North Dakota was marijuana-policy reform’s unexpected and very welcome surprise two years ago. So it was perhaps no huge surprise when the state, among the country’s most conservative, reverted back to form on Election Night on Tuesday.
According to preliminary results available Wednesday morning, voters rejected what was arguably one of the most progressive marijuana-legalization measures presented to an American electorate. Had Measure 3 been passed, adults over 21 would have been able to possess an unlimited amount of cannabis without fear of criminal penalties, and most marijuana-related crimes would have been expunged.
That may have been too much, too soon for North Dakota voters, who soundly rejected the measure, 59.5 percent against to 40.5 percent in favor. At the same time, unlike in other states, legalization supporters were outgunned by prohibitionist forces.
According to campaign-finance disclosure forms, business interests in the state all spent heavily to defeat the measure, with the Chamber of Commerce, oil and gas interests, and out-of-state pro-prohibition forces all contributing roughly $100,000 to defeat the measure in October alone, outspending legalization supporters by more than 2 to 1.
The result also breaks sharply from polling that showed just north of 51 percent of voters supporting the measure, albeit with undecided voters in double digits.
Still, North Dakota’s setback is only the second time a marijuana legalization initiative has lost at the polls over the past six years.
In that time, voters in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, California, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Maine have all approved recreational marijuana for adults 21 and over. Only Arizona, in 2016, failed to legalize cannabis when presented the opportunity. (An early effort in California in 2010 also failed to pass.)
The setback still shows that despite immense popular support for broad drug-policy reform in every poll, there’s still a disconnect — and one with origins in elected leadership.
It’s possible that North Dakota’s legalization measure went too far with no possession limits, giving opponents space to spread misinformation that there is some nexus between the amount of cannabis available and vague “harm to children” — the scare tactics employed in other states, despite no factual basis. It’s also possible that the measure was too vague and gave too much power to the Legislature.
The measure itself gave no details on taxation or availability, leaving all that up to state lawmakers, who evidently had little interest in dealing with legal cannabis, despite positive, revenue-generating models to follow in the states mentioned above.
That may be Measure 3’s lesson: Do not trust lawmakers. In the two years since medical marijuana’s unexpected victory, North Dakota lawmakers have also failed to open a single dispensary. The first dispensaries are supposed to open sometime next year.
TELL US, are you surprised North Dakota failed to pass adult-use cannabis?