Tuesday’s state and local elections across the U.S. saw several gains for the marijuana reform movement, as well as some potential setbacks. Legislatures shifted, cities decided on cannabis business expansion and new officeholders were seated.
A wave of newly elected prosecutors could further shape the drug policy landscape throughout the country, with a “mixed bag” of results coming out of the elections. District attorneys elected in Virginia campaigned on largely pro-reform platforms, but drug warriors kept their seats in places like Pennsylvania and New York.
From Virginia to California, here’s a rundown of the most consequential election outcomes as it concerns marijuana policy.
In Virginia, where broad marijuana reform has routinely stalled session after session, Democrats seized the majority in both the Senate and Assembly. The new composure of the legislature bodes well for the prospects of passing cannabis decriminalization and comprehensive medical marijuana legislation in 2020.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who campaigned on decriminalization during his election in 2017, said on Wednesday that the issue remains a priority, and Attorney General Mark Herring told Virginia Mercury last month that lawmakers will likely pursue that policy change first and then “get to work on a larger study about how and when we could move toward legal and regulated adult use.”
So far @GovernorVA is saying he’s looking to tackle these issues moving forward:
— Olivia Ugino (@OliviaNBC12) November 6, 2019
“The majority shift will bring a sea change to marijuana policy in the Commonwealth,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, said. “Virginia spent over $100M in 2018 enforcing prohibition, which flies in the face of public opinion. Three quarters of Virginians favor fines not crimes for possession of marijuana, and six out of ten support legalizing adult-use. Finally, Virginia has a path to implement evidence-based policies that reflect the attitudes of its constituents.”
Voters in the state also elected several reform-minded prosecutors, including Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and Steve Descano, who’s pledged that his office would not prosecute low-level cannabis offenses. Buta Biberaj, who also won her bid for a prosecutor position in the commonwealth, agreed that nobody should be incarcerated for marijuana possession.
In one of the most notable development of the night, a Democratic candidate who supports medical cannabis legalization appears to have beaten out an incumbent Republican in Kentucky’s gubernatorial race. Current Attorney General Andy Beshear narrowly defeated Gov. Matt Bevin (R), who has also spoken in favor of medical marijuana but adamantly opposes recreational legalization.
Beshear’s campaign site states that he wants medical cannabis legalization to be put to voters as a proposed constitutional amendment, which he said he’d vote for, in part because of its potential use as an alternative to opioids.
“I would vote for it because I’ve seen the impact opioids have had on every Kentucky community,” the governor-elect said. “So many Kentucky families have seen a loved one fall into addiction, and their lives have been devastated. If medical marijuana is an alternative and gives people the chance to get pain relief without being subjected to opioids, I think it’s something we’ve got to explore.”
Beshear also said that legalization could generate tax revenue that can be used to fund the state’s pension system—a position that puts him at odds with Bevin.
Asked about funding the pension system. @AndyBeshearKY points to gaming and medical marijuana as answers to the funding issue. @GovMattBevin says he's the only governor to fully fund it and says the system needs to change structurally.
— Christy Bollinger ABC 36 (@ChristyB_News) October 15, 2019
During an interview with WBKO in April, Beshear also voiced support for decriminalizing drug possession, including for substances beside cannabis.
“No one who is caught simply possessing marijuana should ever go to jail, or should ever go to prison,” he said, adding that those suffering from addiction to other illicit drugs should be “in treatment, not jail.”
Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, a strong proponent of the the hemp industry, held onto his seat. Following the election, Quarles celebrated the expansion of the hemp industry, noting that “during the first term we were dedicated to putting Kentucky first… and here in Kentucky, we are making hemp great again.”
Newly reelected Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles touts the recent growth of the hemp industry in the commonwealth: "You know, during the first term we were dedicated to putting Kentucky first…And here in Kentucky, we are making hemp great again." #kypolitics
— Morgan Watkins (@morganwatkins26) November 6, 2019
But while the commissioner said he’s not opposed to medical cannabis legalization, he’s decidedly less vocal about the issue compared to his competitor Robert Conway, who brought up the policy during his concession speech.
Ag Commissioner Robert Conway gives his concession speech. Says he doesn’t give a damn about the D or R next to a person’s name. He cares about the K – we’re all Kentuckians who should care for fellow Kentuckians. Gives a shout out to medical marijuana https://t.co/0OLuWeNJkY pic.twitter.com/4CBiF0Rv0R
— Matthew Glowicki (@MattGlo) November 6, 2019
Cannabis was also featured in the concession speech for Greg Stumbo, who ran for attorney general and lost to Daniel Cameron. Stumbo closed his speech “with an anecdote about medical marijuana helping a family” and called for its legalization, Courier Journal reporter Matthew Glowicki said.
Greg Stumbo up now. He lost to Daniel Cameron, now the first African American to hold the office. Stumbo keeps his speech short, closing with an anecdote about medical marijuana helping a family, calls for its legalization https://t.co/kwT82XLNaj pic.twitter.com/Ty3y7QjhkV
— Matthew Glowicki (@MattGlo) November 6, 2019
In Mead, voters chose not to allow adult-use cannabis businesses to operate in their city. Loveland voters similarly rejected a proposal to allow marijuana firms, six years after the city first banned them. But the cannabis market did get a boost in Louisville, where voters approved a marijuana excise tax and adopted a policy allowing cannabis cultivation facilities to operate in their jurisdiction.
The city of Deerfield’s Village Board voted in favor of allowing adult-use marijuana businesses to operate in their jurisdiction. Meanwhile, Arlington Heights Village Board opted not to welcome cannabis firms.
“For me, there is no compromise on this issue,” Mayor Tom Hayes said.
Voters in Camden elected to establish a process to obtain licenses for cannabis manufacturing businesses. Retail facilities for recreational and medical cannabis will be allowed under ordinances approved by voters in Newry on Tuesday.
A nonbinding referendum to allow adult-use cannabis sales in Agawam was soundly defeated in a 2,682-1,831 vote.
Ten cities throughout Michigan voted on measures to allow or prohibit adult-use marijuana businesses to operate in their jurisdictions—and seven of those opted to block the industry. The votes come roughly a year after the state’s legal cannabis law was approved by voters.
Allen Park, Hudson City, Keego Harbor, Marenisco Township, Mount Pleasant, South Haven and Walled Lake each voted against proposals to allow cannabis businesses to operate in their towns, or in favor of measures calling for a ban on recreational cannabis facilities. Crystal Township, Lincoln Park and Northfield Township residents cast votes in favor of the industry.
Efforts to reform New Jersey’s marijuana laws have been complicated, largely because of opposition from the Republicans in the legislature. Those efforts will face a slightly tougher road following Tuesday’s election, where the GOP picked up seats in the Assembly, as well as one seat in the Senate. That said, lawmakers have said they may take a shot at passing a legalization bill in the lame duck session before the newly formulated legislature is seated.
Three cities in Ohio voted in favor of resolutions to decriminalize the possession of cannabis, while three others rejected similar proposals. The pro-decriminalization votes build on gains the state has made at the local level over the past four years, which have seen more than a dozen cities approve measures to loosen penalties on possession, either through voter-approved initiatives or the local government action.
This piece was updated to add comment from Virginia NORML.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.