Marijuana advocates are cheering the approval of recreational marijuana in Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia, but supporters in Florida will need to shift their focus to 2016. Marijuana is quickly becoming big business in states that have approved it, so let's take a closer look at the election day decisions in these four states.
Florida takes a pass
Florida was a toss-up ahead of the midterm elections, but a late anti-marijuana marketing push financed by billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the CEO of Las Vegas Sands (NYSE:LVS), derailed attempts to legalize medical marijuana in Florida. Despite the percentage of voters in favor of passing Florida's medical marijuana measure exceeding the percentage in Oregon, Alaska, and D.C., the medical marijuana bill failed to achieve the 60% necessary to make the change to the state's constitution.
That's disappointing to advocates who squared off against a very well-heeled adversary in Adelson, the casino mogul who is one of the wealthiest people in America. Adelson reportedly donated $5 million to anti-marijuana group Drug Free Florida in a successful bid to thwart efforts to approve medical marijuana use for patients in the state with debilitating disease.
It's also disappointing for those hoping that Florida's budget would enjoy relief thanks to taxing marijuana. According to estimates from the Florida Health Department, Florida's haul from the medical marijuana industry could have been as little as $20 million and as much as $300 million per year. Medical marijuana supporters are already shifting their attention to 2016, when a presidential election may increase the number of younger voters who ostensibly would be more likely to vote in favor of the measure.
John Morgan, the lead proponent of passage in Florida, wrote in a blog post following the defeat: "The idea that marijuana is medicine and that those suffering and in pain should not be made criminals, received a larger share of the vote than the winner of the last 6 gubernatorial elections and every presidential campaign in Florida for decades." That point is likely to be driven home relentlessly in Tallahassee during the next two years.
For now, however, the defeat is disappointing to supporters who had hoped that Florida could serve as a beachhead for expanding medical marijuana legislation throughout the more conservative southern states.
Big market getting bigger
Oregon is already home to a growing medical marijuana industry, but Tuesday's vote clears the way for much broader use. The approval of Measure 91, which came, in part, thanks to $4 million in marketing, legalizes recreational marijuana use for the first time in Oregon. Following the vote, Oregonians can grow marijuana and have up to one ounce in their possession in public, and eight ounces of it at home, but they can't smoke it publicly and can't sell it.
The sale of marijuana will be regulated instead by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which will be responsible for enforcing regulations on selling marijuana and collecting taxes on it. Estimates from marijuana advocates in Oregon suggest that the state's tax coffers may swell by as much as $80 million in the first two years following voters' decision.
Third time's a charm
Alaska has been on the front line in the movement toward legalizing marijuana since approving medical marijuana in 1998. But the state has come up short -- until now -- in approving recreational use of the drug.
Polls asking Alaskans to weigh in on how they would vote on the state's marijuana measure showed that residents were pretty evenly split last week. But the efforts of marijuana proponents to promote Ballot Measure 2 -- fueled by $800,000 in spending by the Marijuana Policy Project -- tilted opinion in the measure's favor, resulting in a final tally of 52% to 48%.
The Alaskan measure will control the types of marijuana sold, prohibit its sale to those under age 21, and tax the herb at $50 per ounce wholesale. The measure should also boost access to medical marijuana in the state given that dispensaries are hard to come by despite the passage of medical marijuana regulation in 1998.
District of Columbia
Most believed that the recreational marijuana measure in D.C. would pass, and D.C. voters didn't disappoint. Following the decision, residents can possess up to two ounces of marijuana and grow up to six plants in their homes; however, like in Oregon, users won't be permitted to sell marijuana.
However, since D.C. isn't a state, Congress could step in and overturn the D.C. resident vote. If that happens, supporters will likely cry foul given that 65% of D.C. voters supported the marijuana measure.
Impact on investors
The decisions by these states aren't likely to have an impact on the cannabinoid drug development that is being undertaken by companies like GW Pharma (NASDAQ:GWPH) and Insys Therapeutics (NASDAQ:INSY). Both companies already have studies ongoing evaluating the use of THC and CBD as treatments for disease.
GW Pharma, which markets the THC drug Sativex in Europe for the treatment of multiple sclerosis spasticity, is researching using cannabinoids as treatment for various indications including cancer pain, schizophrenia, diabetes, and epilepsy. Insys is also working on an improved formulation of a widely used THC drug, marinol, for treating nausea in chemotherapy patients and anorexia in HIV patients, and plans to kick off human trials for its synthetic CBD in epilepsy in 2015.
Those studies already have the Federal government's blessing through the FDA and DEA, so the impact of Tuesday's votes is largest on local businesses and corporate operators hoping to open dispensaries, most of which are too small and pose too much of a risk to investors.
The decision to legalize marijuana is complex, but increasingly gaining ground with Americans. According to Gallup, the percentage of people in the U.S. favoring marijuana legalization has grown from 25% in 1997 to 58% today. That swelling of support stems, in part, from rising enthusiasm surrounding marijuana's use in treating a spectrum of disease, and from growing awareness of the potential economic benefits, including higher tax revenue. For example, Colorado's marijuana sales are running north of $60 million this year, and that has translated into more than $21 million in tax revenue through September.
If ongoing research into medical marijuana use confirms empirical and early stage study results showing that the plant offers help to aging Americans, and tax revenue continues to climb in states embracing marijuana measures, even more states may join Oregon and Alaska in approving medical and recreational use in 2016 -- maybe even Florida.