With three weeks left until the midterms, recreational marijuana initiatives are on track to change the national landscape for cannabis legalization efforts.

Adult-use cannabis could soon be legal in nearly half the states.

In November, voters will decide on the legality of adult-use marijuana consumption in these five states: North Dakota, Arkansas, South Dakota, Maryland, and Missouri.

Nineteen states and the District have adopted cannabis legalization over the past decade, while medical marijuana is currently legal in 37 states, three territories, and Washington D.C.

However, much has transpired on the cannabis legalization front in the last decade. Just ten years ago, adult-use cannabis was illegal across the nation. However, all this progress in the movement hasn't been without its setbacks.

Most recently, voters rejected a ballot initiative to legalize adult-use cannabis in Arizona in 2016 and N. Dakota in 2018. However, voters from the Grand Canyon state changed their tune and voted in favor of the measure the following year.

The strategy

Most states that have legalized adult-use cannabis have prevailed by citizen-initiated ballot measures.

The proliferation of ballot measures in recent years correlates with the increasing polarization of our political system, according to the executive director of the Fairness Project, Kelly Hall - whose group funds and organizes state ballot measure efforts across the country.

The disconnect between voters and politicians is particularly evident in marijuana legalization. Over two-thirds of Americans favor recreational marijuana consumption being legalized federally and on the state level, according to the latest polling.
Marijuana continues to be categorized as a Schedule I substance at the federal level putting it on par with drugs such as ecstasy and heroin with no perceived medical benefit.

However, advocates are hopeful for cannabis reclassification based on the recent action by the Biden administration, which pardoned over six thousand convictions for “simple possession” of cannabis under federal law earlier this month, signaling a more significant shift in the country’s views on cannabis consumption.

Even if marijuana advocates are as successful in the upcoming midterm elections as they were in 2020, the fight for legalization isn’t always a clear road, even when most voters show their support at the polls.

In South Dakota, a ballot measure, if successful, would legalize the possession, consumption, and distribution of up to one ounce of marijuana for those 21 and older. If that initiative sounds familiar, it's because South Dakotans have been down this road once recently enough.

Back in 2020, South Dakota voters were the first to simultaneously endorse medical and adult-use legalization, with 54 percent approval. However, the state supreme court invalidated the adult-use initiative concluding that the amendment violated the state constitution’s single-subject rule. To avoid a similar outcome, cannabis advocates shortened and simplified the amendment on the ballot this year.