Three States Just Rejected Cannabis Legalization. What Are the Lessons?

November 14, 2022

Maryland and Missouri approved ballot measures to legalize adult-use cannabis on November 8—making a total of 21 states nationwide that have legalized. But another three states—North Dakota, South Dakota and Arkansas—voted against legalization. What were the factors behind these defeats, and what can activists take away as they contemplate future campaigns?

For one thing, all three states saw decreased voter turnout compared to 2020, dropping over 21 points in North Dakota especially. 

“Years where voter turnout is low, those are tough for us to win in conservative states,” Jared Moffat, campaigns manager for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Filter.

“The wind was not at our back—it was in our face.”

Moffat was involved in both campaigns in the Dakotas. And both of them struggled to raise the money to counteract their opponents.

“When we don’t have enough resources to push back and assure voters the fear tactics from the other side are not true, then we’re not able to win those middle voters,” he said. “I do think we ran great campaigns with the resources that we have, but the wind was not at our back—it was in our face.”


South Dakota

In South Dakota, Measure 27 lost narrowly, with 53 percent opposed (183,864 votes) and 47 percent in favor (163,570).

As Moffat pointed out, opposition to legalization was well organized and well funded in South Dakota. “The opponents were up on TV running pretty horrific ads, saying This is going to cause your kids to commit suicide,” he said. “They had an army of mayors and Republican local candidates just putting the fear of God, so to speak, in voters.”

Legalization opponents spent over $359,000 in South Dakota, according to Moffat—more than twice as much as supporters.

“In 2020, our campaign was more well-resourced. We had the upper hand to assure voters this was not going to be a doomsday scenario.”

The outcome was a reversal of the one seen in a 2020 legalization measure in the state, which passed with 54 percent support. Though successful, that measure never took effect because of a lawsuit funded in part by Governor Kristi Noem (R). Litigants argued that Amendment A was unconstitutional because it violated a rule requiring amendments to be more limited in scope. The state Supreme Court agreed, invalidating the amendment and leaving it to voters to decide again this time around.

“In 2020, our campaign was more well-resourced,” Moffat recalled. “We had the upper hand to go on TV and put more messages out there to assure voters this was not going to be a doomsday scenario.”

In 2022, support for legalization fell by enough to make all the difference. Overall, it won eight out of 66 South Dakota counties. In four counties—Ziebach, Dewey, Buffalo and Clay—legalization won for the first time. However, for the four counties where legalization won in both 2020 and 2022, support fell in each case. For example, in Minnehaha County (seat of Sioux Falls, the state’s largest city), support dropped from 60 percent in 2020 to 54.7 support in 2022. And the result flipped in four other counties—Lincoln, Pennington, Brown and Codington—all of which backed legalization in 2020 but opposed it in 2022.

Having won once before, South Dakota advocates will be confident they can do it again if they find the backing they need.


North Dakota

In North Dakota, Measure 2 lost by a slightly wider margin—with just under 55 percent opposed (130,849 votes) and 45 percent in favor (107,279). The Yes campaign here was also at a financial disadvantage—in fact, Moffat said that North Dakota had the lowest-ever fundraising total for legalization.

Still, in a promising sign for advocates, support for legalization is growing over time. A 2018 adult-use legalization measure lost with 40.5 percent support. That means voters swung almost five points in favor of legalization this time around.

A glass-half-full take on North Dakota would see rising support making it only a matter of time.

But legalization won in just four out of 53 counties statewide. In rural Sioux and Rolette Counties, it won a second time but with slightly less support. Meanwhile, Grand Forks County flipped in favor of legalization. And in Cass County, the most populated in the state and the seat of Fargo, support rose from 50.8 percent in 2018 to 56.8 percent.

Although legalization lost in North Dakota’s 49 other counties, support grew in almost every one of those counties. The only two exceptions were Eddy and Benson; support dropped by less than one percentage point in each (enough to flip Benson, where legalization marginally won in 2018).

