2020 Presidential Election may be Best Chance to win Voter Approval for Local Cannabis Ballot Proposals

Timing is everything for advocates seeking voter approval of local ballot proposals that would require communities to opt in on licensing medical and recreational use cannabis businesses.

Let’s go to the big board to see how elections have played out in the past. In the November 2019 general election, three out of four municipalities rejected cannabis ballot proposals in the Metro Detroit area.

In the August 2019 Michigan primary election, three municipalities statewide rejected cannabis ballot proposals. The question is, why are so many voters rejecting cannabis facilities in their community after voters approved medical and recreational cannabis by large margins in statewide elections?

The answer is twofold. First, many voters may generally support legalization or decriminalizing cannabis but that does not mean they support allowing facilities in their community.  In the legal and zoning world, we call this the NIMBY effect, meaning “not in my backyard.” Voters may enjoy restaurants and retailers like McDonald’s, CVS, and Best Buy, but that does not mean they would support those businesses trying to locate on the street corner nearest their neighborhood. Similarly, voters may generally support legalization or decriminalization of cannabis, but that does not translate to support for a dispensary down the block.

Secondly, proponents of ballot proposals need to do a better job of selecting which elections to place cannabis issues on the ballot.  A comprehensive review of election results shows major shifts in voter turnout and the demographics of voters when you compare major November general elections to special elections, August primaries, and off-year local elections.  

The first successful cannabis ballot proposal was in November 2008 when voters adopted the Michigan Medical Marihuana (sic) Act (MMMA) by a 63% - 37% margin. Over five million voters statewide cast a ballot for a voter turnout of 66.2%. The second successful statewide cannabis proposal was exactly 10 years later in November 2018 when voters approved the Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marihuana (sic) Act, (MRTMA) by a 56% to 44% margin. 

The MRTMA allows for municipalities to opt-in and permit certain types of cannabis facilities in the community or, conversely, to opt-out and ban all types of facilities. As of this writing, elected officials in over 1,400 municipalities in Michigan have voted to opt-out of the MRTMA which means recreational cannabis facilities are not permitted in these communities.

Even though many of these communities voted strongly in favor of the MRTMA in 2018, local elected officials have voted to opt-out and prohibit commercial cannabis facilities in the municipality. The MRTMA has a provision that allows citizens to bypass elected officials and to create a ballot proposal that would opt-in and allow cannabis facilities in a municipality. So far, the results for cannabis facilities proponents have not been very successful, and they are having a difficult time translating general support for legal cannabis into local support for related facilities.

Take for example the small community of Keego Harbor in Oakland County. In 2018, voters approved recreational cannabis and supported the MRTMA by a whopping 70% to 30% margin. But, just 12 months later in November 2019, voters rejected a citizen-initiated cannabis facilities ordinance by a very large 65% to 35% margin. 

One problem with the citizen-initiated ordinance was that it would permit up to four dispensaries in a relatively small community. Another problem may be that the proponents selected the wrong election: In November 2018 when the MRTMA was adopted, Keego Harbor had a 59% voter turnout, but in November 2019 the same community had a 22% voter turnout, which means less than half the voters turned out in 2019.

In November 2018, there were dozens of items on the ballot, including the governor’s race at the top of the ballot, state legislative races, county commission races, judgeships, and many other positions and proposals. In November 2019, Keego Harbor had two items on the ballot: an unopposed city council member and the cannabis ballot proposal. In fact, the 22% voter turnout is not bad considering the fact that the cannabis proposal was the only contested item on the local ballot.

Political experts say that absentee voters, who tend to be older and more conservative, tend to dominate in low-turnout local elections. Also, homeowners and longtime community residents tend to vote more in local municipal elections because they have a vested interest in the outcome. Renters, who oftentimes view themselves as temporary residents and who tend to be younger, do not generally turn out in large numbers in local elections.

Younger voters favor legal cannabis and the related facilities much more than older voters who dominate these local elections. Putting cannabis facility questions on the ballot in low-turnout August primary election or on odd-year local election puts cannabis facility advocates at an immediate demographic disadvantage. 

The Presidential election in November 2020 is certain to have a very high turnout; the last Presidential election in 2016 produced a 63% turnout statewide. Some communities will see turnouts in excess of 70% or 80% and this is when cannabis facilities advocates may want to take their shot. A much younger and supportive electorate will likely show up at the ballot box. 

In fact, if a community does not vote for cannabis facilities in November 2020, it probably will not happen anytime soon. So, why not take your shot when the circumstances are most favorable for approval? 

Tags: Cannabis
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