More-populous counties backed state marijuana legalization measures in midterms

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A map showing the differences in support for South Dakota marijuana in 2020 and 2022.

Populous urban areas once again provided a majority of the voters supporting marijuana legalization ballot initiatives during the November midterm elections, according to an analysis of state election results.

The counties containing St. Louis and Kansas City in Missouri and Annapolis and Baltimore in Maryland overwhelmingly approved adult-use marijuana measures in their states, some by almost 80% of the vote.

This helped tip the balance in Missouri, which passed its recreational ballot initiative by 53%, with many less-populous rural counties opposed to the measure.

That pattern held true in deeply red Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota, where adult-use legalization initiatives failed last month.

Overall, adult-use legalization measures were passed in two of the five states where marijuana was on the ballot in November, snapping a yearslong winning streak for such initiatives.

Pulaski County, containing Arkansas’ capital and most-populous city, Little Rock, had one of the state’s highest approval ratings, with 50.4% of the county's voters pulling the "yes" lever for adult-use legalization.

But that was not enough to pass the measure this year.

Whether people supported them or not, marijuana ballot measures generated interest among voters in 2022.

None of the five states considering marijuana measures suffered from "down ballot" issues where voters cast votes only for the top races while skipping races or initiatives farther down the ballot.

Each ballot measure received votes from at least 97% of the ballots cast this year, with the Missouri measure garnering a whopping 99.4%.

In Maryland and Missouri, where the recreational initiatives passed, the marijuana questions received more votes than any of the other statewide ballot measures.

Votes not cast for marijuana inititatives

The number of votes not cast for marijuana initiatives, versus the percentage of overall ballots voting “yes” or “no” for the legalization measures.
StateNumber not voting for measurePercent of ballots cast
North Dakota3,72698.5%
South Dakota7,20798%


But it’s hard to get votes when many people don’t even show up at the polls.

And while turnout numbers have been higher in the past couple of election cycles, midterm elections traditionally have experienced lower turnout compared to presidential elections such as 2020.

That year, the marijuana industry scored a clean sweep on Election Day, with voters approving new markets in Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota.

This year, low voter turnout could be blamed for the failure of South Dakota’s narrow marijuana legalization measure.

It would have allowed possession and home cultivation.

A more full-fledged legalization initiative - which would have established a regulated adult-use market - was approved by voters in 2020.

But the state Supreme Court later nullified that decision after a legal challenge backed by Republican Gov. Kristi Noem.

Statewide turnout during last month's midterm election was 59.4%, far lower than during the presidential election in 2020, when 73.9% of South Dakota’s registered voters went to the polls.

This year was even lower than the last midterm in 2018, when 64.9% showed up.

The low turnout translated into 69,000 fewer overall cannabis votes this year than in 2020.

But that’s not the real story.

Of those who voted for the 2022 measure, 47%, or 58,000 more people, voted "no" than did in 2020.

And there were far fewer "yes" votes given the lower turnout.

In 2020, 292,000 South Dakota voters supported the full-fledged legalization initiative, Amendment A.

That number dropped to 164,000 in 2022 for the narrower initiative, Measure 27.

That was not the case in Maryland, where voters in every county but one supported the adult-use legalization measure.

Garrett County, on the western edge of state, could muster only 49.4% support for marijuana legalization this year.

That's not surprising from a county that is mostly registered Republicans and has yet to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate.

Andrew Long can be reached at