Most of the laws legalizing cannabis use in the United States’ result from voter initiatives – signature gathering campaigns, not legislative action. State legislatures tend to move slower than voter approval of initiatives, making ballot initiatives the first, but not necessarily the latest, laws legalizing medical and adult use cannabis use and sales. 

When it comes to legalizing adult use, just seven states have enacted cannabis laws from state lawmakers. That’s just under 37%, including New Jersey’s 2021 adult use law, which was passed by a legislative referendum.

“Voters decided in favor of legalization via a referendum question placed by lawmakers on the ballot. Once voters passed the referendum, lawmakers were then required to establish and enact legalization, which they did months later via separate legislation,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. 

Half of the states that enacted adult use cannabis through legislation are northeastern states, where politics tend to be more progressive and statewide ballot initiatives are not allowed.

“Many northeastern states do not have the citizen’s initiative process. [The] exceptions are Massachusetts and Maine, so there is no other viable option other than legislative action. Conversely, most western states do allow citizen initiatives,” said Armentano.

In Maine, 50% of voters approved adult use cannabis in 2016 by a voter initiative. Joel Pepin, president of the Maine Cannabis Association, collected signatures to get the initiative on his state’s ballot.

“Getting these questions on the ballot in a year where there's a presidential election typically is more beneficial for the outcome. Higher voter turnout helps the cannabis perform,” Pepin said. 

But it was a long process to discern what answer won.

“The vote was extremely close. There was actually a recount done on it. It was an extremely thin margin by which it passed. It wasn't the type of situation where we knew that day or the day after that,” Pepin said. “It actually took many, many months before it was confirmed.”

And once it did pass, it wouldn’t be years until Maine dispensaries were allowed to sell recreational cannabis products. 

“There was some excitement about increased opportunities for businesses. Operationally, there were also concerns about an evolving market and more state competition coming into what was at the time like a really sort of like craft-like, small operator, niche type industry,” said Pepin. “Operators were optimistic and excited about increased business opportunities. There were many others who were concerned about sort of opening up the market to more of a commercial type atmosphere. And that was also reflected in the vote on the question itself.”

Eben Sumner, also based in Maine, runs a licensed caregiver business, a manufacturing operation, and owns a hemp company. He’s also the founder of Maine Growers Alliance, which has been asked to create the Cannabis Council of Maine, in part with other groups. 

“You needed to have the community really pushed for this. Legislators are really far behind,” Sumner said. “Not too many of them are even really educated on cannabis. You even see that on a federal level… We've got our regulators just stuck, absolutely mired and not really knowing how to move forward, and not really listening to constituents. Thankfully, we have the democracy and ability to be able to have voter initiatives, which is super important. We would not be here as a country, and Maine as a state if that was not the case.”

For the medical industry, 52% of enacting laws come from voter initiatives.

“Public opinion on marijuana policy reform has historically been well ahead of political sentiments. The initial waves of citizen-led initiatives legalizing both medical cannabis (in the 1990s) and adult-use (over the past decade) were in response to politicians’ refusal to take legislative action on an issue supported by the majority of voters. It was only after advocates had taken matters into their own hands that lawmakers finally began to take action on their own,” Armentano said. 

Pepin said, “Without these ballot referendums, I don't think you would see any states taking action on it. But now because there's been a handful of states that have passed a ballot measure – now, of course, the states are considering it.”

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Cynthia Fernandez is a data reporter for Grown In. Previously, she was a politics reporter for Spotlight PA, a nonpartisan newsroom based in Harrisburg and reported at the Boston Globe. In 2019 she graduated...