The novel coronavirus pandemic is not just striking down Americans by the tens of thousands and jobs by the tens of millions, it is also wreaking havoc with marijuana and other drug-related voter initiative campaigns this year. It's damnably hard to gather thousands of voter signatures when there aren't any mass gatherings and the public is locked inside.
It's not just marijuana initiatives. In California, Oregon, and Washington, DC, psilocybin initiatives are facing the same hurdles. And so is an Oregon initiative that would decriminalize the possession of all drugs. (The Oregon psilocybin initiative is holding a video update this afternoon, featuring Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps CEO David Bronner.)
First let's look at what's changed and what hasn't regarding those marijuana initiatives. What hasn't changed is that state legalization initiatives have already qualified for the November ballot in two states, a legislatively-initiated constitutional amendment in New Jersey and Constitutional Amendment A in South Dakota. South Dakota also has a medical marijuana initiative, Initiated Measure 26, already qualified for the ballot, as does Mississippi with Ballot Initiative 65.
Back in February, in addition to those initiatives already on the ballot, signature gathering efforts for marijuana legalization were underway in seven more states and for medical marijuana in two others. Now, though, the pandemic has already killed off campaigns in Missouri and North Dakota.
Organizers in the latter clearly laid the blame on the pandemic. "Due to the virus all of our major avenues for signature collection have been cancelled or indefinitely postponed and going door to door is not safe for both those knocking and those getting knocked," the Legalize ND campaign said. "Businesses will continue to collect, but we don't want to create another vector for the coronavirus. As a result, at this time if something major doesn't change we will not be able to make the 2020 ballot."
The pandemic has also wiped out a medical marijuana initiative in Idaho, where the Idaho Cannabis Coalition announced in March that is was suspending signature gathering. Since it only has until May 1, this marks the effective end to the effort this year. And in Nebraska, the medical marijuana initiative campaign has suspended signature gathering for the duration of the outbreak, even though it says it is still confident it can make the ballot. But it only has until July 3 to come up with 130,000 signatures, and it's not clear how close it is.
In Oklahoma, the campaign to put a marijuana legalization initiative, State Question 807 on the ballot is not officially dead, but is likely to fall victim to the pandemic. As part of a 30-day statewide emergency declaration, Secretary of State Mike Rogers ordered a pause to all initiative signature gathering activities. Given that the campaign needs 178,000 signatures in 90 days to qualify, organizers have all but given up the ghost.
It would be "really difficult, if not impossible to imagine a scenario in which an initiative petition campaign could responsibly and feasibly collect the signatures necessary in order to make the 2020 ballot if that campaign doesn't already have the signatures on hand," said campaign spokesman Ryan Kiesel.
It's also looking grim for Arkansas, where Arkansans for Cannabis Reform is trying to gather signatures for a pair of initiatives, the Arkansas Adult Use Cannabis Amendment and the Arkansas Marijuana Expungement Amendment. They only had 15,000 raw signatures by later March and need 89,000 valid voter signatures by July 3 to qualify. The campaign did get a late injection of cash that allowed for paid signature gatherers, but by then it was virus time, and that has effectively put the kibosh on the campaign.
In Montana, the never-say-die New Approach Montana campaign joined two in-state political figures to file a lawsuit charging that prohibiting electronic signature gathering during the coronavirus pandemic is unconstitutional. The group is behind a pair of legalization initiatives: a constitutional initiative (Ballot Issue 11) that would set 21 as the legal age when people can use marijuana and a statutory initiative (Ballot Issue 14) that would set up a system of taxed and regulated marijuana commerce. Not allowing for electronic signature gathering would violate the "constitutional rights of Plaintiffs and the people of Montana to amend the constitution and enact laws by initiative, as well as the rights of Plaintiffs and the people of Montana under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution," the lawsuit argues.
The one bright spot for marijuana legalization initiatives still trying to make the ballot is Arizona, where the Smart and Safe Arizona Act needs 237,000 valid voter signatures by early July to qualify for the November ballot. The campaign had already collected 270,000 raw signatures before pandemic lock-downs began and has joined with three other initiative campaigns in the state to petition the state Supreme Court to allow electronic signature gathering via E-Qual, the state's online signature platform, during the pandemic. The campaign had set a goal of 400,000 raw signatures, which it is now unlikely to reach, but even with the lockdown, getting enough raw signatures to ensure it has collected enough valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot seems to be within reach.
In Oregon, where marijuana is already legal, a pair of drug reform initiatives appear poised to weather the storm and actually get on the ballot. A drug treatment and decriminalization initiative, IP 44, needs 112,000 valid voter signatures by May, but already had 125,000 raw signatures before the state shutdown began. The campaign has moved to online signature gathering in a bid to get those raw signature numbers further into the comfort zone. At last report, the campaign said it still needed 8,000 valid voter signatures.
The Oregon Therapeutic Psilocybin Initiative, IR 34, is in a similar place. The campaign to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes has moved to online and mail signature gathering. It, too, needs 112,000 valid voter signatures, but has a later deadline in July, and had already gathered 100,000 raw signatures before moving to online signature gathering at the end of March. At that point, its raw signature count was up to 128,000 but it was still seeking to create a cushion by adding at least 15,000 more signers.
A California psilocybin legalization initiative led by Decriminalize California is not in as good a place as its brother to the north. It needs 623,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot, but only had about a quarter of that in raw signatures by mid-March, when the state moved toward lockdown. It and two other initiative campaigns have asked the governor or the legislature to authorize the electronic collection of signatures, but that hasn't happened yet. It looks like an uphill battle for Golden State 'shroomers this year.
And in Washington, DC,Decriminalize Nature DC, the group behind a psychedelic decriminalization initiative, has been forced to suspend conventional signature gathering because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so now the campaign is looking at other options, including "micro-scale petition signature collection." The campaign would mail petitions to supporters, who could collect signatures from "registered DC voters in their immediate vicinity, such as family, roommates, friends and close-by neighbors" and then return the petitions to campaign headquarters.
What promised to be a banner year for drug reform initiatives as the year began is now unlikely to turn out that way as initiative campaigns, like the nation at large, are buffeted by the coronavirus storm. Still, marijuana legalization will be on the ballot in at least two states -- New Jersey and South Dakota -- and probably in Arizona. Medical marijuana will be on the ballot in at least two states, Mississippi and South Dakota. And with any luck, those Oregon initiatives will be on the ballot, too. Even in a year of retrenchment, there are opportunities to make progress.