So a glass-half-full take on North Dakota would see rising support making it only a matter of time before the state legalizes.



In Arkansas, Issue 4 lost by the widest margin of the three, with a little over 56 percent opposed (501,967 votes) and a little under 44 percent in favor (389,944 votes). (At publication time, votes have yet to be officially certified.)

Unlike in the Dakotas, funding doesn’t appear to have been central to this defeat. In fact, the pro-legalization campaign in Arkansas spent over five times as much as its opponents, dropping over $3.9 million. This probably helped to carve out a sizable polling lead for legalization by September.

But that lead dwindled as the measure faced loud opposition from right and left. The state’s Republican lawmakers—including Governor Asa Hutchinson and US Senators Tom Cotton and John Boozman—repeatedly spoke out against legalization. What’s more, some progressive cannabis advocates also opposed the measure on grounds that will be familiar to observers of nationwide legalization debates, calling it a giveaway to Big Weed corporations. They cited the measure’s lack of social justice provisions, and plans to use tax revenue to fund police.

This combined opposition was enough to spell defeat in a state where voters approved a 2016 medical cannabis ballot measure by 53 percent. That measure was popular in urban, suburban and rural areas, winning 38 of 75 counties.

Arkansas activists are already making plans for an improved measure for the 2024 ballot.

This year, the adult-use legalization measure is confirmed to have won in only six counties: Pulaski, Chicot, Washington, Jefferson, Crittenden and Mississippi (final results are not available for one county). No counties that rejected medical legalization in 2016 chose to approve adult-use legalization in 2022. And in the six counties it won, support dropped compared to 2016. In Pulaski County, for example, the state’s most populated and the seat of Little Rock, support fell from 59.7 percent in 2016 to 50.3 percent in 2022.

On the face of it, adult-use cannabis—or at least, this version of it—does not have the same broad appeal that medical cannabis did six years ago. But its support across urban and rural areas does suggest a future path to victoryif advocates can present a better balanced legalization proposal.

In fact, Arkansas activists are already making plans for an improved measure for the 2024 ballot. “We’ll have expungement, home grow and greatly expand the industry and make it more affordable for everyday people to get into the industry,” Melissa Fults, a legalization supporter who campaigned against Issue 4 but aims to help lead the 2024 bid, told Marijuana Moment.



Funding is vital, as experiences in the Dakotas show. But the Arkansas campaign is a reminder that money isn’t everything.

Voter turnout is another key factor. In each of these three states, overall turnout dropped significantly compared to the last year a cannabis measure was on the ballot. But decreased turnout doesn’t directly mean decreased support for cannabis—that’s clearly not the case for North Dakota, where turnout dropped over 14 points compared to 2018 but support grew. Instead, youth turnout appears central to success.

“Voter turnout was high among youth in states where there were high-profile candidate races for Congress, which is not the case in any of the states we’re talking about,” Moffat said.

While support for legalization is significantly lower among Republican voters versus Democrats—and all three states that just rejected legalization are red states—age plays a bigger role than party support in determining how someone will vote on cannabis. Just 32 percent of adults over age 75 support legalization, while 70 percent of adults under 30 support it.

In states where the legalization battle is tight, engaging and turning out young voters is critical.

The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) estimates this was the second-highest youth turnout for a midterm in modern history. But while young voters helped make the difference in key battleground states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, it’s the reverse in other states. Since 2018, youth voter registration (of those aged 18-24) actually dropped 6 percent in Arkansas and a steep 36 percent in South Dakota. So in states where the legalization battle is tight, engaging and turning out young voters is critical.

How to do this is a complex question, with ramifications reaching far beyond cannabis. Having candidates and campaigns elsewhere on the ballot that inspire young voters is part of it. But emphasizing the social and racial justice implications of legalization—and crafting a measure and message around that—likely has a major role to play, too.


Photo by Kristin Ausk via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0.

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is Filter's staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it's actually alright. He's also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter's editorial fellow.

Disqus Comments Loading...