expand legalization this fall, seven other states are planning initiatives in 2021 or 2022. At some point, the federal government will be forced to take up the issue of legalization, regardless of who is in control, with both parties eager to protect and expand tax revenues from an industry that’s anticipated to grow to over $130 billion by 2024, according to Marijuana Business Daily.
While the future looks bright for the industry, many challenges lie ahead. The 2020 election may offer some insight into how quickly we’ll see federal legalization, but it’s only one data point during a year that continues to deliver surprises.
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