1 in 3 Americans now lives in a state where recreational marijuana is legal

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Some 16 million Americans were added to the list of places that allow adults to use marijuana legally, after voters in New Jersey and Arizona on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved ballot measures on weed.

They will join about 93 million Americans who live in states that already have legalized weed, meaning about 1 in 3 Americans now live in states where marijuana is legal for anyone at least 21 years old.

South Dakota and Mississippi voters also approved measures to legalize medical marijuana on Election Day. And ballot measures legalizing recreational marijuana in South Dakota and Montana hadn’t been called by early Wednesday — but both measures looked to be on their way to passing.

The momentum in states, including deep red parts of the country, should be a call to action for the federal government, said Steve Hawkins, the executive director of legalization advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

“Regardless of who controls the White House, the House and the Senate, we should demand landmark federal marijuana reform in 2021,” Hawkins said.

The New Jersey measure does not immediately legalize marijuana, however. The state Legislature still needs to pass legislation to implement legalization.

The background: Voters in five states were tasked with whether to approve measures to legalize medical or adult-use marijuana this election. Referendums on recreational marijuana in South Dakota and Montana had not been called by early Wednesday, but both appear likely to pass. South Dakota is making history as the first state in which voters are deciding on both medical and recreational marijuana in the same election.

2020 was expected to be an even bigger year for cannabis, but the pandemic derailed medical marijuana legalization efforts in Idaho and North Dakota, and doomed recreational legalization initiatives in Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Advocates in Nebraska, meanwhile, collected enough signatures to make the ballot — but the state Supreme Court ordered the Secretary of State to remove the question. And a highly anticipated effort to legalize adult-use marijuana in Florida failed before the pandemic hit.

Pro-legalization groups outraised opponents in every state. In New Jersey, supporters of marijuana legalization out-raised and out-spent opponents 99 to one. In Arizona, they outraised opponents 10 to 1. Even travel guru Rick Steves got involved, giving $50,000 this year to further legalization campaigns.

The impact: If all four recreational initiatives on the ballot this year ultimately pass, more than 1 in 3 Americans will live in states where marijuana is legal for adults to use.

New Jersey and Arizona, with 8.9 million and 7.3 million residents, respectively, are the biggest wins for advocates this year. Legalization in New Jersey is expected to create a domino effect for legalization in other large East Coast states, including Pennsylvania and New York.

South Dakota, Montana and Mississippi, while much smaller, are significant in another way: As red states, the passage of marijuana measures illustrates the shift in Republican sentiment toward marijuana.

The impact of these ballot measures will be felt in Congress, especially if Democrats regain control of the Senate. If all the measures ultimately pass, a third of House members will represent states where marijuana is legal, as will a fourth of the Senate. If Democrats end up in control of both chambers next year, expect those legal state lawmakers to be called upon to vote on significant changes to federal marijuana policy — including removing all federal penalties for using it.

The response: Anti-legalization advocates on Tuesday pointed to the highly-funded pro-legalization campaigns as a sign that marijuana is becoming a big business like the tobacco or alcohol industries.

"It seems that with multi-state operators dumping millions into Arizona once again, they have successfully secured their marijuana monopoly of the state," said Kevin Sabet, founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. Sabet also promised his organization would work to ensure few local jurisdictions in Arizona or New Jersey decide to allow the production or distribution of marijuana.

Pro-marijuana advocates, meanwhile, hailed the passage of both recreational measures as wins for criminal justice reform. In New Jersey, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws called on the Legislature to prioritize criminal justice reform and social equity in writing regulations.

“The ‘yes’ vote is only the first step toward justice," said ACLU New Jersey Executive Director Amol Sinha. "Lawmakers must create an inclusive, racially just, equitable cannabis industry, enable robust expungement of records, and invest revenue in the communities hit hardest by unjust drug law enforcement, especially Black and brown communities."

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