Budding Change

An overlooked 2020 election moment signals a change in America’s marijuana policy

"I think it tells us we can expect that this will happen."

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When the polls closed on November 3, Americans still didn't know who their next president would be.

However, there was a clear signal that many Americans do want one thing: legal marijuana.

This election, four states passed ballot measures that allow for adult-use of marijuana. Voters in Arizona, New Jersey, Montana, and South Dakota voted to legalize recreational use for people over the age of 21.

The margins were wide: Sixty-seven percent of New Jersey voters, 57 percent of Montana voters, 53 percent of South Dakota voters, and 60 percent of Arizona voters voted in favor. Now, there are 15 states where the drug is legal for recreational use, meaning about one in three Americans now live in a state where recreational marijuana is legal.

The results of these ballot measures are indicative of a shift in the way that marijuana policy – specifically legalization policy – is viewed in the United State explains, Rebecca Haffajee. Haffajee ia health policy analyst at the RAND Corporation and an adjunct professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

“It's reflective of the national temperature in terms of support for marijuana legalization” she tells Inverse. “I think it tells us we can expect that this will happen.”

For now, voter attitudes are still in stark contrast to the federal government’s official stance on marijuana. Marijuana has been a Schedule I drug since 1972. In the eyes of the Controlled Substances Act, there’s “no currently accepted medical use," and there's a high risk for abuse.

A polling station in Patterson, New Jersey. New Jersey voted to legalize recreational marijuana via a ballot measure during the 2020 election. Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Crucially, the passing of these ballot measures suggests that the country's poised to rethink marijuana in red states, places where legalizing once seemed out of reach – and perhaps on the federal level.

That would have sweeping implications for marijuana research. Historically, marijuana science has been stalled stalled in the U.S. because of it is not legal federally. Researchers argue that, in turn, they haven't been able to conduct the research necessary for public health decisions.

The future of legalized marijuana

About 59 percent of people in the U.S. support legalization for recreational use according to a 2019 Pew Center Poll. Meanwhile, a Gallup poll from October 2019 estimated that 66 percent of Americans support legalization.

Despite that popularity, marijuana legalization has remained a partisan policy issue. That same 2019 Pew Research Center Poll noted that 78 percent of Democrats and Democrat-leaning Independents supported legalization. But only 55 percent of Republicans, and Republican-leaning Independents supported legalization.

Yet legalization measures still passed in conservative states like Montana and South Dakota, both of which went for Trump this election. It’s a change from the more Democrat-leaning states that have recently legalized marijuana like Illinois and Michigan, says Haffajee.

The ballots suggest that even polarized communities can find common ground in marijuana legalization (even if the reasons they want to legalize may differ).

“This is a trend that will continue, and is moving now into more conservative states as well,” Haffajee says.

She alo expects that there will be federal movement on legalization before extremely conservative states hop on board.

This support in redder states suggests that we may start to see echoes of wider support for marijuana legalization bills at the federal level. If federal marijuana policy is going to change, we’re likely to see it in the legislative branch of government ”because they represent the will of the people,” Haffajee says.

“If enough people from the states are in favor of legalization and feel that the federal policies are standing in the way of states, Congresspersons would come forward and pass a bill to make it legal, or reschedule marijuana."

What would happen if we legalized at the federal level? – The 2019 Gallup poll found that 89 percent of poll respondents said that they support legalization for pesonal health reasons – specifically marijuana’s medicinal potential. Meanwhile opponents of legalization see societal measures, like car accidents or youth access, as the major reason they oppose legalization.

Both reasons suffer from lack of research, something that legalization may rectify.

Marijuana legalization is being tested at the state level. Four states voted to legalize recreational marijuana during the 2020 election via ballot measures. Edwin Remsberg/ Getty Images

We’ve seen increasing evidence that marijuana could pain management applications. Additionally, other cannabinoids (compounds present in the plant) may have therapeutic effects. But the research is still limited by marijuana’s Schedule 1 status, which creates deterrents from funding studies and jumping through hoops to conduct them.

“It is considered an illegal substance,” says Haffajee. “All research related to it is closely monitored and can only be done with federally sourced marijuana at this point. And that substantially restricts the ability to do research.”

The same goes for public health approaches to marijuana research. Using the limited data we have from states, scientists have found both evidence and no evidence of increase in traffic accidents. Studies have also suggested that setting specific age limits — like 19 as opposed to 21 — may help discourage youth access. (We do know, however, that marijuana has negative effects on developing brains).

“We need more evidence at a population level of what happens when we open up access,” Haffajee says.

In both cases, the absence of the ability to conduct in-depth research means the benefits and side-effects of marijuana are left to the whims of anecdotal evidence rather than science.

Take the case of cannabidiol or CBD which, in the form of Epidiolex, is FDA-approved to treat severe epilepsy. In absence of robust research and regulation, CBD industry claims have hyped it as a cure-all. The same pattern is repeating itself for Delta-8-THC, a less potent form of THC that has developed a reputation for anxiety-soothing effects based despite limited study-backed evidence.

The ballot measures are helping send a clear message, says Haffajee. The American public is interested in learning more about marijuana, even in more conservative states where it once seemed like a pipe dream.

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