NEW: 5 states approve legalizing recreational or medical marijuana

Initiatives have gotten some support from conservatives in select states

Voters on Tuesday approved the legalization of recreational marijuana in Arizona, New Jersey and South Dakota while other states also considered whether to allow marijuana for either recreational or medical purposes.

South Dakota became the first state Tuesday to approve medical and recreational marijuana measures in one fell swoop. The state is also considered one of the most conservative to consider and approve such an initiative. Tuesday night’s results in South Dakota had been watched closely, with the state being one of the most conservative considering it.

South Dakotans defeated medical marijuana in 2012, but much has changed since then. Neighboring North Dakota and Minnesota allow it. South Dakota has had tough penalties for possession of even small amounts of cannabis, according to CNN. Republican Gov. Kristi Noem opposed both ballot measures, and recently appeared in an advertisement urging a “no” vote against full legalization.

“The fact is, I’ve never met someone who got smarter for smoking pot,” Noem said in the ad. “It’s not good for our kids and it’s not going to improve our communities.”

New Jersey’s passage of the ballot measure came after an earlier effort failed to push the issue through the state Legislature. In Arizona, voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 207, which allows anyone 21 or older to possess up to 1 ounce of cannabis, whose sales will be taxed by 16%.

Proponents for pot have long said national legalization will only gain ground once Republican senators have a reason to bring up the issue. After Election Day, things could move in that direction. Three of the four states voting on recreational use are red ones: Arizona, Montana and South Dakota. As of late Wednesday afternoon, Mississippi has passed its ballot for medical use of marijuana and Montana has passed its initiative as well.

“It’s really showing the kind of breadth of acceptance that we’re seeing around the country with respect to cannabis,” Steven Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group that works with many of the ballot initiatives, told CNN.

Some have predicted that a victory for Democratic nominee Joe Biden, or a potential liberal sweep in the Senate, could pump up marijuana companies. But initiatives on the ballot in a handful of conservative states show Republicans are increasingly on board with legalization as well, so a national wave against federal prohibition could occur no matter who is in office.

A survey of 500 New Jersey voters from law firm Brach Eichler LLC earlier this month revealed the likelihood of the state legalizing adult recreational use by a 2-to-1 margin, but Republican support was also there. Democrats were still the ones more in favor — at 75%, but the majority of Republicans also supported the measure — at 52%.

“People are just much less afraid of marijuana than they used to be,” said John Fanburg, who co-chairs the cannabis practice at the New Jersey-based law firm that conducted the poll. He attributes that to the state’s successful medical program, which has grown from 20,000 participants three years ago to 90,000, removing the stigma of marijuana for thousands of people on both sides of the political aisle.


As bipartisan support for legalization grows in states across the country, there’s increased likelihood of change at the federal level, too. First up might be the STATES Act, which wouldn’t legalize cannabis but would defer authority to states, giving them leeway to allow interstate traffic and further develop their own laws.

The act has a good chance of passing in the first year of a new administration. If it does, it would pave the way to get rid of the industry’s biggest albatross — tax code 280E. Without the measure, which bars cannabis companies from deducting their operating expenses for tax purposes, many companies would suddenly have better cash flow, Cowen analyst Vivien Azer said in a Sept. 24 research note. Three multi-state operators that she rates outperform — Green Thumb Industries Inc., Curaleaf Holdings Inc. and Cresco Labs Inc. — would immediately have positive earnings.

As of Tuesday’s results, 34 states have legalized medical cannabis. Fourteen of those states have legalized marijuana for recreational use.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.