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To the Bitter End: The Nine States Where Marijuana Will Be Legalized Last


marijuana prohibitionBy Phillip Smith

Marijuana prohibition in the US is dying, but it isn’t going to vanish in one fell swoop. Even if Congress were to repeal federal pot prohibition, state laws criminalizing the plant and its users would still be in effect—at least in some states.

And it’s probably a pretty safe bet that Congress isn’t going to act until a good number of states, maybe more than half, have already legalized it. That process is already underway and is likely to gather real momentum by the time election day 2016 is over.

Colorado and Washington led the way in 2012, followed by Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC, last year. California, where one out of every eight Americans lives, is very likely to go green in 2016 via the initiative process, and so are a handful of other states, including Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada. Longer shots next year (or even this year, in Ohio’s case) are Arizona, Michigan, Missouri, and Ohio.

But just as the end of federal alcohol prohibition in 1933 didn’t mean the end of state-level prohibition—Mississippi didn’t end it until 1966, you couldn’t drink in a bar in Kansas until 1987, and dry counties remain in a number of states—ending federal marijuana prohibition isn’t going to magically make it legal everywhere.

There are two critical factors to consider in assessing how likely a state is to get around to freeing the weed: public opinion and access to non-legislative (read: initiative and referendum) political remedies.

Opinion polls consistently show stronger support for legalization in the West and the Northeast than in the Midwest and the South. But barring access to the initiative process—which only half the states have—means that even in states where public opinion strongly favors legalization, residents are going to be beholden to the legislature to get it done. Note that so far, every state that has legalized it has done it through the initiative process. That could change this year, but it seems unlikely at this point.

But even having the initiative process isn’t going to help if popular support is lacking.  That’s why some states make the list even though they have the initiative process. And even having public opinion on your side isn’t going to guarantee victory in the legislature, especially if the Republicans are in control.

Here are the nine states least likely to legalize it anytime soon and, after that, a few brief notes on a handful of states:

1.       Alabama. This Heart of Dixie state still has several dry counties and about a third of the counties in the state are either partially dry or have localities that are dry. Although Democrats hold some local offices, Republicans dominate state elected offices and the state legislature.  The state has no initiative process, and the legislature has so far failed to pass even medical marijuana legislation.

2.       Idaho.  This heavily Mormon-influenced state has the initiative process, but so far even campaigners for medical marijuana haven’t been able to qualify a measure for the ballot, so it’s hard to see how they could get a legalization initiative on the ballot, let alone pass it. An Idaho Politics Weekly poll from February shows what an uphill battle it is. Only 33% of respondents favored legalization, with 64% opposed (and 53% “strongly” opposed). And the conservative Republican legislature is more concerned with fending off sharia law than legalizing pot, although it did manage to pass one of those no-THC, high-CBD cannabis oil bills this eyar.

3.       Kansas. Another state dominated by Republicans, with no initiative process, and little popular support for legalization, anyway. An October 2014 poll showed only 31% in favor of legalization and, distressingly, an ever larger percentage (33%) saying marijuana possession should be a felony. While voters in Wichita this week approved a municipal initiative decriminalizing pot, the state attorney general has already asked the state Supreme Court to overturn it. Kansas is another one of those states where the legacy of alcohol prohibition lingers, too: Almost all of its counties are either dry or semi-dry. Be glad you’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.

4.       Louisiana. The state has some of the country’s harshest marijuana laws, including up to 20 years in prison for repeat possession offenders and up to life in prison for pot possession if the person has a previous felony. Efforts have been afoot in the state legislature for several years to fix those draconian laws, but have so far gone nowhere. AnOctober 2014 poll showed roughly two-thirds supported fixing those laws, but that hasn’t yet influenced Baton Rouge. Tellingly, the poll didn’t even ask whether respondents supported legalization. And there is no initiative process, anyway. In Louisiana, not sending people to life for pot would be progress.

5.       North Dakota. At the top of that geographical tier of Great Plains states destined to be a bastion of reaction on marijuana legalization, the agricultural state has approved industrial hemp production (in part because North Dakota farmers can see their Canadian counterparts just across the border profiting from it), but is unwilling to move even on medical marijuana, let alone legalization. The legislature this year killed a bill to even study legalizing medical, and an effort last year to put a medical marijuana initiative on the ballot couldn’t manage to qualify. An October 2014 pollfound that even medical marijuana couldn’t get majority support (47%), and the prospects for legalization were even grimmer. Only 24% supported legalization, with 68% opposed.

