The midterm elections have come and gone, and this holiday season we were given the gift of two more states legalizing adult-use cannabis. Five states voted this November, with Maryland and Missouri voting yes and Arkansas, North Dakota, and South Dakota rejecting their proposals to legalize. As Maryland and Missouri join 19 other states - and the District of Columbia - I thought it might be interesting to look at what voters' approved and disapproved of.
Marylanders “overwhelmingly” came out in favor of Question 4, the ballot initiative to legalize adult-use cannabis in the state. In April of this year, lawmakers in Maryland approved the proposed constitutional amendment House Bill 1, which would ask voters “Do you favor the legalization of adult-use cannabis in the State of Maryland?” in the November 2022 midterms, and HB 837 that would implement the limits of possession and begin the process of reviewing and expunging past cannabis criminal records if the voters decided in favor of legalization. When voters approved Question 4, Maryland became the second state to pass cannabis reform via popular referendum.
By approving Question 4, voters have enacted HB 837 and prompted state lawmakers to begin the process of creating the rules and regulations for a legal adult-use cannabis market in the state. The details of how this legal cannabis market will operate in Maryland are yet to be decided, but right now we know the very basics. Starting July 2023 adults 21 and older will legally be allowed to possess 1.5 ounces of cannabis and/or 12 grams of concentrate and two plants for personal use. Having more than 1.5 but less than 2.5 ounces is punishable by a $250 civil fine whereas possession over 2.5 ounces is punishable by 6 months in jail or a $1,000 fine.
Cannabis remains illegal but decriminalized in Maryland and currently, possession of up to 10 grams carries a $100 civil fine but will be expanded to 1.5 ounces starting January 1st until July 30th, 2023. In the meantime, the state’s medical program, which was legalized in 2014, will still be up and running for those patients in need.
HB 837 not only began the process of expunging records of possession only cannabis convictions in Maryland but people currently serving time for cannabis possession may apply to have their sentences reconsidered. In 2018 and 2019 alone there were over 31,000 arrests for cannabis possession in Maryland, which means these expungements may benefit a large number of people in the state.
Taxation and how the legal retail market will look in Maryland is yet to be seen, and the groundwork will likely be laid by state lawmakers during the next General Assembly session in January.
The second and only other state this November to legalize adult-use cannabis was Missouri, and cannabis CEOs are already calling it a “tent pole for the industry in the Midwest”. Over a million voters came out and passed Amendment 3 with more than 53% of the vote, amending the state’s constitution and ending cannabis prohibition in Missouri. The passage of Constitutional Amendment 3 allows adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to three ounces of cannabis and 6 flowering plants. The amendment also imposes a 6% sales tax that will help fund the process of expunging nonviolent cannabis records, as well as supporting various state programs like veterans’ healthcare and the state’s public defender system.
Where the initial amendments lay the ground rules on possession limitations similarly in Maryland and Missouri, Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) began working on the first set of draft rules in the weeks prior to the elections in the event that the amendment passed. As a result, the first set of draft rules was available to the public two days after the amendment’s approval and was open to public feedback until November 25th. As of writing this, only the first set of draft rules has been made available.
While Maryland’s adult-use cannabis rollout seems as if it will take a little more time, Missouri’s DHSS Division of Cannabis Regulation will start accepting applications for recreational cannabis retailer licenses from pre-established medical cannabis facilities by December 8th and will have 60 days to approve applications once they’ve been submitted. This means we could see legal adult-use sales in Missouri as soon as February of next year. In addition to converting medical cannabis licenses, the state will add 144 new small businesses selected by a lottery.
Not only does Missouri seem to be handling its new legislation swiftly, but they are also hoping to see a big financial return from the legal adult-use industry. According to the ballot measure, “state governmental agencies” estimate an annual cost of $5.5 million with an annual revenue of “at least $40.8 million”.
I was the least shocked when I learned that Arkansas’ Issue 4 was rejected, and probably not for the reasons you might be thinking. Initially, my instinct was that of course, a deep-south red state wouldn’t be quick to legalize adult-use cannabis but upon further inspection, it makes sense as to why some cannabis advocates would also oppose this particular proposal.
Arkansas’ Issue 4 took a much different approach in its attempt at an adult-use market. Instead of the more socially conscious approach of expunging possession records and funding healthcare or public resources, they chose to lean heavily on their pro-police angle and made it the focal point of campaign ads. To be fair, 10% of the tax revenue would be used to fund “operations at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences”, 70% would have been set aside to cover the costs of the state agencies running the program, and 5% would be used to fund authorized drug court programs. The remaining 15% of the tax revenue of a projected $350 million industry “shall be set aside to pay an annual stipend to law enforcement officers certified by the Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training and in good standing”.
Sure, leaning hard into a pro-police stance in an attempt to legalize adult-use cannabis seems like an odd choice, but as someone who has lived in the south for almost a decade, I also kind of get it. I cannot and will not speak for all Texans - or all southerners, for that matter - but I do know and know of stoners around here who would be eager to essentially kill two birds with one stone. Financially backing law enforcement while simultaneously getting access to a legal cannabis market would be an ideal option for them. On the other hand, none of them belong to a minority group so I’ll let you go ahead and draw your own conclusions on that one.
Arkansas not only got off to a rocky start with its whole-ho pro-law enforcement approach at legalization, but it also would have had a relatively limited legal retail market. The amendment would have allowed for 120 total non-medical dispensary licenses in the state, 80 to the 40 existing medical dispensaries, and 40 additional permits chosen by - surprise - a lottery. Early pro-cannabis critics of Arkansas’ Issue 4 said that it would give the existing medical cannabis industry an unfair hold on the new adult-use market in the state by limiting the ability for small businesses to enter the market.
With a vote of 55% to 45%, North Dakota’s Measure 2 would have allowed adults 21 and older to legally possess up to an ounce of cannabis and grow three cannabis plants in their homes. Similarly to Maryland, had Measure 2 passed, it would have also compelled North Dakota’s lawmakers to set up regulations for an adult-use retail industry by October 2023. They would have been limited to seven cultivation facilities and 18 non-medical dispensaries.
Now, before anyone comes at me for calling Arkansas’ market limited at 120 licensed dispensaries and not North Dakota, I did a little fact-checking. Arkansas has a current population of approximately three million whereas North Dakota doesn’t even break 800,000. I don’t know much about how many dispensaries per capita is reasonable, I’m gonna just assume North Dakota knew what it was doing there.
This marks the second time that North Dakotans have rejected an adult-use cannabis proposal, the first time in 2018.
Finally, South Dakota’s Measure 27. If passed, Measure 27 would have legalized the possession of up to one ounce per person and three plants per person or six per household; as long you live outside of the jurisdiction of a licensed dispensary. Measure 27, however, would not have authorized the creation of a “commercial system”.
In 2020, South Dakotans voted to pass Amendment A, a constitutional amendment that would have legalized possession and created a regulated, adult-use retail market. Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom and Highway Patrol Superintendent Rick Miller, with the support of Republican Gov. Kristi Noem, challenged the amendment and it was nullified by the state Supreme Court on a technicality. South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, who sponsored Amendment A, hoped that Measure 27 would be a simpler response.
To no one's great surprise, detractors of the initiative have fallen back on tried and true scare tactics like “legal cannabis destroys communities”, and unfortunately in midwestern conservative strongholds, methods like these have proven at least somewhat effective.
Only two out of five states passing their proposed cannabis legalization may seem disheartening, but I think this shows an encouraging trend. Cannabis consumers and advocates aren’t willing to settle. It’s also a way to test the waters in smaller, more conservative-leaning states and their openness to progressive cannabis legislation.