Big wins at the ballot box for marijuana legalization


This is huge.

Initiatives to legalize recreational marijuana were on the ballots of five states Tuesday, and medical marijuana initiatives were on the ballots of four more. As of 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, three states had legalized recreational pot and it was leading in one more. All four states that voted on medical marijuana passed their initiatives.

Recreational marijuana initiatives passed decisively in California, Massachusetts, and Nevada, and a fourth was narrowly ahead in Maine. The fifth recreational initiative, in Arizona, was losing by a 48-to-52 percent margin with 91 percent of the precincts reporting.

In California, Proposition 64 was winning decisively. With 73 percent of the state’s precincts reporting, it was ahead by a 56-to-44 percent margin. The vote was Yes: 3,960,111, No: 3,142,803.

By way of comparison, Colorado’s similarly named legalization initiative, Amendment 64, passed with 55 percent of the vote.

Twelve percent of the U.S. population lives in California.

In Massachusetts, recreational marijuana was approved 54-to-46 percent (The vote was Yes: 1,672,320, No: 1,450,177 with 97 percent of the precincts reporting).

The vote made Massachusetts the first state east of the Mississippi River (and the Hudson River come to think of it) to legalize marijuana.

The Massachusetts win was particularly significant in that the initiative encountered early and organized opposition led by Governor Charlie Baker and the Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, and by a number of police and business groups. Toward the end of the campaign, the Archdiocese of Boston entered the fray and donated more than $800,000 to the No campaign.

Recreational pot also won in Nevada. With 97 percent of the precincts reporting the vote was Yes: 602,137 to No: 503.373 — a 54.5-to-45.5 margin.

The Nevada initiative encountered opposition from the gambling industry and particularly from casino magnate and anti-marijuana crusader Sheldon Adelson. Adelson bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal a few months before the election and flipped its editorial stance on legalization from pro to anti.

In Maine, with 88 percent of the precincts reporting a recreational marijuana legalization initiative was ahead, but with only a 5,000 vote lead. The vote was Yes: 345,652 to No: 340,666. The closeness of the vote was somewhat surprising, in that polling showed the initiative had strong support until late in the campaign.

In Arizona, legalization was losing — Yes: 864,086 to No: 941,343. The initiative had strong opposition, including opposition from supporters of a more libertarian initiative that had failed to get on the ballot.

The medical marijuana initiatives in Florida, Arkansas, North Dakota and Montana all passed.

The victory in Florida was overwhelming. With all precincts reporting legalization had 71 percent of the vote (Yes: 6,467,202 to No: 2,607,859). The measure was in the form of an amendment to the state constitution and therefore needed 60 percent support to pass, which it easily got. A similar initiative in 2014 lost with 58 percent of the vote. Then as now, the initiative was opposed by Adelson, although he spent only about a forth as much opposing it this time.

Medical marijuana also won a crushing 64 percent to 36 percent victory in North Dakota (Yes: 215,241 to No: 122,410 with all precincts reporting). The victory came as something of a surprise, since North Dakota is one of the most socially conservative states in the country – although it probably would have come as less of a surprise if the national press had bothered to cover the campaign. Regardless, a 64 percent victory in a conservative state sends a message.

In Arkansas, a medical marijuana initiative passed 52.2-to-46.8 percent (Yes: 581,259 to No: 511.977). Arkansas joins Florida as the first two states south of the Mason-Dixon Line to pass any sort of marijuana legalization.

The Montana initiative differed from the others in that it loosened the restrictions in an existing medical marijuana law that were so stringent that it made the law dysfunctional. With 54 percent of the precincts reporting it had a 56-to-44 percent lead (Yes: 178,200 to No: 140,032), meaning it was headed for a solid win in a socially conservative state.

In short, a banner day for the marijuana legalization movement, despite the loss in Arizona and even if Maine doesn’t make it across the finish line.

What comes next?

Initiatives in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ohio in 2018 strike me as likely, and maybe even a re-do in Arizona.

On the strength of Tuesday’s wins, Congress will have to give serious consideration to change the federal marijuana prohibition to the sort of local option approach reflected in the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution (the one that repealed prohibition).

Also on the strength of what happened on Tuesday, it wouldn’t be surprising if the legislatures in some of the states that don’t allow ballot initiatives approved legalization. And if they didn’t, it wouldn’t be surprising if marijuana became an issue in state legislative elections.