6.       Oklahoma. Good luck. The state government is dominated by Republicans and is one of the most conservative in the country. The state has the initiative process and state Sen. Connie Johnson (D-Oklahoma City) is likely to try again to get it on the ballot next year, but even if it were to make the ballot, it would likely get creamed. A poll this month found only 31% for legalization. This is also one of those states where alcohol prohibition still lives on; about a third of the state’s counties are completely dry.

7.       South Carolina. There is no initiative process here, so it will be up to the legislature, which is controlled by Republicans. The legislature passed a no-THC, high-CBD cannabis oil last year, and Republican lawmakers have introduced medical marijuana and decriminalization bills this year, but they have yet to pass. The Palmetto Politics Poll last July barely had majority support for medical marijuana (53%), and didn’t even bother to ask about legalization.

8.       South Dakota. The state has the initiative process, but it also has the dubious distinction of being the only state to twice defeat medical marijuana at the polls. The Republican-controlled legislature has repeatedly refused to act on medical marijuana bills and didn’t even consider any marijuana reform bills this year. There is no recent polling on support for legalization, and given the performance of medical marijuana initiatives, even if a legalization initiative were to qualify for the ballot, it would get crushed.

9.       Utah. The Mormon heartland, another state where Republicans dominate the legislature and the executive branch, and another state where the only legislative concession to pot law reform has been the passage of a no-THC, high-CBD cannabis oil bill. A March poll found 72% of Utahns supported medical marijuana, but that didn’t stop the legislature from quickly killing a medical marijuana bill this year. That poll didn’t ask about legalization; the last one that did, from 2013, was not encouraging: It had 57% opposed to legalization. Utah has the initiative process, but that won’t be much good until Utahns get on board with legalization.

Why Some States Didn’t Make the Bottom 9

There are several states that some might have expected to see on this list, but who I think may surprise us and come around more quickly.

In the South and Mid-South, Mississippi and Arkansas would seem like good candidates to be among the last to legalize, but both states have the initiative process and some associated activism around it. They still have to get public opinion on their side, but they can circumvent sclerotic legislatures once they do. And there is hope that demographic trends will turn Georgia, of all the Deep South states, into a place where pot can be legalized at the state house before the bitter end.

On the Great Plains, Nebraska is the only state from Texas to Canada that didn’t make the bottom nine. It’s certainly as solidly conservative as the others and it just hates legalization next door in Colorado, but this is a state thatdecriminalized weed nearly 40 years ago. Perhaps one of these days, Cornhuskers will wake up and remember that.

In the Intermountain West, Montana and Wyoming share many of the same political and cultural characteristics as Idaho and Utah, but the influence of the Mormon Church isn’t nearly as strong. Montana has the initiative process and has used it to approve medical marijuana, only to see that rolled back by Republicans and Christian conservatives. Wyoming also has the initiative process. In both states it will be a struggle between deeply rooted Western individualistic libertarian notions and equally deeply rooted Christian conservativism.

Alright, then. We’ll have to check back in 2026 or so and see how prescient this was.

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Johnny Green


  1. We have a two party dictatorship that divides up which part of government they are responsible for bloating.

    The Republicans do their share of bloating.

  2. “Democrats want small government”.
    Are you completely out of your mind. Just look at the current administration.

  3. Sorry to “Butt in” on your publicly left comment which everyone can view and respond to. Damn it’s not like it was a private conversation. Although with stinging rebuttals like “F off”, and “Butt in much?” one wonders why you aren’t a lawyer (since you possess such an amazing aptitude for the english language). Seriously, my comment was a little harsh, admittedly, however your assumption that the writer of this article was backpedalling was completely ignorant and false. As I mentioned in the last comment, if you had just read a sentence more without getting all hot and bothered, you would see that. There is also no indication that the author was “caught up in semantics” at all — are you sure you know what that means? I was fine just leaving this and fucking off as you suggested, but you had to come back THE NEXT DAY and try to provoke me again. Unfortunately for my character, you succeeded. See that? What you just read? That was a coherent argument, the complete opposite of what you have been shoveling. Feel free to take notes.

    Note: After all of that, I’m not wasting any more time with you. You will no doubt come back and say something completely idiotic, and again, and again. I’m not going to be pulled into your bullshit flinging contest. Have a a nice life.

  4. “WOULD” seem; then he goes on to explain in the very next sentence why that isn’t actually the case. Jesus christ get the stick out of your ass, maybe then you’ll stop being so butthurt

  5. If we had a few more conservatives like Buckley and a few less so-called-liberal ass-hats like Cuomo, the country would be in a lot better shape.

