Pandemic, Anti-Racism Protests May Boost Marijuana Legalization

By: - October 29, 2020 12:00 am

Heather Randazzo, an employee at Compassionate Care Foundation’s medical marijuana dispensary, trims leaves off marijuana plants in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey. A ballot question this year asks New Jersey voters to enshrine marijuana legalization in the state constitution. Julio Cortez/The Associated Press

Stacy Pearson, who lives in Phoenix, wasn’t sure how many of her fellow Arizonans would want a pro-marijuana yard sign. Four years ago, 51% of voters in the state rejected a ballot measure to allow adults to sell and use small amounts of pot.

But Pearson, who’s leading this year’s effort to legalize marijuana in the state, said she’s been surprised. “We’ve run out of yard signs twice,” she said, first an initial order of 500 signs, then a second order of 2,500. 

Advocates for letting adults legally use marijuana are hoping to expand pot sales to four more states this year, with recreational use ballot measures in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota. Mississippi and South Dakota also will vote on allowing medical marijuana sales to patients.

The pandemic and nationwide protests against racism and police brutality have boosted pro-legalization tax and equity arguments this year, supporters say. Not only has the coronavirus caused a global recession and hollowed out state budgets, but voters may be more willing to see legal pot as a social justice issue.

A heavy advantage in fundraising and the increasing nationwide support for legalization also are boosting the campaigns. But opponents argue that marijuana sales provide relatively limited tax revenue and pose public health risks, such as potential increased addiction and drugged driving.

In New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has called legalization “an incredibly smart thing to do” and said taxing pot could help fill the state’s multibillion-dollar budget hole. The New Jersey ballot initiative doesn’t spell out how marijuana tax revenue would be spent.

The other states’ initiatives would set aside money for everything from public lands to public schools. The 16% excise tax on marijuana sales under Arizona’s measure, for instance, would fund community colleges, police and fire departments, highways, substance abuse prevention programs and efforts to reduce the state’s prison population.

Recreational pot backers say allowing all adults to possess small amounts of marijuana would free police to focus on more serious crimes and would reduce confrontations between minority residents and law enforcement.  

“We’re stopping 32,000 unnecessary police interactions that are disproportionately affecting communities of color,” said Axel Owen, who manages the New Jersey legalization campaign, citing a 2016 report on marijuana possession arrests by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

Nationally, support for legalization is growing. Eleven states now allow recreational marijuana sales and 23 states allow marijuana to be sold to patients with certain medical conditions. Two-thirds of Americans say marijuana use should be legal, according to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center (The Pew Charitable Trusts funds the center and Stateline). 

In a sign of how far attitudes towards mind-altering plants and drug policy have shifted, one Oregon ballot measure before voters this year would allow people to consume psychedelic mushrooms in controlled settings and another would reduce criminal penalties for possessing drugs such as heroin and cocaine, and use marijuana tax revenue to fund substance abuse treatment.

Washington, D.C., voters also will decide whether to make enforcing laws against consuming the fungi a low priority. A handful of cities, including Denver and Ann Arbor, Michigan, already have decriminalized psychedelic mushrooms.

The marijuana legalization campaigns are heavily outraising their opponents, with help from national marijuana advocacy groups, cannabis companies and civil rights groups such as the ACLU. One of the biggest donors to New Jersey’s campaign is Scotts Miracle-Gro, a gardening supply company that sells hydroponics equipment to marijuana growers.

But legalization opponents are hopeful none of the measures will pass. Support for marijuana legalization falls along partisan lines, the Pew Research Center poll found: 78% of Democrats back legalization, compared with 55% of Republicans. And the increasing legal pot market hasn’t ended debates over whether regulating marijuana is good for public safety.

“We see marijuana use as a public health harm,” said Luke Niforatos, executive vice president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an Alexandria, Virginia-based group that’s helping the anti-legalization campaigns. “We see commercialization as a key reason why it’s a public health harm.”

