Marijuana will once again be a hot topic on Election Day, with the future of local, state and federal cannabis policies in the hands of voters Nov. 6.
But this time, voters in states that typically lean Republican will be the ones weighing legalization measures at the ballot box.
A number of red communities in California, from the Inland Empire town of Hemet to rural El Dorado County, also will join dozens of blue communities in voting during the midterm elections on whether to allow commercial marijuana businesses.
Republican candidates — and incumbent Democrats who haven’t traditionally supported marijuana reform — are talking about their support for regulated cannabis, too.
It’s all in response to a simple trend: support for marijuana legalization has never been higher.
“In some of these tight races, marijuana is more popular than the people who are running,” said Michael Collins, interim director for the Office of National Affairs at Drug Policy Action, the political arm of the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance.
Marijuana reform could see a boost if predictions prove true of higher-than-normal voter turnout among young people in particular, who support legal cannabis at by far the highest rate of any voting bloc.
Either way, the surge in interest from candidates and communities that have otherwise been conservative on drug policy seems to be yet another sign of just how mainstream cannabis has become — and, some experts say, the inevitability of federal legalization.
“The momentum is very much on our side,” Collins said. “It’s not about should we legalize marijuana, it’s about when and how.”
Federal legalization at play
There are federal bills on the table to legalize hemp, to open banking to the marijuana industry, to reform tax laws that penalize cannabis businesses, to expand marijuana research and more. And the future of all of those bills hinges on the result of 470 seats in Congress that are being contested Nov. 6.
In the unlikely event that both the House and Senate flip to Democratic control, Collins believes there’s a good chance that the United States could follow the course charted this week by Canada and legalize marijuana, probably in the next two years.
More than six in 10 Americans now support legal marijuana, according to a Pew Research Center poll released Oct. 8. Support has doubled since 2000, the poll shows, with 62 percent now favoring legalization.
Those statistics seem to be pressuring candidates who’ve been either on the fence or standing firm against cannabis to start backing reform.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, for example, who’s favored to beat fellow Democrat Kevin de Leon on Nov. 6, has long opposed cannabis legalization. But Collins said, “I think she’s seen the political winds shift in the past couple years.”
In May, Feinstein told reporters that she no longer opposed legalization. And in September, Feinstein signed on as a cosponsor to the STATES Act, which would make marijuana federally legal in states where voters or the legislature approve it.
As the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is a first stop for many marijuana-related bills, Feinstein will likely became chair of that group if the Senate flips to Democratic control. That role is now held by Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who has blocked a number of cannabis bills from even getting hearings.
The odds are stacked against Democrats taking control of the Senate on Nov. 6. But they’re looking more favorable when it comes to flipping the House, with several key races to watch in Southern California.
Perhaps the most intriguing battle for marijuana advocates is the deadlocked race for the 48th District in Orange County between longtime GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and Democrat Harley Rouda.
Though he largely aligns with President Donald Trump on issues such as immigration and the environment, Rohrabacher has been one of the nation’s most vocal advocates for medical marijuana, acknowledging he’s used topical products himself to ease arthritis. And he said earlier this month that Trump has assured him medical marijuana will be federally legalized in the next legislative session.
In the wake of that news, Rep. Earl Blumenhauer, D-Oregon, released a memo Oct. 16 laying out a “blueprint to legalize marijuana” by the end of 2019 if Democrats win big on Election Day.
“If we fail to act swiftly,” Blumenhauer wrote, “I fear as the 2020 election approaches, Donald Trump will claim credit for our work in an effort to shore up support — especially from young voters. Democrats must seize the moment.”
State marijuana measures
The number of states that permit recreational marijuana is expected to reach double digits on Nov. 6, but not just because of blue states.
Michigan and North Dakota, which both went for Trump in 2016, already permit medical marijuana, but will vote on whether to join the nine states that have already legalized recreational marijuana for adults.
Michigan would be the first Midwest state to legalize recreational cannabis. Its ballot measure calls for rules that would be largely similar to what Californians approved two years ago, though Michigan residents would be able to grow twice as many plants at home and taxes would be 5 percent lower.
Michigan’s legalization measure is polling high and is expected to pass.
