Marijuana politics evolving in red states

Supporters and opponents of legalizing marijuana are preparing to fight over ballot measures in half a dozen states this year, shifting the political battleground away from traditionally liberal states and into some of the country’s most conservative areas.

Two measures are already scheduled to appear on November ballots: Michigan voters will decide whether to become the ninth state to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes, while the electorate in Utah will choose whether to join 22 other states by legalizing pot for medical use.

In Missouri, as many as three separate measures could make the ballot. Supporters have submitted signatures for both medical and recreational regimes that will now be inspected by the secretary of state’s office.


Oklahoma, which voted last month to legalize medical marijuana, could see a ballot measure to approve a recreational scheme as well. Legalization measures are also circulating in Arizona, Nebraska and North Dakota. Supporters in Ohio are trying for a second time to qualify for the ballot, in 2019.

The rush toward legalization comes after a relatively slow start in liberal or libertarian-leaning states. Washington and Colorado were the first to legalize recreational marijuana, in 2012. Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., followed in 2014, and voters in California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada backed legalization in 2016.

After almost a dozen increasingly expensive and high-profile campaigns since 2012, both sides say they have honed their messaging in hopes of appealing to a broader swath of voters. Those pitches offer a preview of the millions of dollars in campaign advertising both sides are likely to spend this year. 

Supporters say they will focus on the benefits of creating a regulatory and taxation system for a market that would otherwise be controlled by cartels and street dealers.

“We’re careful to talk about it as creating a regulatory framework,” said Martin Hamburger, a Democratic strategist who has crafted campaign advertisements for previous marijuana measures and who will work this year on the efforts in Michigan and Missouri. “Regulate it and tax it. And that frame of creating regulation so it can be used responsibly by adults 21 and over is pretty important.” 

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Hamburger said legalization campaigns have also made inroads among minority communities by talking about decriminalizing marijuana sales, something that resonates in areas where authorities prosecute people on minor possession charges.


“We often find that there’s sort of a social justice message there,” Hamburger said. “One arrest for marijuana can ruin your life and give you a felony, and it’s on your mark forever. A stupid mistake as a 19-year-old shouldn’t mess up your life.”

Marijuana legalization has also meant a business boom for companies that are able to enter the market soon after regulatory schemes are enacted. Opponents of legalization have cast those businesses as Big Marijuana — a boogeyman as threatening to public health, especially children’s health, as Big Tobacco in earlier times.

Increasing access to marijuana products, especially edibles like candies and chocolates, that might tempt children is something that can move voters away from legalization, said Kevin Sabet, who runs Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group that opposes legalization.

“Most voters don’t understand that legalization actually means commercializing edibles, pot candies, pot concentrates that are 99 percent THC,” Sabet said, referring to the main psychoactive component of marijuana. “What voters think it’s about, and what the pro-legalization side has been good about framing, is going to jail for a joint.”

Casting marijuana as a get-rich-quick business for Wall Street hedge funds helped the legalization opponents notch their most notable win at the ballot box: Voters in Ohio three years ago resoundingly rejected a legalization measure, by an almost 2-to-1 margin. Even proponents of legalization grimaced at that campaign, where backers rolled out an ill-advised mascot named Buddie to greet voters. 

“We won in Ohio by a 2-to-1 margin because the singular message was about the marijuana monopoly, not whether marijuana is bad or good,” Sabet said.

As campaigns for and against marijuana legalization have become more sophisticated, costs have risen, too. Supporters have outspent opponents; in California, $25 million poured into the campaign in favor of legalization, while opponents spent $2 million. In Massachusetts, supporters outspent opponents by a margin of $6.8 million to $3 million. And in Maine, where a legalization initiative passed by 4,000 votes, backers outspent opponents more than 10-to-1.

This year, supporters in Michigan had raised $1.6 million to back their measure, through last week. Opponents had pulled in $280,000, though Sabet said he expected the opposition campaign to have a seven-figure budget. 

The shifting battlefield, away from liberal coastal states and into more traditionally swing and red states like Michigan, Ohio and Oklahoma, illustrates the unusual coalitions of support on which each side relies. Far from the traditional conservative-liberal split that divides modern politics, older men and younger progressives tend to favor legalization, while women with children — typically guaranteed Democratic voters — tend to harbor doubts.

“Democrats and progressive women with children are our swings,” Hamburger said. “They’re the ones we can lose. So a lot of our messaging are about regulations, how to prevent kids from getting it.”

“The swing voters are basically 35- to 55-year-old women,” Sabet said. “That is going to be key for us. We know that we’re not going to get a majority of 18- to 34-year-olds.”

“It’s really going to be those moms” who decide whether legalization passes or fails, he added. 

Both sides are already exploring another new way to appeal to that swing demographic: the opioid crisis. Supporters hope to convince voters in states hit hard by opioids, including heroin and fentanyl, that marijuana can act as a substitute, something to ease pain that might otherwise only be stopped by a powerful pill. Opponents say marijuana is a gateway drug that can lead to more serious addictions.

Whether either is the case is unclear. The national rate of opioid overdoses has spiked, especially since 2012, but overdose rates in Washington have been flat since legalization took effect and they have risen in Colorado.

Between 2016 and 2017, the overdose rate dropped or held relatively steady in five of the eight states where marijuana is legal for recreational purposes. Overdose rates rose substantially in Washington, D.C., and by smaller though still significant margins in Colorado and Maine. Overdose rates rose by a smaller amount in Nevada.

Opponents of legalization have had more success in state legislatures, which have proven reluctant to pass anything beyond measures decriminalizing marijuana. Vermont’s legislature legalized pot this year, though without a regulatory structure that would allow its commercial sale. Legislators in Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, New Hampshire and New Jersey have all voted down or killed legalization measures.

“This is very much an uphill battle,” Sabet said. “They are trying to act like this is totally inevitable, that the battle is over. That’s not the case.”