National Institute of Drug Abuse scientists have said that marijuana sold today is more potent than it used to be and could pose a health risk for young people and pregnant women, Niforatos noted. Smoking and ingesting marijuana carries heart health risks, a January study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found.

Legalization opponents also point out marijuana taxes raise relatively little money in relation to state budgets.

The New Jersey measure would impose the state sales tax of 6.625% on retail pot sales and allow the legislature to let local governments impose additional taxes. The state tax could raise million annually, according to the legislature’s fiscal analysts.

The estimate is small compared to New Jersey’s budget hole, however, let alone the state’s more than billion budget. “That’s like dropping a feather in the Atlantic Ocean,” said Gregg Edwards, executive director of the Don’t Let New Jersey Go to Pot campaign.

And allowing people to buy and use small amounts of marijuana, while it will decrease marijuana arrests, isn’t likely to end racial disparities in policing marijuana crimes that remain on the books. The ACLU has found that Black Americans are disproportionately arrested for pot-related crimes — such as teen possession, or smoking pot in public — even in states that allow the drug to be sold.

Opposing campaigns also say recreational pot legalization can lead to an increase in marijuana addiction rates, particularly in teens and children, and in drugged driving.

They point to a 2019 study led by Magdalena Cerdá, director of the Center for Opioid Epidemiology and Policy at NYU Langone Health, which found a 25% increase in teenage marijuana addiction in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington after recreational pot sales began, compared with other states.

The statistic has alarmed some health professionals. “We’re particularly concerned about exposure to cannabis in our adolescent population, and in our young adults,” said Dr. Debra Koss, the president of the New Jersey Psychiatric Association, which opposes legalization.

But Cerdá cautioned the 25% increase was small — representing an increase in addiction rates from 2.18% to 2.72% — and needs further study. “You should take it with a grain of salt, with the proviso that it’s a small increase,” she said.

Her team’s more robust finding, she said, was that adults are more likely to use and become addicted to marijuana once they can buy the drug legally.

Surveys by Colorado state agencies show no significant change in recent marijuana use among high schoolers since voters legalized recreational use in 2012, noted Matthew Schweich, deputy director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for legalization and is helping lead the Montana and South Dakota campaigns.

The rate of Colorado hospital patients who use or are dependent on marijuana also has remained stable since then.

Legalization opponents also cite an American Automobile Association (AAA) Foundation for Traffic Safety report that found after Washington state legalized sales, twice as many drivers involved in fatal crashes in the state had marijuana in their bloodstream. AAA opposes marijuana legalization.

Marijuana advocates are skeptical about that study, too. The AAA study didn’t explore whether drivers with the cannabis compound tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, in their blood were to blame for the crashes, and the study authors acknowledged that the relationship between THC blood levels and impairment is unclear.

“In our opinion, there’s not a clear link between marijuana legalization and drugged driving,” Schweich said.

The bottom line, Pearson said, is that people are using marijuana no matter what the law says – so states may as well start regulating it. “We’re explaining to voters that the choice is simple: Do you want marijuana sold in a taxed, regulated environment, or not?” 

Support for marijuana legalization is so strong in New Jersey that advocates are focused on reminding voters to turn over their ballots, as the ballot question is printed on the back side. “The more people who flip their ballot over,” Owen said, “the more chances we have to win.” 

In Arizona, Mississippi, Montana and South Dakota the outcome is less certain, with both pro- and anti-legalization campaigns arguing they have a chance.

Regardless of the outcome, Schweich said the Marijuana Policy Project and other groups will keep pushing federal lawmakers to make it legal for all Americans to buy and sell small amounts of the plant.

“There’s going to be a very strong push for federal reform regardless of what happens with the ballot initiatives, or the presidency, or the Senate, or the House,” he said. “We have an absurd situation where we have this glaring conflict between state and federal law, and it gets increasingly untenable every year.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sophie Quinton

Sophie Quinton writes about fiscal and economic policy for Stateline. Previously, she wrote for National Journal.