In a time of growing political divisions, marijuana legalization remains a unifying issue for most Americans. A Pew Research poll from October revealed that 59% of Americans support recreational legalization, while a staggering 88% support medical marijuana. However, recent ballot measures to legalize marijuana have faced hurdles. In November, recreational cannabis initiatives failed in Arkansas, North Dakota, and South Dakota, only passing in Maryland and Missouri.
Furthermore, in March, Oklahoma witnessed a 23-point decline in support for recreational marijuana. While the polling indicates significant support for legalization, it often falls short in the voting booths. Two key reasons explain these failures: the remaining non-legalized states lean conservative, and opponents have developed effective strategies, particularly in conservative regions.
One notable strategy involves opponents carefully choosing their messengers. In states like North Dakota, the influential Farm Bureau and the North Dakota Medical Association voiced their opposition to legalization. The latter argued that it would hinder drug addiction treatment, a persuasive argument when doctors discuss public health concerns. Moreover, opponents have successfully linked marijuana to public safety issues, playing on voters’ concerns about crime and policing.
For instance, in Oklahoma, opponents portrayed the medical marijuana industry as violent, citing a shooting at a cannabis farm. This narrative resonated with voters who value law enforcement’s perspective. In North Dakota, opponents connected marijuana to impaired driving, capitalizing on the existing concerns about drunken driving. In South Dakota, opponents blamed higher crime rates in other states on recreational marijuana.
Republicans have also emphasized protecting children as a potent argument against legalization. Groups like “Protecting South Dakota Kids” argued that legal marijuana contributes to higher opioid fatality rates among youth. Sheriffs in some states have associated marijuana with methamphetamine and fentanyl.
Interestingly, some legalization advocates have opposed specific measures because they disagreed with certain provisions. In Arkansas, for instance, a prominent marijuana activist joined forces with opponents to defeat the state’s legalization proposal, arguing that it favored corporate dispensaries and lacked expungement provisions for prior marijuana convictions, disproportionately impacting Black and brown communities.
To counter these challenges, proponents of legal marijuana in conservative states should reframe the debate. They can emphasize how cannabis taxes will fund critical initiatives like rural infrastructure. Using trusted messengers such as veterans, police chiefs, and Republican prosecutors can underscore the need to end the failed war on drugs, which has benefited drug cartels. Advocates must also ensure their message dominates the discourse, as opponents have become increasingly sophisticated in their tactics.
When Colorado passed Amendment 64 in 2012, some voters misunderstood its purpose. Marijuana legalization advocates must learn from these experiences to effectively frame the debate, especially as opponents continue to refine their strategies.