US Politics – OxPol
2020 election day was another big moment for drug policy reform in the US, as voters in various states opposed the status quo and advocated liberalization of drug laws. Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota legalized recreational marijuana as the news announced that voters had “just said no to America’s war on drugs” and called it “a banner year for drug decriminalization.”
This election day was not new in terms of drug policy reform. Starting with the state of Colorado and Washington state in 2012, 13 of the 15 states that have legalized recreational cannabis to date have done so through electoral action. Alaska and Oregon followed in 2014, along with Nevada, Massachusetts, Maine and California in 2016 and Michigan in 2018.
With elected politicians still reluctant to address an issue that has long been considered politically toxic, electoral initiatives have been the predominant vehicle for cannabis reforms at the state level. Legalizing marijuana among voters has translated strong public support into policy outcomes.
However, these election initiatives may not be the be-all and end-all, as not all states allow such initiative processes and not all recreational election initiatives have been successful in the past decade: Voters in California (2010), Oregon (2012), Ohio (2015), Arizona (2016) and North Dakota (2018) rejected the legalization of marijuana.
Change in 2020
What was new about drug policy reform in 2020 was that voters in conservative states also endorsed recreational cannabis, whose support was previously limited to medical marijuana. Prior to 2020, marijuana legalization traditionally won in “blue” states led by Democratic candidates for presidential and senate races. Only the “red” state of Alaska voted for recreational cannabis. That voters in both South Dakota and Montana approved of legalizing marijuana is both surprising and significant. North Dakota voters overwhelmingly opposed regulation of recreational cannabis in a 2018 mid-term election. Since the Dakotas have many socio-economic, demographic and ideological characteristics, the voting in this round in South Dakota is particularly noteworthy.
In fact, legal marijuana outperformed the victorious presidential candidate in three out of four states that voted it in 2020. In New Jersey, the legal pot was approved with 66.9% of Biden’s 57.3% vote. In Montana, Trump’s 56.7% of the vote was just below the 56.9% for legalization, and in Arizona, both Trump and Biden have cannabis approval up 10%. Only in South Dakota did Donald Trump get 61.8% to 54.8% more votes than legal cannabis.
Note: Information from Ballotpedia, not all 2020 results are final
The table above shows each case where recreational marijuana legalization was on a state ballot for the past decade, usually at the same time as presidential or mid-term elections. Given the significant differences in the way such electoral initiatives are designed and funded, and the composition of voters in mid-term and presidential elections, it is difficult to draw any conclusions about the average differences or changes in votes between states from the table above .
However, changes over time in the same state are noteworthy. Voters in Arizona rejected an election initiative to legalize marijuana by 2.64% in 2016 and voted for one in 2020 with a margin of 19.92%. In California, Proposition 19 lost 7% in 2010, and Proposition 64 gained 14.26% in 2016. In Oregon, the number of votes fluctuated 19.06% between 2012 and 2014.
The 2020 elections reinforced several pre-existing trends in marijuana legalization and opened up new avenues for the ongoing call for drug policy reform.
First, marijuana legalization is remarkably popular in the US: it has become a successful issue even in “red” states, beating the Democratic candidate 10 out of 13 times when a successful cannabis initiative was on the ballot. and has grown in popularity significantly within the same state, wherever it has been voted twice in the past decade. The increasing and increasingly bipartisan support for cannabis reform at the state level could be a signal to policymakers to end the ban on cannabis from smoke from seeds at the federal level.
Second, recreational cannabis reform is uniquely popular in the US when compared to other countries. Legal marijuana succeeded in socially conservative Montana and South Dakota, while a referendum in progressive New Zealand narrowly failed just two and a half weeks earlier. It is well known that public support for recreational marijuana legalization has grown steadily over the past decade, but how much stronger public support for legal access is in the US than almost anywhere else is underestimated.
Last but not least, voter-led drug policy reform in the US is no longer limited to medical marijuana or recreational marijuana. On election day 2020, voters supported the liberalization of drugs beyond cannabis. Oregon voters have decriminalized all drugs, meaning that possession of small amounts of drugs for personal consumption no longer incurs criminal penalties. They also legalized the use of psylocibin, the psychoactive substance in so-called “magic mushrooms” for psychological treatment. Given one of the pioneering states of cannabis legalization as drug laws are being liberalized with respect to other substances, marijuana legalization could prove to be a “gateway” to drug policy reform (if not to actual drug use).
Overall, voters in the US have acted where politicians would not and used the initiative process to reform drug policy. For the past decade, Americans have voted to legalize recreational marijuana at the state level and in 2020 to legalize and decriminalize other substances. Given the public support for recreational cannabis reform in “red” states as well, it may be high time for the future Biden government to address increasingly unpopular and anachronistic federal drug bans.
 Except for Washington DC, which also passed an initiative in 2014.
 Alaska is atypical when it comes to cannabis, as home growing and non-commercial exchanges have been legal since an Alaska Supreme Court ruling in 1975.
 The results of the presidential election come from the New York Times. At the time of writing, some of these results are preliminary and the counts have not yet been completed.
 The outlier was Ohio in 2015, which was an exception as there was a particularly poorly worded initiative that was rejected even by reform-promoting actors.
 Recreational cannabis election initiatives garnered more votes than Democratic presidential or senatorial candidates in Colorado (2012), Oregon (2014), Alaska (2014), Maine (2016), Nevada (2016), Michigan (2018), and South Dakota (2020) )), Arizona (2020), Montana (2020) and New Jersey (2020).