Marijuana expands into 3 more states, but nationwide legalization still unlikely

The midterm elections have further loosened marijuana restrictions in the United States. Voters in three of four states with ballot proposals on marijuana approved those initiatives.

In Utah and Missouri, voters on Tuesday decided that patients should have access to medical marijuana.

Michigan, which already had medical marijuana, became the first Midwestern state to fully legalize pot. It joins nine other U.S. states, Washington, D.C., Canada and Uruguay in launching a regulated recreational marijuana market.

North Dakotans decisively rejected a proposal to make marijuana legal for recreational purposes.

Before Tuesday’s vote, 22 American states had adopted comprehensive medical marijuana programs. California was the first, recognizing in 1996 the therapeutic uses of marijuana in easing the symptoms of serious illnesses like HIV, cancer, epilepsy, PTSD and glaucoma. Recently, marijuana’s potential value for treating chronic pain has garnered attention as an alternative to opioids.

No tipping point

Nationally, support for marijuana has never been stronger. Seventy-two percent of Democrats and a narrow majority of Republicans – 51 percent – support legalization, according to Gallup.

Strong public support and successive waves of state-level legalization in election years have led many policy analysts to argue that marijuana has reached a tipping point in the United States.

Two-thirds of all U.S. states have now legalized some kind of marijuana. After that, the argument goes, its nationwide expansion is inevitable.

As marijuana policy researchers, we question that narrative.

Our research indicates that medical marijuana progress may well stall after this latest round of successful ballot initiatives. Recreational marijuana may continue to expand into states with legal medical marijuana but will ultimately hit a wall, too.

Our caution has to do with the particular way marijuana legalization has occurred in the United States: at the ballot box.

Ballot initiatives have power

So far, all but one of the recreational marijuana laws passed has occurred via ballot initiative, not through the state legislative process. Seven of the first eight medical marijuana laws – those in California, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Maine and Nevada – were also adopted via ballot initiative.

Such direct initiatives – where citizens can put a policy on the ballot for approval – are a powerful, if nontraditional, form of policymaking in the United States.

Rather than relying on lawmakers to write and pass legislation on certain issues – often, controversial ones – ballot initiatives harness public opinion. They have been used to legalize or restrict same-sex marriage, place limitations on taxing and spending, raise the minimum wage and much more. Some are funded by wealthy individuals with specific business interests.

Utah residents before the midterms show support for a ballot initiative that would legalize medical marijuana in the state. AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
Even in states where ballot initiatives have little hope of passing, they can be an important force for policy change.

In Ohio, marijuana advocates in 2015 spent over US$20 million in an effort to legalize both medical and recreational marijuana in the same ballot initiative. Ohio voters overwhelmingly said no – but the campaign revealed broad support for a medical marijuana policy.