If North Dakota approves legalization, it will be the second solidly red state in the nation to do so. The first was Alaska, which approved legal cannabis in 2014.
North Dakota’s ballot measure is unusual in that it doesn’t establish a tax or lay out specific regulations for the industry, leaving that work to future legislators. Polls are showing mixed results, but opponents have raised substantially more moneythan supporters.
Two other red states, Missouri and Utah, will vote Nov. 6 on whether to join the 31 states that have legalized medical marijuana.
While polls show strong support for legalizing medical marijuana in Missouri, efforts may be hampered by the fact that three competing measures will be on the ballot. There are significant differences between the three measures, though, with home growing banned by one and proposed taxes that range from 2 to 15 percent.
Utah’s ballot measure would tightly regulate medical marijuana, with smoking banned and home growing only allowed if patients live 100 miles or more from a licensed dispensary. The proposition is polling high. But even if it doesn’t pass, Gov. Gary Herbert has said he will push to legalize medical marijuana through the legislature.
Local marijuana measures
Though Californians voted to legalize recreational cannabis in 2016, Proposition 64 gave cities and counties power to regulate commercial cannabis activity in their borders, meaning the makeup of the marijuana industry in the state is far from settled.
Only around a third of California cities and counties so far permit any sort of marijuana business to set up shop, according to a database of local policies compiled by Southern California News Group.
“It’s just not enough to sustain a healthy market,” said Jackie McGowan, a licensing and business development specialist with Sacramento-based K Street Consulting who’s been tracking local marijuana policy in California since early 2016.
Leaders of local jurisdictions don’t have to ask voter permission to ban or welcome marijuana businesses, though some do. And voter approval is required if they want to tax marijuana businesses on top of the state tax of 15 percent and regular sales tax that averages 8 percent.
There are 81 cannabis-related measures in 69 jurisdictions on the ballot Nov. 6, McGowan’s records show.
In Los Angeles County, Malibu is asking voters whether it should permit recreational cannabis businesses and tax them at 2.5 percent. Maywood and Pomona also have cannabis tax measures on the ballot.
Los Angeles is asking residents to decide whether it should explore creating a first-of-its-kind municipal bank, in part to expand financial services for its massive marijuana industry. The measure is one sentence long and doesn’t mention cannabis. The lack of information about how much such an endeavor would cost and how it would work has led the Los Angeles Times and others to oppose the measure.
In the Inland Empire, seven cities will vote on marijuana-related measures Nov. 6. That includes two right-leaning communities: Hemet and Hesperia.
San Bernardino residents are suffering from whiplash, having already approved two cannabis initiatives in 2016. But a judge threw the winning measure out, so the city council is asking voters to approve a plan they’ve drafted for regulating the industry.
In Orange County, residents of left-leaning Santa Ana — the only city in the county that permits all types of cannabis ventures — will vote on taxing recreational cannabis businesses at up to 10 percent plus from 25 cents to $35 per square foot. The city taxes medical marijuana businesses at 6 percent, but has been relying on an 8 percent “operating agreement fee” to recoup costs from recreational businesses since sales started Jan. 1.
Residents in other parts of the state — from Kern County to Emeryville — will also vote on local marijuana measures. But the future of the industry hangs in the balance even in some communities where the issue isn’t on the ballot.
In Montebello, for example, the city council already voted to allow some marijuana businesses in town. But they haven’t yet approved any licenses and have been deadlocked since Mayor Vanessa Delgado resigned to become a state senator. Now, three city council seats are up for grabs Nov. 6.
McGowan founded a political action committee called Californians for Sensible Regulation of Adult Use to support candidates who favor regulating marijuana in communities that voted yes on Prop. 64 but where “the will of the people is being thwarted.”
The group hoped to back candidates on the ballot Nov. 6, but McGowan said they ran out of time after it took the PAC seven tries to find a bank that would give them an account. Now they’re focused on raising funds to support marijuana-friendly measures and candidates in the 2020 presidential election, when McGowan expects more communities to consider welcoming commercial cannabis.
“I feel that this trend will continue upward as we see the market stabilize and as we see local jurisdictions collect tax money.”