Voters in five US states are deciding on election day whether to approve recreational cannabis, a move that could signal a major shift towards legalisation in even the most conservative parts of the country.
The proposals are on the ballot in Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota and follow moves by President Joe Biden towards decriminalising marijuana.
Biden last month announced he was pardoning thousands of Americans convicted of simple possession of cannabis under federal law.
Advocates of the marijuana initiatives have said Biden’s announcement may give a boost to their efforts. The move follows a years-long effort by Democrats in the US House of Representatives and more recently in the Senate to legalise cannabis at the federal level.
Recreational marijuana is legal in 19 states, and polls have shown opposition to legalisation softening. All of the states with recreational marijuana on the ballot, except for Maryland, voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
The five states also currently have legal medical cannabis programmes.
That includes Arkansas, which in 2016 became the first Bible Belt state to approve medical cannabis. The state’s dispensaries opened in 2019, and more than 91,000 patients have cards to legally buy marijuana for medical conditions.
Criticism from opponents
The legalisation campaigns have raised about $23m in the five states, with the vast majority in Arkansas and Missouri. More than 85 percent of contributions in those two states have come from donors associated with companies holding medical cannabis licences, according to an Associated Press analysis of the most recent campaign finance reports.
In Arkansas, supporters have been running upbeat ads touting the thousands of jobs they say will be created by the measure. Opponents have run more ominous spots, warning voters to “protect Arkansas from big marijuana”.
The initiative has drawn the criticism of traditional legalisation opponents as well as some medical cannabis advocates, who said the Arkansas proposal places too many limits and would only benefit a handful of dispensaries.
Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson, a former head of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, has also opposed the measure.
Missouri’s proposal would legalise recreational cannabis for adults 21 and older and expunge records of past arrests and convictions for nonviolent marijuana offences, except for selling to minors or driving under the influence.
Maryland’s proposal would also make changes in criminal law and create automatic expungements of past marijuana possession convictions.
North Dakota’s measure would allow people 21 and older to legally use cannabis at home as well as possess and cultivate restricted amounts of cannabis. It also would establish policies to regulate retail stores, cultivators, and other types of marijuana businesses.
South Dakotans, including a sizable number of Republicans, voted to legalise marijuana possession in 2020, but that law was struck down by the state Supreme Court in part because the proposal was coupled with medical marijuana and hemp.
This year, recreational cannabis is standing by itself as it goes before voters.
In Colorado, where recreational cannabis has been legal for nearly a decade, voters on Tuesday are taking up a proposal that would allow the use of certain psychedelic substances. If approved, it would make Colorado the second state to take such a step.