Among countless political situations to watch in 2024, Florida will draw outsize attention. Home to leading Republican pesidential candidate Donald Trump and fading contender Governor Ron DeSantis, it’s also the site of one of Trump’s federal criminal trials, regarding his handling of classified documents. Meanwhile Florida could, in November, become the next state to legalize adult-use marijuana at the ballot box—an eyecatching prospect in a reddening state.
But whether the measure makes the ballot remains in doubt—and many legalization advocates have criticized its provisions.
The campaign is led by Smart and Safe Florida. In June 2023, state officials confirmed the measure had enough voter signatures to qualify for the ballot. But it’s currently the subject of a legal battle: State Attorney General Ashley Moody (R) has sued to stop the measure, basically arguing that it will confuse voters into thinking it would affect federal drug law. She’s also attacked Trulieve, a marijuana company that’s been a major donor to the effort, for seeking a “monopolistic stranglehold” on future cannabis sales. Moody previously got courts to invalidate two legalization measures in the 2022 election cycle. The state supreme court heard oral arguments on the current measure in November.
The measure would legalize personal use and possession of up to 1 ounce of cannabis flower or 5 grams of concentrate. But one point of contention is how it would give only the state’s existing medical marijuana companies the chance to become licensed cultivators, manufacturers or sellers of adult-use products; the state legislature could choose to allow more licensed businesses, but would not be required to. The measure also does not allow for home growing of cannabis, nor expungement of past marijuana convictions. And it contains no “social equity” provisions to address longstanding impacts of racially-targeted drug enforcement and incarceration.
Turning to state legislatures, Hawaii’s could fully legalize cannabis in 2024, after coming close in 2023.
At least two other states could legalize cannabis through the ballot box in 2024. South Dakota has two measures that would legalize adult-use cannabis; voters there already voted in favor in 2020, only to see courts overturn their decision after the fact. Nebraska organizers are meanwhile working on gathering signatures for a medical cannabis measure.
Turning to state legislatures, Hawaii’s could fully legalize cannabis in 2024, after coming close in 2023; a bill passed the state Senate but never came up for a vote in the House. Gov. Josh Green (D) supports cannabis reform, and Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez released a “roadmap” to legalization in November, detailing how she thinks it should be done.
Pennsylvania lawmakers have also been considering cannabis legalization for years now. But despite the support of Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) and the Democrat-controlled House, a Republican-controlled Senate remains in the way. This year’s state Senate race sees 25 seats up for grabs, however, with potential to flip the chamber when the GOP has more seats to defend.
In Wisconsin, meanwhile, the Republican-dominated legislature is springing something of a surprise by proposing a plan to legalize medical cannabis, even as it refuses to consider the adult-use legalization championed by Gov. Tony Evers (D).
The world’s most-watched election in 2024 will probably have little direct impact on federal cannabis legalization.
Elections up-ballot will also help determine the future of cannabis reform in 2025 and beyond. Indiana, for example, will be voting for a new governor, when the state has seen cannabis measures introduced in the legislature but opposed by incumbent Gov. Eric Holcomb (R). Currently, all declared Republican candidates oppose legalization, while the Democratic and Libertarian candidates support it.
The world’s most-watched election in 2024 will probably have little direct impact on federal cannabis legalization, however. Even if infamously anti-legalization President Joe Biden were to change his tune in a second term, he would still need Democrats to take back the House, and to not just hold but expand their Senate majority, in a very difficult election year for Democrats in the chamber. If Trump or another Republican takes the White House—or if Republicans hold the House or win a Senate majority—there’s virtually no chance for federal legalization.
Yet the presidential election, and the turnout it ensures, is quite likely to help cannabis measures downballot. The 2020 presidential election saw seven cannabis ballots succeed in both blue and red states. The 2022 midterms, in contrast, saw legalization measures fail in three red states, due in part to decreased voter turnout in those states, especially among youth. In 2023, Ohio voters who approved legalization were almost certainly motivated to turn out by an abortion measure on the ballot.
Trump on the presidential ballot would motivate many Democratic voters to turn out—and a November Gallup poll showed an overwhelming 87 percent of them supporting cannabis legalization. Independent voters showed 69 percent support. But even a majority of Republican voters (55 percent) supported it.
Elected Republicans continue to widely block, delay or avoid cannabis reform.
Florida illustrates how this latter reality can play out. In the 2016 presidential election, Trump won the state with 49 percent of the vote. The downballot medical cannabis measure, in contrast, took over 71 percent of the vote. Some of its highest support was in counties carried by Trump, meaning millions of people voted both for Trump and to legalize medical marijuana.
Nonetheless, elected Republicans continue to widely block, delay or avoid cannabis reform. Look at Wisconsin, where Republicans with a supermajority in the state legislature are stopping Gov. Evers from advancing adult-use legalization. In Ohio, Republicans immediately began seeking to weaken the legalization measure approved by voters in November. And federally, during Biden’s first two years with Democratic control of Congress, a plan to legalize adult-use marijuana failed to advance because of opposition from Senate Republicans. Even now, GOP Senators are refusing to consider even such limited proposals as marijuana research for veterans.
A recent poll of Florida voters showed a strong majority in favor of legalization (67 percent). Support had actually declined since 2022 (76 percent), as specific details of the initiative became clearer. But majorities of Democrats, independents and Republicans remained in favor, as were groups broken down by race/ethnicity, gender and education level. If the measure survives its court challenge, it looks likely to win—and we’ll probably see other cannabis victories too. But in the 2024 election cycle, with wars, wider human rights and even democracy itself at stake, such wins could end up as mere silver linings.
*Update Jan 3, 2024: The story has been revised to clarify that FL Attorney General Moody sued to stop two legalization measures in the 2022 cycle.
Photograph via United States Drug Enforcement Administration