A green wave washed ashore from the Great Lakes on Tuesday as Michigan voters OK’d marijuana by a healthy margin of 56-44 percent, making Michigan the tenth state in the United States to legalize recreational pot. At the same time, voters approved medical marijuana ballot measures in Missouri and Utah, making them the 32nd and 33rd US states to legalize medical marijuana.
At first glance, these victories for drug policy reform may seem like the vanguard of a nationwide sweep that could end with federal legalization. But in reality, the details of the Michigan, Missouri, and Utah situations show just how far the US is from federal marijuana legalization.
For evidence that these state-level victories aren’t necessarily the beginning of a federal landslide, one needs to look no further than Michigan, where despite the sizable margin by which legalization won, some residents — and big businesses — are still fighting the decision.
Similarly, in Missouri and Utah, there are still serious obstacles to full legalization, indicating that federal recreational marijuana legalization is still in the distance.
Below are some of the reasons each state may not be the pot bellwether it seems to be.
Scott Greenlee, the director of Healthy and Productive Michigan, a group that formed expressly to oppose the legalization proposal, told the Detroit Free Press that the group, whose largest donor is the Michigan-based Dow Chemical Company, isn’t done fighting. “Every option will be looked at because the committee feels that this is bad for Michigan,” he said. “And Michigan is part of the United States and it’s still illegal federally.”
It goes — almost — without saying that federal law has not stopped nine other states from legalizing recreational marijuana so that last point carries very little weight.
Despite Michigan’s vote of approval, there are still a few significant restrictions on marijuana use. For instance, employers will still be allowed to maintain zero-tolerance policies for employees who use marijuana, and landlords can prohibit tenants from growing plants or smoking. These protections are absent, even though Michigan residents will be allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces on their person, 10 ounces in their home, and 12 plants for personal use.
Over a year before Tuesday’s vote, Missouri voters had already agreed to lessen marijuana penalties for first-time offenders, so the new change could be seen as a long time coming. But this move had also included some serious shortcomings, including very low fines that encouraged offenders to plead guilty to charges — bringing the consequence of a drug conviction on a criminal record, something that can leave a person ineligible for government assistance ranging from food stamps to college grants.
In response to the “relaxed” status of marijuana, advocates mobilized to get the medical marijuana measure on November’s ballot. So even though the measure passed, that doesn’t mean that all Missourians support marijuana legalization.
Utah voters’ move to legalize medical marijuana came as something of a surprise, given the state’s heavily conservative leanings. Not all events can be judged from the outcome, though, as this ballot measure’s passage took some behind-the-scenes compromise.
As Utah’s conservative lawmakers realized that a large majority of Utahans supported medical marijuana legalization, they became willing to cut a deal, reports Marijuana Movement. So whether the ballot measure passed on not, a bill that had been crafted as a compromise would have still gone into effect, ensuring patients could access marijuana.
As in Michigan and Missouri, Utah’s success came despite powerful opponents, indicating that this fight is far from over.
Wait, why is North Dakota on this list? Well, that’s because North Dakotans struck down a ballot measure on Tuesday that would have legalized recreational marijuana. The state already allows for medical marijuana, but Tuesday’s vote could have further rolled back restrictions. Some critics, including the North Dakota Association of Counties, protested that the proposed law wouldn’t have controlled the market enough, reports Prairie Public.
Taken along with the other challenges still facing marijuana legalization in Michigan, Missouri, and Utah, it seems safe to say that these encouraging results from Tuesday’s ballots are not triggering an avalanche. But they represent slow and steady progress, as well as a level of reform that may have been unthinkable 20 years ago.