Chart of the Week: Momentum building for marijuana legalization via ballot measures

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By Becky Olson and John Schroyer

Marijuana legalization measures are appearing in front of voters at the highest level in history, with more initiatives to legalize medical or recreational cannabis making state ballots in the past five years than in the entire previous decade.

Since 2010, 14 state-level legalization measures have been put before voters, including five tied to recreational marijuana (one of them in Washington DC). Seven of those measures were approved by voters.

That compares to the 12 marijuana-related legalization measures that made state ballots – five of which passed – from 2000 to 2009, according to an analysis of legalization attempts via ballot measures across the country.

The recent momentum will likely spill over into 2016, which could be a record-breaker for the industry in terms of legalization. Advocates in many states are trying to get recreational cannabis measures on the ballot, and odds are good that Florida will legalize medical cannabis next fall.

After a spike in ballot measures in the late 1990s – including four successful medical marijuana efforts via the ballot in 1998 alone – there was a relatively slow period from 2000 to 2009.

However, the state legislatures of Hawaii, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Vermont skipped the ballot box and legalized medical marijuana on their own during that time. So the movement and the cannabis industry still made plenty of gains during that period.

Gallup polling has revealed a steady increase in the portion of Americans who back the idea of medical and recreational marijuana legalization, and support is now at all-time highs.

It’s possible that 2010 will represent a watershed moment in the history of legalization efforts, as 50% of measures since then have passed.

However, it’s important to note that most successful ballot measures were preceded by at least one unsuccessful attempt.

In many states, it’s taken multiple tries by dedicated activists to get either medical or recreational cannabis on ballots and approved by voters. Even in Colorado, there were two failed attempts to legalize recreational marijuana before Amendment 64 succeeded in 2012.

Another factor worth noting is the margins of victory and defeat. There haven’t been many overwhelming victories at the state level (though Washington DC voters did legalize recreational marijuana last year by 70%). The margins for the majority of wins and losses in recent years have been in the single digit or low double-digit range.

In conservative Arkansas, for example, MMJ was defeated in 2012 by just 2% of the vote. In Florida last year, MMJ failed because state law requires a super-majority of 60% to win, but the measure “only” received 58%.

An effort to pass recreational use in California failed in 2010 by 7% of the vote. When Arizona legalized MMJ five years ago, the measure passed by less than 1%.

Ohio is the notable standout in this regard. The only legalization measure on a ballot in the U.S. in 2015, and the first to go for both medical and recreational in one shot, went down by 64% to 36% earlier this month. That’s a huge 28-point margin of defeat many believe was not a reflection of Ohioans’ views on cannabis legalization, but rather a resounding rejection of the very controversial proposed ownership and regulatory structure.

In states that have legalized within the past three years, the percentage of votes in favor have all been in the mid- to low-50s, with the biggest win (outside of DC) occurring in Oregon, where Measure 91 passed with 56% of the vote last November.

Becky Olson can be reached at

John Schroyer can be reached at