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Recreational Marijuana Expands Into the Midwest

Legalization measures passed in Michigan but failed in North Dakota.

A woman smoking a marijuana joint.
(AP/Alex Brandon)

For results of the most important ballot measures, click here.

The passage of Michigan’s Proposal 1 marks a new frontier for marijuana advocates -- an expansion of legal recreational use into the Midwest.

The measure passed 56 percent to 43 percent, with 78 percent of the precincts reporting.

Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, said prior to the vote that this outcome "would be a very big victory."

But Measure 3, which would have approved recreational use in North Dakota, failed 59 percent to 40 percent.

Both ballot measures proposed legalizing the drug for people 21 and older while enacting penalties for younger people. Michigan's measure also limits how much marijuana could be stored in a residence, creates a licensing system for marijuana businesses and taxes the drug at 10 percent to fund government services like schools and roads. Cities and counties, however, are allowed to prohibit or restrict pot shops.

North Dakota's measure was unique in that it would have set up a system for expunging some previous marijuana convictions. California recently became the first state with an automatic system for reviewing old pot cases with the intention of reducing sentences and dismissing charges for crimes that are no longer illegal.

According to the latest updates on Ballotpedia, groups in favor of legalization in Michigan had raised $1.7 million, while groups against the measure had raised just $286,062. But in North Dakota, the anti-legalization side won the campaign funding race. Legalize ND had raised just $28,900, compared to the opposition's $110,000.

Advocates in Michigan overcame opposition campaigns arguing that legalization would make the drug more available to children and endanger public safety if people are driving high. They counter that legalization is a means of preventing arrests and incarcerations for nonviolent offenses, thus saving taxpayers money. They also frame the issue as one of personal freedom.

"If someone's consuming in the privacy of their own home and not hurting anybody, who's the government to tell them they can't do that?" said Josh Hovey, a spokesman for Michigan’s Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which backed legalization.

But marijuana opponents don’t believe legalization is harmless. Research does suggest legalization could lead to more use, and opponents worry about for-profit businesses marketing the drug to addicts and young people. But Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project notes that every state where recreational use is legal has prohibited marketing to minors, and he expects Michigan and North Dakota to do the same.

"The last thing we want to see in Michigan is a Joe Camel for marijuana," said Hovey.

While 62 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana, powerful Republicans in Washington, D.C., aren’t among them. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is one of the nation’s most strident marijuana opponents, though he has repeatedly acknowledged the right of states to set their own laws.

For results of the most important ballot measures, click here.

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