N Dakota, Arkansas reject legal marijuana, Maryland approves

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Voters approved recreational marijuana in Maryland and rejected it in Arkansas and North Dakota in elections seen as a test of legalization’s support in even the most conservative parts of the country.

Maryland’s vote for legalization made the state the 20th to take that step. Measures also were on the ballot in Missouri and South Dakota.

“By voting for legalization, Marylanders have rejected the failed ideas of the past and have chosen to reform their laws to protect civil liberties and promote racial justice,” Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, one of the nation’s oldest legalization advocacy groups, said in a statement.

The state voting in Tuesday’s elections follows moves by President Joe Biden toward decriminalizing marijuana. Biden last month announced he was pardoning thousands of Americans convicted of simple possession of marijuana under federal law.

Advocates of the marijuana initiatives have said Biden’s announcement may give a boost to their efforts.

Heading into the election, recreational marijuana was legal in 19 states, and polls have shown opposition to legalization softening. All of the states with recreational marijuana on the ballot, except for Maryland, voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

About 6 in 10 voters support legalizing the recreational use of marijuana nationwide, according to VoteCast, an extensive survey of more than 90,000 voters nationwide conducted for The Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago.

The five states currently have legal medical marijuana programs. That includes Arkansas, which in 2016 became the first Bible Belt state to approve medical marijuana. The state’s dispensaries opened in 2019, and more than 91,000 patients have cards to legally buy marijuana for medical conditions.

The legalization campaigns raised about $23 million in the five states, with the vast majority in Arkansas and Missouri. More than 85% of contributions in those two states came from donors associated with companies holding medical marijuana licenses, according to an Associated Press analysis of the most recent campaign finance reports.

In Arkansas, supporters ran upbeat ads touting the thousands of jobs they said would be created by the measure. Opponents ran more ominous spots, warning voters to “protect Arkansas from big marijuana.”

“The marijuana industry spent millions of dollars trying to write itself into the Arkansas Constitution,” said Jerry Cox, executive director of the Family Council Action Committee, one of the groups opposing the measure. “Now they know that Arkansans do not support that kind of crony politics.”

The initiative drew the criticism of traditional legalization opponents as well as some medical marijuana advocates, who said the Arkansas proposal placed too many limits and would only benefit a handful of dispensaries. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a former head of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, also opposed the measure.

David Owen, who led North Dakota’s legalization effort, said he wasn’t sure another effort would be made after the proposal was rejected.

“Tonight was not what we wanted, but the people have spoken and we have to prepare for the next steps,” Owen said.

North Dakota’s proposal would have allowed people 21 and older to legally use marijuana at home as well as possess and cultivate restricted amounts of cannabis. It also would have established policies to regulate retail stores, cultivators and other types of marijuana businesses.

“It’s pretty clear North Dakota families don’t want marijuana across the state,” said Luke Niforatos, executive vice president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a Virginia-based political organization against marijuana legalization, which helped fight the measure in North Dakota.

Missouri’s proposal would legalize recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older and expunge records of past arrests and convictions for nonviolent marijuana offenses, except for selling to minors or driving under the influence. Maryland’s proposal will also make changes in criminal law and create automatic expungements of past marijuana possession convictions.

South Dakotans, including a sizable number of Republicans, voted to legalize marijuana possession in 2020, but that law was struck down by the state Supreme Court in part because the proposal was coupled with medical marijuana and hemp. This year, recreational pot stood by itself as it went before voters.

In Colorado, where recreational marijuana has been legal for nearly a decade, voters on Tuesday took up a proposal that would allow the use of certain psychedelic substances. If approved, it would make Colorado 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 thinks it can help some people for certain conditions.

“If you can buy alcohol, you can buy that, too,” Finley, 47, a dance instructor, said.

But Rick Huffman, a voter in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, voted against that state’s legalization proposal, two years after supporting recreational marijuana on South Dakota’s ballot in 2020.

“I’ve got a kid that’s a teenager now,” he said. “So I think it’ll eventually happen, but maybe I’ll wait until my kids grow up.”

Jeff Borgrud, 68, a Democrat in Fargo, North Dakota, said he voted against that state’s recreational marijuana proposal.

“I don’t see any use for marijuana use,” Borgrud, a retiree and Navy veteran, said. “Maybe an occasional medical purpose but very limited.”

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Associated Press writers Stephen Groves in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, James MacPherson in Bismarck, North Dakota, and Dave Kolpack in Fargo, North Dakota, contributed to this report.

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