The Curious Case of Formerly Anti-Cannabis States Racing to Legalize Marijuana in 2020

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For some states, marijuana legalization wasn’t a radical idea as the death of cannabis prohibition emerged.

In 1973, Oregon became the first state in US history to decriminalize marijuana, imposing a mere $100 fine for possession of up to one ounce. In 1996, 59 years since the Marijuana Tax Act that criminalized marijuana was passed, California passed Proposition 215, which legalized the sale and medical use of marijuana for patients with qualifying conditions. Two years later, in 1998, Alaska, Oregon, and Washington legalized medical marijuana through ballot measures. More states followed over the years.

To date, 33 states have a medical marijuana program; 11 of those states also allow recreational marijuana use.

Statewide Cannabis Legalization vs. Federal Law

It’s true that state laws on marijuana legalization, whether medical or recreational, don’t comply with federal law. However, thanks to memorandums written by the US Department of Justice, it’s been made clear that federal prosecutors intend to focus their resources elsewhere.

The first of these memos was released in 2009 to clarify and guide federal prosecutors in states authorizing medical marijuana use. The memo explains that the Justice Department’s resources will not focus on “individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.” The Department, however, would focus mainly on illegal drug trafficking activities like sales to minors, ties to criminal enterprises, and so on.

In 2013, a similar memo was published stating that it was “committed to using its limited investigative and prosecutorial resources” to only address significant threats such as the distribution of marijuana to minors, marijuana sales going to gangs and cartels, or using state-authorized marijuana activity as a front for trafficking other illegal drugs.

Thanks to some bold states taking the first steps and memos from the Justice Department, more states have legalized medical marijuana and are aiming to legalize recreational cannabis if they haven’t already. In 2012, Washington and Colorado became the first two states to legalize adult-use marijuana. And it comes as no surprise that the early adopters of medical marijuana are also looking to legalize recreational marijuana.

States Trying to Legalize Recreational Marijuana That Will Surprise You

Marijuana support is at an all-time high, with two-thirds of Americans supporting legalization. However, this means that there’s still one-third of the nation that’s against the legalization of cannabis, particularly recreational marijuana. There are still 17 states that have aligned with the federal government to keep cannabis illegal, and for a long time, it didn’t seem like they would budge.

So when we hear about states that have historically been opposed to the legalization of marijuana suddenly making a move to legalize medical or recreational marijuana, it makes us do a double-take. Here’s a look at three states that experts said were the least likely to legalize and yet have residents coming around to get their marijuana initiatives on the 2020 ballot:

South Dakota

South Dakota has repeatedly refused to act on any marijuana reform bills in the past. It would seem that any polling on support for legalization would result in defeat. However, it appears that efforts are underway as the South Dakota Marijuana Legalization Initiative seeks signatures to legalize marijuana use for persons aged 21 and over.

The measure will allow anyone over 21 to possess, grow, sell, and distribute cannabis. There’s also a section that states that no localities can tax marijuana and its paraphernalia, nor regulate the consumption, cultivation, production, distribution, and sale of marijuana. Surprisingly, the number of signatures required to get an initiated state statute certified for the November 2020 ballot is only 16,961.


Mississippi, known for its conservative background, has no medical marijuana program, and it remains illegal in the state. For a long time, and even as more and more states decriminalized cannabis and passed their own marijuana laws, Mississippi seemed unphased. Mississippi is also the state that didn’t end alcohol prohibition until 1966 – 33 years after the 21st Amendment ended the prohibition.

Now, there is a group called Mississippians for Compassionate Care who are pushing to legalize medical marijuana in Mississippi. They have turned in more than 105,000 signatures that are now under review. If they fulfill the signature requirement, the Medical Marijuana 2020 campaign may appear on the ballot.

The Mississippi Marijuana Legalization Amendment, which is referred to by its sponsors as The Mississippi Cannabis Freedom Act, may make it to the November 2020 ballot if it achieves the 86,185-signature requirement. Mississippi Cannabis Freedom Fund seeks to legalize marijuana for persons aged 18 years or older and will also provide medical marijuana.


You would think that a state that decriminalized marijuana four decades ago would have legalized cannabis by now. However, for years, the state’s conservative lawmakers have rejected any measure for regulated medical marijuana.

In a bold move, Bill Hawkins of the Nebraska Hemp Company and Frank Shoemaker filed the Nebraska Cannabis Legalization Initiative in the hopes it will appear on the 2020 ballot. However, Nebraska has a tricky state process when it comes to the number of signatures needed to qualify, and it is the only state where petition sponsors can’t know the exact number of signatures until they are submitted.

The initiative’s objective is to grant any person in Nebraska the right to use any plant in the genus Cannabis L for non-commercial personal possession, consumption, production, and distribution for individuals 21 years or older. There’s also a section on allowing personal possession and consumption by a person under 21 as long as they have written consent from their parent, legal guardian, or licensed health care practitioner. Essentially, the measure seeks to legalize recreational marijuana in Nebraska.

What has these historically anti-cannabis states clamoring for marijuana reform? Is it because the negative stigma of marijuana has shifted? Or does it have something to do with the prediction that the legal marijuana market will be worth $66.3 billion by 2025?

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