As tallies trickled in from battleground states, one outcome was clear after election night: America is going to pot.
Voters in New Jersey, Arizona and Montana approved ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana for adult use. Mississippi residents gave medical cannabis the thumbs-up, and in South Dakota, propositions for both medicinal and recreational marijuana use received voters' approval.
Once the new laws take effect, a third of Americans will have access to legal cannabis. Pot by prescription will be available in 36 states.
Election results were "an unequivocal rebuke to the longstanding policy of federal marijuana prohibition," Paul Armentano and Justin Strekal of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, told Business Insider.
Voters chose cannabis access in states as geographically, demographically and politically diverse as New Jersey, where unofficial results showed a 60-40 split for Joe Biden, and Montana, where unofficial results showed Donald Trump with a 57% majority.
The results "once again affirm that marijuana legalization is a uniquely popular issue with voters of all political persuasions," Armentano and Strekal conclude.
A full two-thirds of Americans believe marijuana should be legal, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey. That margin includes 55% of Republicans and conservative-leaning independents. A decade ago, national polls showed just 32% support for cannabis across the board.
Supporting drug-policy reform is no longer a political risk. Rep. G.K. Butterfield cruised to a ninth term in North Carolina's 1st Congressional District after publicly calling for an end to pot prohibition for the first time in response to a constituent's question during a virtual town-hall meeting. His Republican opponent, businesswoman Sandy Smith, didn't deem that worthy of a swipe amid a last-minute blitz of campaign advertising.
A former trial judge and state Supreme Court justice, Butterfield said he's "evolved over the years on this" and sees possession prosecutions as a waste of the criminal justice system's time.
"I cannot tell you the number of cases I presided over that dealt with one-tenth of one gram of marijuana," he said during the town hall. "I had to sentence people for having drug paraphernalia. For those of you who don't know, that is rolling paper that you get in the 7-Eleven."
Butterfield, a House chief deputy whip, could join Democratic colleagues in supporting the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement Act, which would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and expunge federal convictions. Lawmakers delayed a vote on the MORE Act in September.
The bill faced dim prospects in the Senate. If Republicans cling to a narrow advantage, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may be amenable to some horse trading in a continued era of divided government.
Biden and running mate Kamala Harris have endorsed decriminalization. If the former vice president takes the White House when ballot counts are confirmed, he could enlist the help of libertarian-leaning Senate Republicans such as Rand Paul and Mike Lee while negotiating with McConnell to advance reform legislation he can sign.
Trump has been lukewarm on legalization, seeming receptive to medical cannabis patients' concerns and saying drug policy should be left to state governments. But he has appointed two attorneys general, Jeff Sessions and Bill Barr, who served as proud soldiers in the failed War on Drugs. If Trump squeaks past Biden for a second term, put him in the MORE Act's "maybe" column.
While the feds drag their feet, states are still having their say. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo says a budget crunch could provide the impetus to legalize and tax marijuana in the year ahead. In Florida, which allows medical use, the state agriculture commissioner tweeted her support for legalization the day after Election Day.
The American Civil Liberties Union notes that Blacks are four times more likely than whites to be arrested on marijuana charges despite roughly equal usage rates. Ending all arrests would end that disparity.
About 92% of the 608,775 people charged with marijuana-related offenses in 2018 were accused of possession only, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. These aren't traffickers, smugglers and street dealers; they're productive citizens who simply prefer marijuana to beer or wine. Voters in five states say that's no reason to lock up their fellow Americans. Others will join them.
Corey Friedman is an opinion journalist who explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter @coreywrites. To find out more about Corey Friedman and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.
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