clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

2020 was supposed to be a big year for marijuana legalization. Then the coronavirus happened.

More than a dozen states were considering marijuana reform. Now it’s down to a handful.

A marijuana plant in San Francisco on April 20, 2018.
A marijuana plant in San Francisco on April 20, 2018.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

At the start of 2020, more than a dozen states seemed very likely to legalize marijuana for recreational or medical purposes by the end of the year. Now that a coronavirus pandemic has overwhelmed just about every aspect of American life, it seems only a handful of states will be able to enact marijuana reform.

The pandemic has hit legalization efforts on two fronts: First, at a time of social distancing, advocates in some states just can’t gather the signatures they need to get the issue on the ballot. Second, state lawmakers who might have passed marijuana legalization before quickly shifted to other priorities once the coronavirus crisis began.

Efforts to get recreational legalization on the ballot in Arkansas, Montana, Missouri, North Dakota, and Oklahoma have stalled out, as have medical legalization efforts in Idaho and Nebraska. That could change if the coronavirus outbreak recedes faster than expected or if courts let organizers collect signatures online, but things don’t look good right now.

The pandemic has also dashed efforts by state lawmakers to legalize marijuana. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) previously said marijuana legalization was a priority for him. With his state now suffering the worst coronavirus outbreak in the US, he has walked that back, saying, “Too much [to deal with], too little time.”

Lawmakers have also diverted attention from recreational legalization in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont and from medical legalization in Kentucky and Alabama, although it’s possible some of the states will come back to the issue later this year.

These hurdles aren’t exclusive to marijuana legalization, with other drug and psychedelic decriminalization efforts similarly suffering as a result. As Marijuana Policy Project deputy director Matthew Schweich told Politico, “The coronavirus has impacted every signature drive on every issue across the country.”

The good news for legalization advocates is some efforts are moving forward. In New Jersey, state lawmakers last year set a legalization ballot initiative for November. Arizona’s recreational marijuana legalization ballot initiative also seems likely to get on the ballot. Two separate medical marijuana measures are on the ballot this November in Mississippi. There are also ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana for recreational and medical purposes in South Dakota.

And Virginia recently decriminalized cannabis.

The coronavirus-related hurdles are also very likely to be temporary bumps in the road — because marijuana legalization remains very popular, with surveys by Gallup and the Pew Research Center finding that roughly two-thirds of Americans support full legalization. To that end, many of the campaigns have said they’ll be back in 2022 or 2024 should they fail to get on the ballot this year.

Some advocates argue that the current crisis may even increase support for legalization, because it could offer a new source of revenue and jobs as the country recovers from the economic downturn caused by coronavirus lockdowns.

Supporters of legalization argue that it eliminates the harms of marijuana prohibition: the hundreds of thousands of arrests around the US, the racial disparities behind those arrests, and the billions of dollars that flow from the black market for illicit marijuana to drug cartels that then use the money for violent operations around the world. All of this, legalization advocates say, will outweigh any of the potential downsides — such as increased cannabis use — that might come with legalization.

Opponents, however, claim that legalization will enable a huge marijuana industry that will market the drug irresponsibly. They point to America’s experiences with the alcohol and tobacco industries in particular, which have built their financial empires in large part on some of the heaviest consumers of their products. This could result in more people using pot, even if it leads to negative health consequences.

The coronavirus, however, has put much of this debate on pause as the public and lawmakers shift their focus elsewhere.

For more on marijuana legalization, read Vox’s explainer.