Ask Our Experts: State Legalization Initiatives


Q: As both New York and Florida failed to fulfill recreational legalization initiatives this year, what is the outlook for reform in other states?


By John Kagia, Chief Knowledge Officer, New Frontier Data

A: While it is true that legalization efforts fell short of activation in the nation’s third- and fourth-largest states, respectively, it is also true that public and political support remains strong in both Florida and New York. Furthermore, ongoing reform efforts in Arizona, Montana, and South Dakota – three of the most traditionally conservative states to propose adult use legalization – are likely better indicators of continued momentum for legalization nationwide.

Much attention was given to New York and Florida insofar as they would combine to grant more than 40 million Americans with access to fully legal cannabis, and thereby generate billions of dollars in revenue.

Despite the setbacks in both states’ markets, they were driven more by local political and market factors than by any declines in public support or economic will. Indeed, looking at states where legalization initiatives will be on fall ballots, lends credence to national polling data showing that legalization support is gaining rather than losing any significant momentum.

In Florida, competition between two campaigns seeking to earn a question on the ballot proved to be fatal to either one’s doing so. The key difference between the two proposals was that whereas one would have permitted medical cannabis patients to grow their own plants, the other aimed to prohibit home cultivation. The issue sufficiently split the messaging (and funding) for the reform efforts, resulting in a conflicted and ultimately ineffective statewide effort. Furthermore, given Florida’s relatively early qualifying deadline, neither initiative was able to gather the requisite signatures in time.

Nevertheless, statewide polling shows 64% of Floridians in support of adult-use legalization;  since the collected signatures remain valid for two years, both campaigns are refocusing on the 2022 election cycle. Meanwhile, a state legislator has introduced legalization which may hasten Florida’s path to recreational cannabis by a year.

New York faced a different issue. After years of lobbying by advocates and a failed attempt to adopt a measure in 2019, legislators and the governor alike seemed committed to reaching compromise legislation for a recreational program in early 2020. Unfortunately, outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic exploded in New York, making it the early epicenter of the disease in the U.S., and forcing negotiations aside in the rush to address public health, policing, and economic issues amid unprecedented disruption.

While no legalization bill is likely to reach resolution before the end of the session, the probability for lawmakers facing intense pressure to legalize in 2021 have increased dramatically. Polling shows support from 58% of New York voters. Furthermore, should New Jersey legalize adult use via ballot initiative this fall (as polling also suggests), resultant revenue for New Jersey from New York cannabis buyers will increase pressure to keep such commerce in-state.

Arizona will be voting on recreational legalization for the second time (a 2016 initiative failed by the narrowest of margins,49% vs. 51%). For this cycle, various polls show two-thirds of voters supporting the measure, suggesting a comfortable margin to passage.

Last week, Montana state officials confirmed that advocates have collected enough signatures to qualify for November’s ballot. And while polling from early 2019 showed slight majority support (51% reporting “yes”, 37% “no”, 12% “don’t know”, respectively), advocates insist that support has gained sufficient momentum to secure passage.

South Dakota notably stands to advance both medical and adult-use legalization this year. Despite the state’s having some of the nation’s most punitive cannabis-possession laws, the Marijuana Policy Project reports finding sufficient support for both measures to pass.

That recreational cannabis appears poised this November to become legal in three reliably conservative states seems a far more significant bellwether than either Florida or New York’s delays in terms of the spreading support for legalization throughout the nation in the coming years.