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‘Party over pot?’ Midterms provide mixed signals on marijuana reform

Advocates remain hopeful, cite flaws in red state ballot initiatives rejected by voters

Activists wave flags during a 2019 rally to demand Congress to pass cannabis reform legislation on the East Lawn of the US Capitol.OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

Voters in Tuesday’s midterm elections sent mixed signals on marijuana, approving legalization ballot initiatives in two states but rejecting them in three others.

And while control of Congress is still in question as additional votes are counted, experts said Republican gains mean short-term prospects for federal cannabis reforms have dimmed regardless of which party ultimately prevails — and could vanish entirely if the GOP secures a majority in the House.

Cannabis advocates and industry leaders are trying to put a positive spin on the outcome, saying they’re hopeful a lame-duck Congress will pass marijuana banking reforms long sought by state-legal pot businesses before the end of the year. And they noted that voters in Maryland and Missouri approved legalization ballot initiatives, bringing the number of states with legal recreational marijuana to 21, while enthusiastic legalization supporter John Fetterman prevailed in Pennsylvania’s hotly contested Senate race.


But legalization initiatives in three conservative states — Arkansas, North Dakota, and South Dakota — failed at the polls Tuesday. And Republican gains in the House mean reformers will face tighter margins regardless of which party ultimately gains a majority in the chamber.

“Clearly, things are going to get more challenging in the House,” said Justin Strekal, a longtime former lobbyist for pro-marijuana group NORML who now runs the Better Organizing to Win Legalization (BOWL) political action committee. “It will be especially challenging if Republicans take over, because then they’ll get the committee chairs and control how time is spent and which bills come up for a vote.”

Strekal said he was especially concerned about the critical House Judiciary Committee, where ranking Republican Jim Jordan of Ohio — a strident opponent of cannabis reform — would likely take over.

Still, Strekal and other cannabis supporters are finding silver linings. Those include an upcoming House hearing on decriminalizing marijuana and recent statements by Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer that his chamber is “very close” to passing a bipartisan package of incremental reforms that would wipe away some marijuana-related criminal records and make it easier for banks to service state-regulated cannabis companies. They also noted that the votes in Maryland and Missouri mean nearly half of the House now represents states where marijuana is legal.


“It makes a big difference when representatives see that the same voters who voted for them also voted for legal cannabis,” said Aaron Smith, the executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association. “And I’m still quite hopeful we’ll get reform in the lame duck session around banking, which would be huge for the industry in terms of [marijuana] companies being able to access capital and depository services that other businesses take for granted.”

Marijuana supporters also said that the failure of cannabis ballot initiatives in three red states doesn’t necessarily mean voters in those places oppose legalization altogether. Instead, they said, the results can be attributed to the limited resources of the campaigns behind them and flaws in the proposals, which called for relatively tight restrictions on legal pot markets and growing cannabis at home.

“In both red and blue states, voters don’t like oligopolies and excessive corporate control,” said Shaleen Title, a former member of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission and founder of the Parabola Center think tank. “We’re past just pro-pot versus anti-pot now — if you push a legalization bill that’s bad for consumers, you’re going to lose.”


Strekal, the lobbyist, said he was not surprised that the initiatives in Arkansas and the Dakotas fell short. While polls show a slim majority of Republicans across the country support legalization, he said, exceedingly few of them see the issue as a priority.

“When Republican leaders in those states uniformly oppose the referendums, that’s the message that comes across, and voters put party over pot,” Strekal said. “I hope in the future that initiative drafters will take that into consideration and give people something to be more excited about than just a restricted legal market.”

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, Tuesday’s election results are unlikely to prompt much change to local cannabis laws.

Governor-elect Maura Healey joined outgoing Governor Charlie Baker in campaigning against legalization when it was on the ballot here in 2016, but has since softened her stance, saying this year that some of her concerns about the public health consequences may have been “unnecessary.”

Healey has also promised she will issue pardons to anyone convicted of marijuana possession under state law, following a request from President Biden.

Dan Adams can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.