ELECTIONS

Maryland legalizes marijuana; four other states have it on the ballot

ANDREW DeMILLO
The Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Voters in five states were deciding on Election Day whether to approve recreational marijuana, a move that could signal a major shift toward legalization in even the most conservative parts of the country.

The first result came in Maryland, where voters approved legalization, making it the 20th state to take that step. Measures also were on the ballot in Arkansas, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota.

“By voting for legalization, Marylanders have rejected the failed ideas of the past and have chosen to reform their laws to protect civil liberties and promote racial justice,” Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, one of the nation’s oldest legalization advocacy groups, said in a statement.

The state voting follows moves by President Joe Biden toward decriminalizing marijuana. Biden last month announced he was pardoning thousands of Americans convicted of simple possession of marijuana under federal law.

Advocates of the marijuana initiatives have said Biden's announcement may give a boost to their efforts.

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Heading into the election, recreational marijuana was legal in 19 states, and polls have shown opposition to legalization softening. All of the states with recreational marijuana on the ballot, except for Maryland, voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

About 6 in 10 voters support legalizing the recreational use of marijuana nationwide, according to VoteCast, an extensive survey of more than 90,000 voters nationwide conducted for The Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago.

The five states currently have legal medical marijuana programs. That includes Arkansas, which in 2016 became the first Bible Belt state to approve medical marijuana. The state's dispensaries opened in 2019, and more than 91,000 patients have cards to legally buy marijuana for medical conditions.

The legalization campaigns have raised about $23 million in the five states, with the vast majority in Arkansas and Missouri. More than 85% of contributions in those two states have come from donors associated with companies holding medical marijuana licenses, 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 legalization opponents as well as some medical marijuana advocates, who say the Arkansas proposal places too many limits and would only benefit a handful of dispensaries. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a former head of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, has also opposed the measure.

Missouri's proposal would legalize recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older and expunge records of past arrests and convictions for nonviolent marijuana offenses, except for selling to minors or driving under the influence. Maryland's proposal will 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 marijuana 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 legalize 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 pot is standing by itself as it goes before voters.

In Colorado, where recreational marijuana 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.

Melody Finley, a Republican in Little Rock, Arkansas, said she voted for the state's legalization measure because she thinks it can help some people for certain conditions.

“If you can buy alcohol, you can buy that, too," Finley, 47, a dance instructor, said.

But Rick Huffman, a voter in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on Tuesday voted against that state's legalization proposal, two years after supporting recreational marijuana on South Dakota's ballot in 2020.

“I’ve got a kid that’s a teenager now,” he said. “So I think it’ll eventually happen, but maybe I’ll wait until my kids grow up.”

Jeff Borgrud, 68, a Democrat in Fargo, North Dakota, said he voted against that state's recreational marijuana proposal.

“I don’t see any use for marijuana use," Borgrud, a retiree and Navy veteran, said. “Maybe an occasional medical purpose but very limited."