  6. Texas gov is not interested. The people are, but Texas government is not about helping people. At All they are a bunch of nazies.

  7. Deana McKenzie on

    Why isn’t Maryland mentioned? What’s the latest updates about MD Legislation on mmj?

  8. That 46 represents 20% which means 80% of Republicans are against smaller government.

    Look at the Democrats with over 96% in favor of smaller government.

  9. YOU SAID “Mississippi and Arkansas would seem like good candidates to be among the last to legalize” sounds like you are back peddling to me or maybe just getting caught up in semantics.

  10. And the 46? The new crew of Libertarian Republicans who adhere to the old Republican credo of smaller government. They are a growing force. And – surprise – most of them are TEA Party.

    Funny enough it was the Democrats who foisted Prohibition on us for racist reasons. Nice seeing them repent.

  11. My mom – 95 – lives in Omaha. She changed her mind about cannabis some years back. But even the liberals in Nebraska are reactionary.

  12. I know all about the so called dry counties in the south ,I also no that illegal moonshine gets delivered to a lot if places and houses including some owned by churches and county trusties on Thursday night just in time for the weekend.
    Most people who appose any kind of free thinking and freedoms do not want any form of legalization.

  13. If Georgia ever makes faster progress toward legalization Alabama would build a fence, sue your legislative body, and send troops across the state line to molest your animals. And that would happen before they reeaally took action. I swear the worst move I ever made was to this state of ignorance and closet depravity full of soft headed son of a bitches and now I am stuck here. I see the light at the end of the I-70 tunnel but just cant get up the steam to convince my significant other to pack up the wagon and head a little further West and North. I wish you the very best and maybe if your voices are heard I can talk the wife into a lateral move if nothing else. I doubt it because she has “spoken her piece and counted to three”.

  14. Phillip Smith on

    You notice I didn’t include them in the “last to legalize” group. Almost winning a medical marijuana initiative is not the same thing as winning a legalization initiative, but I think the presence of the initiative process and the years of activism in Arkansas will indeed keep in out of the bottom tier.

  15. It’s funny that Louisiana has the negative attitude towards the weed when one of it’s airports is named after one of America’s most beloved and stealthy tokers, Louis Armstrong!

  16. I agree wholeheartedly that the tide will turn in Georgia due to demographic shifts: rural areas of the state unable to attract any new industry in the last 40 years have been slowly draining of people while the populations of more liberal urban centers have been growing. That’s the natural result of waging a culture war of exclusion. Social conservatives who believe it is their right to decide how you live your life have been driving away “undesirables” from the South (gays, minorities, feminists, and liberals of every stripe) who indeed leave places like Georgia for greener pastures like Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and California. Two good friends of mine (both college educated and highly employable) just moved to Alaska. These people take more than just their degraded morals and dark skin when they leave the South — they take their skills, educations, and innovation with them. That’s why no “new” industry relocates to Georgia. Why would they? After all the talent gets driven out of town, the people who remain (the “winners” of the culture war) are the type of folks who absolutely revel in their willful ignorance like pigs in slop — not exactly a prime crop of employees or entrepreneurs. Georgia’s best hope for a revolution in self-sustainable agriculture just relocated to Anchorage, last month.

    The 2020 census will tell us how close we are; if the demographics have shifted significantly enough to matter. Some counties have been reduced to little more than retirement communities as of 2010, so I’m incredibly curious to see how many tumbleweeds register to vote. The effects of the 2009 recession are still felt in these sparsely populated areas, which drives virtually everyone of working age to move away to find a job. Before the 2018 session begins, it is vital for my state to detail how many voters are currently presumed to live in each voting district so that we can see how unfair the current distribution of power across the state has been since 2010. Why? So that a state representative from Vast Nuthin, GA who represents 50 senior citizens doesn’t have the exact same voting power as a state rep from the Atlanta metro area, who likely represents upwards of 100,000 people.

    So the answer is yes, our demographics are changing, but how soon our elections reflect those changes (and thus our laws) might be gerrymandered away for another decade if our districting issues aren’t solved before the 2020 census. My state needs to start a campaign re-establishing the concept of equal representation as an American fundamental. Wanting some votes to count more than others is unpatriotic — at least it should be.

    Were our demographics to finally stamp out the true evil in this state (prescriptive morality), we’d elect more people like Curt Thompson, who is the state senator in the Georgia Assembly who filed SB7, a fully comprehensive medical cannabis bill this year, as well as Senate Resolution 6 which would have put full legalization of cannabis for recreational use on the next ballot to let voters to decide, themselves. As you may have already guessed, Curt Thompson is a minority rep in a state assembly in which conservatives have super-majorities in both chambers as well as the governor’s office. Thus, Curt Thompson’s brilliant legislation that would have done a great deal of good for Georgia was summarily ignored.

    Instead, the growing momentum to reform Georgia’s cannabis laws (seriously: check our polling) was shunted into a staged farce of a debate between two bills (both Republican authored, btw) which *both* forbade in-state cultivation and processing because of a promised veto of any bill that included such provisions. Calling it a debate between two CBD-only bills would be overstating the effectiveness of them both — there was no way to source *just* CBD in either bill. No kidding, Republicans were staging an argument over the asinine specifics of completely ineffectual bills that DID absolutely nothing. The only difference was that the crappier of the two bills forked over millions of dollars to a foreign drug company, GW Pharmaceuticals, to pay for a private drug trial that would have helped about 50 people while costing the state millions. The less-crappy CBD-only bill (HB1) expanded its list of qualifying conditions so that even more people can be disappointed when it is signed into law. The author of HB1 only expanded the list of conditions so that more desperate parents would be willing to pose for photo-ops at press conferences with him. He’s shameless.

    The farce of HB1 has involved its author, Allan Peake, whoring himself out to the press on a weekly basis for the last 18 months. I’ve known sorority girls who were more camera-shy than this man. But his original supporters, the parents of children with intractable epilepsy, had started refusing to do the photo-ops, so Peake expanded the list from cancer and epilepsy to over a dozen different conditions (still, no cultivation, no safe access at all) to which law enforcement objected, and thus the list was shortened to nine.

    Why all the pomp and circumstance from the Georgia assembly? Because of the aforementioned shifting demographics resituating power around the Atlanta metro area. More people are speaking up and making their voices heard. That’s how/why the state legislature has been acting out this CBD-only farce instead of simply ignoring the issue. The momentum is real because social conservatives are not an actual majority, anymore.

  17. stellarvoyager on

    I noticed many of the states on this list have a number of large Indian reservations. So even in these states, if the tribes are willing, it may still be possible to get recreational MJ.

  18. It’s legal in Illinois but only for medical use and there getting ready to open a dispensary in Quincy Ill in just a few months. Go get you a medical card.

  19. From South Dakota, we have attempted to cause the State Supreme Court to address the marijuana issue and still have pending cases, one on KATZ 4th Amendment violation (smell not being probable cause and warrantless seizure of property) pending in BUTTE COUNTY, judge michael day, a jurist without compunction nor cause to adhere to SD constitution or laws, bigot, racist and protected in his criminal by David Gilbertson, SD Supreme Court Chief Justice. South Dakota is the 49th most corrupt state of the union and wants to be 50th..

  20. No care needs to be given blaming conservatives. If you look at the House vote last July on banking for legal marijuana, you will see how one sided it is.

    On Agreeing to the Amendment H R 5016 RECORDED VOTE

    16-Jul-2014 2:46 PM

    To allow banking for state legal marijuana:


    allow banking: 46

    forbid banking 179


    allow banking: 190

    forbid banking 7

  21. Lawrence Goodwin on

    IMHO, we should be careful in blaming “conservatives.” Many “liberals,” such as weed-hating New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, are just as guilty of prolonging the Anti-Marihuana Tyranny. True limited-government conservatives of the past–among them President Dwight Eisenhower and the late intellectual William F. Buckley–were nothing like most modern conservatives, who expect a giant federal-state-local bureaucracy (costing taxpayers billions every year) to literally stop Americans from growing cannabis plants. William F. Buckley strongly opposed cannabis prohibition, writing once that it is rooted in a “cancerous tissue of lies.” The repeal of prohibition in these and other states is being blocked far more by religious/moral crusaders who maintain a completely unrealistic vision of society without any smoking or drug consumption. These arrogant crusaders, by imposing their will on the People, have zero interest in “liberty and justice for all” in our republic.

  22. “Mississippi and Arkansas would seem like good candidates to be among the last to legalize”

    Bullshit on that.
    In November 2012, 48.56% of Arkansas voters voted for a medical marijuana measure. While this fell just shy of the votes needed to finally protect seriously ill patients from arrest, it did show substantial support for protecting patients. There has been a ton of exposure on Marijuana in national media by some widely respected people. Many more Arkansans will be voting For this in Nov 2016.

  23. Illinois is making a little progress,at least with medical Marijuana, still way slower than it should be.at least in chicago and some suburbs it’s been decriminalized to larger amounts and tickets in some cases. Not enough, but small steps

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