What does it take to get marijuana legalization on the ballot in red states?


When Kelly Jacobs became the captain of Legalize Marijuana for Mississippi, a grassroots marijuana advocacy coalition in her home state, her husband asked her to make him one promise: that she'd never get arrested. 

But keeping that promise proved difficult after 57-year-old Jacobs became the sponsor of Mississippi Ballot Initiative 48, which would have legalized the use, cultivation and sale of cannabis and industrial hemp for people 21 and over. 

There was the time officers threatened to charge her with solicitation for collecting signatures for the initiative in a public park. And the time when she and fellow activists rented out a hall in Greenwood, Mississippi, to collect signatures, and five police cars and a paddy wagon suddenly surrounded the building.


"It was just a pretty constant scene: go someplace to collect signatures and be threatened with arrest," Jacobs said in an interview. 

Although Ballot Initiative 48 eventually fell shy of the nearly 110,000 signatures required for it to be added to the ballot this November, other states that typically skew conservative have had success. Still, their fights are far from over.

Can a red state go green? This fall, a record-breaking nine states will head to the polls to vote on marijuana initiatives. 

Some of those measures, like California's bid to legalize recreational marijuana, seem like sure bets. But in conservative southern states like Florida and Arkansas, both of which will vote to legalize medical marijuana in November, things are less certain.

Of the southern states, Louisiana is the only one to have successfully legalized medical marijuana — but there have been some close calls.

In 2012, Arkansas voted on Issue 5, which would have allowed the use of marijuana for medical purposes, according to Ballotpedia. The measure was defeated by a mere 2.88%. This November, Arkansas will vote on two new medical marijuana measures: one that would allow tax-funded nonprofit "cannabis care centers" in the state, and one that would allow up to 40 for-profit medical dispensaries statewide.

This time around, Richard Morton is one of the people waging a ground war to get out the vote in favor of the pro-marijuana camp. The 64-year-old is a Regional Director for Arkansas for Compassionate Care, where he oversees around 1,400 volunteers in eight different counties. 

"It's been interesting. You know, this is Arkansas and they're kind of backwards still," Morton said. "We've run up against [people] telling us that we couldn't canvas in certain places."

Morton said that while the 2016 campaign has had its speed bumps, the ride has been much smoother overall than it was in 2012 — a change he credits to increased media coverage of marijuana legalization. 

2012, he says, was a bad time to be a proponent of legalized marijuana in Arkansas.

"Oh, it was terrible," he laughed. "People thought we were beating children. I couldn't believe it."

Blunt reactions: For marijuana activists in conservative states, fielding threats of arrest from police isn't the only obstacle to passing a ballot initiative; civilians also frequently attempt to stymie their efforts.

In April, a man wearing a confederate flag belt buckle approached Jacobs to tell her he disagreed with her cause as she attempted to collect signatures in Mississippi.

"It eats me up inside, because this is a good town, you know what I mean?" he can be heard saying during a portion of the encounter captured on video.

After the man returned to his truck and drove off with a friend, Jacobs said, she discovered a note on her car letting her know that she'd been paid a visit by the Ku Klux Klan.


Jacobs said that the social stigma surrounding marijuana in Mississippi is palpable — and for some supporters in the deep southern state, the consequences for their advocacy can be very real. She recalls one man who set out to collect signatures for Ballot Initiative 48, but ended up abandoning the cause after his church shunned him.

Kelly Jacobs

In Arkansas, Morton said he's been chased out of parking lots while collecting signatures more times than he can count.

"You know, I take it with a smile on my face and try not to be negative back, let them be the assholes instead of me," he said. "You know, I trudge on."

High stakes: Although the benefits of marijuana for patients suffering from glaucoma, seizure disorders and cancer have been well documented, most southern states have been reluctant to pass measures allowing the treatment.

But Morton wants to spread the word that allowing medically-sanctioned weed dispensaries to crop up in Arkansas isn't about getting high — it's about saving lives.

"My main thing is trying to help these veterans with PTSD," he said. "I've had several of them tell me that since they started using it illegally, they have better nights of sleeps, they don't wake up in cold sweats."

"You know, it's just a plant," he continued. "It was all about money throughout the whole history of prohibition and it's time to change it."

He said the criminalization of small amounts of weed was what caused him to join up with the movement in the first place.

"I'd seen a couple of kids out on the lake get busted for pot while they were fishing, and I thought, I don't want my tax dollars going to that," he said.

Ed Andrieski/AP

Today in Mississippi, Ballot Initiative 60 — a new initiative to replace the failed Ballot Initiative 48 — is up and running, Jacobs said, but she has ceded her leadership of the movement to another Legalize Marijuana for Mississippi team member. Although she remains an active advocate for the cause, the risk of arrest while helming the initiative, she said, is too risky.

"I sponsored the ballot initiative and I was on the hot seat, and so when the initiative finished, then I was done with it," she said. "I was not going to sponsor it again. It failed."

But despite the ballot measure's failure, Jacobs has still found a good reason to celebrate.

"I have not been arrested!" she said. "That is my constant aspiration. I love my husband more than anything. I do not do things to try to get arrested, because that would be really easy around here."