Ask Our Experts: Impacts of COVID-19 on Legalization Campaigns


Q: How are legislative distractions and social restrictions from battling the pandemic likely to impact legalization efforts this election cycle?

A: Certainly, as the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic take their incalculable toll on human lives and socioeconomic aftershocks, neither the political arena nor legal cannabis industry in the United States shall be spared from significant disruptions.

Crises stemming from the coronavirus have distracted governmental officials and derailed petition drives, frustrating legalization efforts in the short term. At least 11 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands still technically have viable initiatives remaining in play, though it is unlikely that they will all come to fruition by this fall. Still, some initiatives having already qualified for consideration in November’s elections will remain in play.

Mississippi can consider medical cannabis on its ballot, while Arizona, Montana, and New Jersey voters may consider adult-use legalization. South Dakota was due to consider both adult-use and medical use. Meanwhile, legislatures in Alabama and Kentucky remain due consider medical cannabis, while those of Connecticut, New Mexico, and Vermont are reportedly yet to consider adult-use measures.

COVID-19 has also introduced a wildcard to the 2020 election campaigns, through calls to broadly expand voting by mail. Those are fueled both by concerns about public health amid the pandemic and efforts to increase ballot access for poor and disadvantaged communities, who often face the steepest hurdles to voting (whether due to few convenient polling places, inability to take time off work to vote, or disabilities limiting mobility). While political scientists have found no partisan advantages through voting by mail, it may aid cannabis initiatives due to growing bipartisan support for the issue, especially among younger voters.

In the longer term, of course, given that states will be under immense pressure to make up for vast budgetary shortfalls, there are some expectations for legalization to gain a groundswell of support momentum, possibly sufficient to lead toward the repeal of federal prohibition in the post-COVID-19 recovery period.

Further, the debate whether to release nonviolent offenders (most of whom are imprisoned on drug charges) from prisons and jails in an effort to increase social distancing in the penal system will likely add to debate about the social utility of highly punitive approaches to enforcing low-level drug offenses.

“There is a great opportunity to think outside the box when you’re coming out of a deep recession, especially in the case of … Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut,” Mark Gorman, chief operating officer for the National Association of Cannabis Businesses (NACB) told The Hill. “They should be moving quickly toward cannabis legalization. There’s a lot of tax revenue in that, and I think they’d be missing a huge opportunity.”