Recreational Marijuana Ballot Measures Usher In Next Phase in Drug War

(Photo: AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

An opponent of California's Proposition 64 holds signs during a rally at the Capitol in Sacramento on October 4.

The five recreational marijuana ballot initiatives that go before voters next month send the clearest signals yet that the country’s ill-fated drug war has entered a new and potentially decisive phase. Legalization questions appear on ballots in five states: Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada. Recent polls indicate that the measures are leading in all five states, ranging from a high of 60 percent of voters supporting legalization in California (with 36 percent opposed and 4 percent undecided) to 50 percent in Arizona (with 40 percent opposed and 9 percent undecided). But the prospects for passage or defeat will rest with three key groups: millennials, African Americans, and Latinos.

Not surprisingly, individual state polls show that young people are the strongest supporters for legalization. In Massachusetts, 81 percent of people ages 18 to 39 support recreational marijuana. In Maine, 69 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds favor it; in Nevada, the figure is 68 percent of people ages 18 to 34; in Arizona, it’s 66 percent of 18- to 35-year-olds; and in California, 60 percent of people ages 18 to 29. Recreational marijuana also enjoys strong support from both Republican and Democratic millennials.

Unfortunately for marijuana proponents, however, the perennial issue with young Americans is whether they will actually vote. This year, the question is will the possibility of seeing marijuana legalized prove enough of a motivator to overcome disappointment with the presidential contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton? This uncertainty hangs heaviest over the cohort still aggrieved by the defeat of Bernie Sanders, some of whom have vowed not to vote at all. If millennials end up staying home, or fail to turn out in sufficient numbers, their elders can be counted on to get to the polls and send the initiatives up in smoke. The majority of voters 65 and older oppose legalization in all five states. The next oldest group, middle-aged baby boomers, also tend to oppose legalization in those states.

Like millennials, African Americans have not been as psyched about Hillary Clinton as they were about Barack Obama. However, black voters in those five states are likely to be more motivated to go to the polls for different reasons, including the specter of a racist Donald Trump presidency.

Marijuana legalization may prove an effective get-out-the-vote motivator in black communities, too. African Americans, particularly young people, face higher arrest rates for pot-related offenses—even in states where marijuana has been decriminalized. A 2013 American Civil Liberties Union study found that from 2001 to 2010, whites and blacks used marijuana at the same rates but blacks were four times more likely to be arrested for possession. An ACLU Massachusetts report released Thursday found that Bay State blacks were 3.3 times more likely to be arrested for possession and 7.1 more times likely to be arrested for dealing than whites.

Civil-rights groups have lent their heft to the issue. The California NAACP backed Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, after its authors agreed to include specific provisions that would dismiss or reduce jail time for low-level offenders and give people the opportunity to have their marijuana convictions expunged. Overall in California, blacks support the measure 67 percent to 26 percent.  

Yet legalization is not a cure-all for racial bias. In his recently released short film, The War on Drugs is an Epic Fail, rapper Jay Z  observes that in New York, where marijuana possession is merely a ticketable offense, “kids in Crown Heights are constantly stopped and ticketed. … Kids at dorms at Columbia, where rates are equal to  worse than those in the ’hood, are never targeted.” In Colorado, where marijuana is legal for adults 21 and older, arrest rates increased for young people. The arrest rates for juveniles, aged 10 to 17, in Colorado from 2012 to 2014 was went up nearly 60 percent for blacks and nearly 30 percent for Latinos. However, the arrest rates for white youth dropped 8 percent.

The wildcard in the legalization debate could be Latino voters, who may be more motivated to vote this year than in the past, courtesy of Donald Trump’s never-ending stream of Mexican- and immigrant-directed abuses. However, the Latino vote on marijuana is likely to be more evenly split than that of blacks or millennials, even though Latinos are likely to be arrested at rates comparable to blacks. (Nationwide data is unavailable; in California the rates of arrests of blacks and Latinos are similar.)

In 2014, a Pew Research Center study found that Latino registered voters overall opposed legalization by a slight margin, though the majority of American-born Latinos supported it. In California, Latino voters appear poised approve legalization; one poll had the measure ahead among Latinos by a 57 percent to 37 percent margin. But in Arizona and Nevada, legalization faces a real battle. A September Univision Noticias survey of 1,600 registered Hispanic voters in four battleground states found that Nevada Hispanics opposed recreational pot 48 percent to 47 percent, with 5 percent undecided. In Arizona, the Latino “yes” vote is higher—49 percent to 42 percent, with 9 percent undecided. Older and Latino voters could well defeat recreational marijuana in these two states, especially if the millennial vote does not materialize.

The governors in four of the five states—Republicans Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Doug Ducey of Arizona, Paul LePage of Maine, and Brian Sandoval of Nevada—all oppose legalization and are backed by sizable rosters of police chiefs, some of whom continue to sound the alarm on marijuana as a gateway drug to harder substances (among other problems), an assertion that even the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency no longer makes.

California Democratic Governor Jerry Brown has yet to declare where he stands on this year’s ballot measure. He opposed legalization in 2014, the last time the issue came up for a statewide vote, noting, “If there's [marijuana] advertising and legitimacy, how many people can get stoned and still have a great state or a great nation?” Whichever way Brown goes this year, California is the almost sure bet on legalization. And the country’s most populous state would be more of a bellwether than Colorado or Washington.

Nationwide, the major backers of the pro-legalization initiatives have been NORML, a longtime legalization advocacy group, and the Marijuana Policy Project, another anti-prohibition organization, which has tacked a bumper-sticker-friendly slogan—“Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol”—on the campaigns in four of the five states. In California, where the sheer size of the state means that all campaigns cost lots of money, supporters have spent more than $18 million to get the measure passed. Opponents have only managed to come up with $2 million. Should California approve recreational marijuana, pot would be legal up and down the West Coast. That factor alone might finally persuade the federal government to downgrade marijuana as a controlled substance meriting the harshest criminal penalties. The size of the African American, Latino, and millennial turnout will dictate how that scenario unfolds in California and elsewhere.

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