LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Voters in five states decided on Election Day whether to allow recreational marijuanaa 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 the step. Measures were also on the ballot in Arkansas, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota.
“By voting for legalization, Marylanders have discarded the failed ideas of the past and have chosen to reform their laws to protect civil liberties and promote racial justice,” said Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, one of the nation’s oldest advocacy groups for legalization in a statement.
The state vote follows President Joe Biden’s moves to decriminalize marijuana. Biden announced last month that he was pardoning thousands of Americans convicted under federal law of simple possession of marijuana.
Proponents of the marijuana initiatives said Biden’s announcement could provide a boost to their efforts.
Heading into the elections, recreational marijuana was legal in 19 states, and polls showed there was opposition to relaxing legalization. All states with recreational marijuana on the ballot except Maryland voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
According to VoteCast, a comprehensive survey of more than 90,000 voters nationwide conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago for The Associated Press, about 6 in 10 voters support legalizing recreational marijuana nationwide.
The five states currently have legal medical marijuana programs. That includes Arkansas, which became the first state in the Bible Belt to legalize medical marijuana in 2016. The state’s dispensaries opened in 2019, and more than 91,000 patients have cards to legally purchase marijuana for medical use.
The legalization campaigns have picked up about $23 million across the five states, with the vast majority in Arkansas and Missouri. More than 85% of contributions in these two states come from donors affiliated with companies that hold medical marijuana licenses, according to an Associated Press analysis of the campaign’s most recent financial reports.
In Arkansas, supporters have run optimistic ads touting thousands of jobs they say the measure will create. Opponents have continued to run ominous spots, warning voters to “protect Arkansas from big marijuana.”
The initiative has drawn criticism from traditional legalization opponents as well as some medical marijuana advocates, who say the Arkansas proposal places too many limitations and would benefit only a handful of dispensaries. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a former head of the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration, has also spoken out against the measure.
Missouri’s proposal would legalize recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older and delete records of prior arrests and convictions for nonviolent marijuana crimes other than selling to a minor or driving under the influence. Maryland’s proposal will also make changes to the criminal code, including automatic removals of previous convictions for marijuana possession.
The measure of North Dakota would allow people over the age of 21 to legally use marijuana at home, as well as to possess and grow limited amounts of cannabis. It would also set out guidelines for regulating retail stores, growers, and other types of marijuana businesses.
South Dakotans, including a significant number of Republicans, voted to legalize marijuana possession in 2020, but that law was rejected by the state Supreme Court in part because the proposal was coupled with medical marijuana and hemp. This year leisure pot stands for itself as it fares in front of the voters.
In Colorado, where recreational marijuana has been legal for nearly a decade, voters on Tuesday will accept a proposal that would allow the use of certain psychedelic substances. If approved, Colorado would be 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 believes it can help some people under certain conditions.
“If you can buy alcohol, you can buy that, too,” said Finley, 47, a dance teacher.
But Rick Huffman, a voter in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, voted Tuesday against that state’s legalization proposal, two years after he supported recreational marijuana on South Dakota’s 2020 ballot.
“I have a child who is now a teenager,” he said. “So I think it will happen eventually, but maybe I’ll wait until my kids are grown.”
Jeff Borgrud, 68, a Democrat from Fargo, North Dakota, said he voted against that state’s marijuana proposal.
“I see no benefit in using marijuana,” said Borgrud, a retiree and Navy veteran. “Perhaps an occasional medicinal use, but very limited.”
Associated Press writers Stephen Groves of Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Dave Kolpack of Fargo, North Dakota contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the 2022 midterm elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections. And learn more about the issues and factors at play in the midterms at https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections.