When we look at some of the initial trends surrounding cannabis legalization campaigns, it’s clear that most campaign donations and funding came from advocacy groups and wealthy folks who supported the cause. But it’s a new world. According to campaign finance records, nearly all of the money behind the five legalization initiatives in the November 2022 midterm elections was provided from the industry, MJBizDaily reports.

A full decade after the first states in the U.S. legalized cannabis for adult-use, this new trend represents a large shift. Of the nearly $20 million combined funds raised for campaigns in Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, and North and South Dakota, at least $19.05 million (95% of the total) came from sources identifiable as cannabis industry businesses, per the latest campaign finance records.

The shift, in part, simply shows the growth of the U.S. cannabis industry over the past decade, though it also signals new priorities; existing medical cannabis companies are pushing for limited-license markets in adult-use states, while advocacy-driven campaigns often asked voters to treat cannabis like alcohol in the past.

Of the total campaign contributions for Arkansas, a staggering 99.8% were from industry sources, followed by a similarly dominating 99.1% for Maryland, 94% for Missouri and 86.7% for South Dakota. North Dakota was the outlier, with just 32.7% of contributions coming from industry sources.

Experts told MJBizDaily that this data also shows where advocacy groups like the Marijuana Policy Project and Drug Policy Alliance, which once had full focus on cannabis legalization, are now turning their attention to new efforts, like legalizing psychedelics and decriminalizing other drugs.

With 30 states boasting legal recreational and/or medical cannabis, “People feel the mission’s been accomplished,” said Mason Tvert, who campaigned in the 2012 Colorado legalization campaign and currently works as a partner at Denver-based political consultancy VS Strategies.

Ohio State University law professor Douglas Berman noted that there wasn’t much of an industry to support campaigns in the early days, though once it began to emerge, attitudes around advocacy shifted, demanding from the industry leaders that were reaping the benefits of cannabis legalization.

“There was a sense of, ‘Hey, it’s important for you industry players to continue the forward momentum of legal change. Don’t continue to ride off of our backs. We got this started; now it’s your job to keep this momentum going,” Berman told MJBizDaily.

Some experts pointed to the mixed results from the election (Maryland and Missouri voted in recreational cannabis, but Arkansas, and North and South Dakota did not) as a sign of potential risks of this shift. Namely, industry players risk losing support from activists pushing for criminal justice reform, home-grow allowance and social equity provisions within legalization laws.

The early days of cannabis legalization also had different focuses—less on social equity or the nitty gritty details like license caps and taxation, instead simply looking to treat cannabis like alcohol. Today, some of those more tedious details are worked out in Congress and state capitol buildings, and there’s still no concrete roadmap to success. 

Today, most of the legalization efforts have also shifted from more liberal states to more challenging, conservative states. Eugene Monroe, the campaign chair of MD Can 2022, the Maryland legalization measure, argued that industry support is now more practical.

“We went to the industry for investment because, quite honestly, that’s the biggest recipient of the economic benefit of investing in legalization,” he told MJBizDaily. “It’s the industry now, because it’s not so much focused on advocates fighting for their health or human rights, or battling against prohibition.”

Looking ahead, many critics believe that established cannabis companies will have to balance market share desires with social justice considerations; otherwise, it may be hard to win over enough support. 

Berman even said that we could see “competing proposals” in the future, drawing a clear line between activist- and industry-generated measures.

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