LITTLE ROCK -- Arkansas voters rejected recreational marijuana in Tuesday‘s election, while voters in Maryland and Missouri approved it, signaling support gradually growing for legalization even in conservative parts of the country.
The results mean that 21 states have now approved marijuana's recreational use. North Dakota voters also rejected a legalization proposal in Tuesday's elections. A similar initiative went before voters in South Dakota, but early Wednesday it was too early to call.
Advocates said the results send a message to lawmakers in Washington about support around the country for legalization.
"A growing number of voters recognize that cannabis policy reform is in the best interest of public health and safety, criminal justice reform, social equity, and personal freedom," Toi Hutchinson, president and CEO of the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement. "State-level legalization victories are what's necessary to move the needle forward at the federal level."
The state voting follows moves by President Joe Biden toward decriminalizing marijuana. Biden last month announced he was pardoning thousands of Americans convicted of simple possession of marijuana under federal law.
Advocates of the marijuana initiatives have said Biden's announcement could give a boost to their efforts.
Missouri's measure will legalize recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older and expunge records of past arrests and convictions for nonviolent marijuana offenses, except for selling to minors or driving under the influence.
"It just shows that this is not a partisan issue," said John Payne, who led the Missouri campaign to legalize marijuana use. "This is something that transcends partisan divides."
Payne said he expected recreational sales to start in Missouri early next year.
Opponents said they would be working to limit the implementation of Missouri's legalization, such as working with cities and towns to opt out of allowing dispensaries.
"The devil is in the details, and we will remain actively involved in Missouri implementation because we don't need another Big Tobacco industry harming kids in Missouri," said Kevin Sabet, president of SAM Action, an anti-legalization group.
Maryland will also make changes in criminal law and create automatic expungements of past marijuana possession convictions.
Heading into the election, recreational marijuana was legal in 19 states, and polls have shown opposition to legalization softening. All of the states with recreational marijuana on the ballot, except for Maryland, voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
About 6 in 10 voters support legalizing the recreational use of marijuana nationwide, according to VoteCast, an extensive survey of more than 90,000 voters nationwide conducted for The Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago.
"Support for ending marijuana prohibition in the states is spreading much like it did at the end of alcohol prohibition," said Mason Tvert, a partner at VS Strategies, a cannabis policy and public affairs firm. "
The five states that held votes on Tuesday have legal medical marijuana programs. That includes Arkansas, which in 2016 became the first Bible Belt state to approve medical marijuana. The state's dispensaries opened in 2019, and more than 91,000 patients have cards to legally buy marijuana for medical conditions.
The legalization campaigns raised about $23 million in the five states, with the vast majority in Arkansas and Missouri. More than 85% of contributions in those two states came from donors associated with companies holding medical marijuana licenses, according to an Associated Press analysis of the most recent campaign finance reports.
In Arkansas, supporters ran upbeat ads touting the thousands of jobs they said would be created by the measure. Opponents ran more ominous spots, warning voters to "protect Arkansas from big marijuana."
"The marijuana industry spent millions of dollars trying to write itself into the Arkansas Constitution," said Jerry Cox, executive director of the Family Council Action Committee, one of the groups opposing the measure. "Now they know that Arkansans do not support that kind of crony politics."
The initiative drew the criticism of traditional legalization opponents as well as some medical marijuana advocates, who said the Arkansas proposal placed too many limits and would only benefit a handful of dispensaries. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a former head of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, also opposed the measure.
Supporters indicated they planned to try again in Arkansas.
"Tonight, we made history by putting adult-use cannabis on the ballot for the first time, Although we fell short, we look forward to continuing this effort to build this momentum to 2024," said Robert McLarty, campaign director for Responsible Growth Arkansas.
David Owen, who led North Dakota's legalization effort, said he wasn't sure another effort would be made after the proposal was rejected.
"Tonight was not what we wanted, but the people have spoken and we have to prepare for the next steps," Owen said.
North Dakota's proposal would have allowed people 21 and older to legally use marijuana at home as well as possess and cultivate restricted amounts of cannabis. It also would have established policies to regulate retail stores, cultivators and other types of marijuana businesses.
"It's pretty clear North Dakota families don't want marijuana across the state," said Luke Niforatos, executive vice president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a Virginia-based political organization against marijuana legalization, which helped fight the measure in North Dakota.
South Dakotans, including a sizable number of Republicans, voted to legalize marijuana possession in 2020, but that law was struck down by the state Supreme Court in part because the proposal was coupled with medical marijuana and hemp. This year, recreational pot stood by itself as it went before voters.
In Colorado, where recreational marijuana has been legal for nearly a decade, voters on Tuesday took up a proposal that would allow the use of certain psychedelic substances. If approved, it would make Colorado the second state to take such a step. The vote was too early to call early Wednesday.
Melody Finley, a Republican in Little Rock, Arkansas, said she voted for the state's legalization measure because she thinks it can help some people for certain conditions.
"If you can buy alcohol, you can buy that, too," Finley, 47, a dance instructor, said.
But Rick Huffman, a voter in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, voted against that state's legalization proposal, two years after supporting recreational marijuana on South Dakota's ballot in 2020.
"I've got a kid that's a teenager now," he said. "So I think it'll eventually happen, but maybe I'll wait until my kids grow up."
Associated Press writers Stephen Groves in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Summer Ballentine in Jefferson City, Missouri; James MacPherson in Bismarck, North Dakota; and Dave Kolpack in Fargo, North Dakota, contributed to this report.