The Year in Preview: Pot's Uncertain Future

After the triumphs of marijuana reform in 2012—culminating in two successful ballot initiatives which made Washington and Colorado the first places in the world legalize the possession and sale of small amounts of weed—it was almost inevitable that 2013 would be a let-down. It wasn’t an unproductive twelve months for supporters of more lenient marijuana politics: New Hampshire and Illinois legalized pot for medical use, and Vermont decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. The residents of cities in Maine and Michigan also cast (mostly symbolic) votes in favor of pot legalization. But a third state has yet to join the two earliest adopters in sanctioning the possession and sale of pot, which remains illegal under federal law.

Part of the problem was that so few state elections were held this year. For the past fifteen years, voter initiatives have set the tone for marijuana reform, beginning with the passage of ballot measures legalizing medical pot in the late 1990s. But midterm elections are a strange beast for supporters of marijuana reform. Ganja-friendly demographics are younger and less likely to vote in off-year contests. Although there are some state-level efforts to legalize pot brewing, most national organizations are leery of pouring millions into unpredictable races. State-level grassroots groups are more interested in hurrying up than waiting, but they rarely have the resources to execute a successful campaign—which would be more challenging to run anyway, because their initiatives tend to be more permissive than the ones drafted by national groups.

This doesn’t mean that Colorado and Washington won’t have company soon. But there’s no easy money to be made betting which state will take the plunge next. Here are some of the battles to watch in 2014.


The Wild Card: California

A successful campaign to legalize marijuana in California would be a glittering green jewel in pot reformers’ crown. The state, with its notoriously lenient medical marijuana laws, is home to a booming, quasi-legal pot market—probably the largest in the world—with thousands of dispensaries and collectives. Its residents, too, seem willing: A poll conducted in mid-December revealed that for the first time, a majority (55 percent) of Californians favor legalization.

When it comes to off-year elections, though, California reformers are cautious; after all, they’ve been burned before. In 2010, a coalition of pot supporters got Proposition 19, a legalization initiative, on the ballot—no small feat, given the half-million signatures needed to qualify—only to lose 44 to 53 percent on Election Day. Mason Tvert, a spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), a national organization that worked to legalize pot in Colorado, says that if Prop 19’s supporters had waited two years for a presidential election, the outcome might have been different. “It’s hard to say that there would have definitely been a victory, but it would have been a lot closer,” Tvert says. “Running an initiative in California costs millions and millions of dollars. So if there’s a significant advantage to waiting until 2016, we’re going to turn our attention to other states first.”

So far, three groups have filed marijuana-legalization initiatives for the 2014 ballot with the state attorney general’s office. The next step is the expensive slog of signature gathering. Two of the groups are grassroots California organizations that probably don’t have the funds needed to get their initiatives on the ballot. But the last initiative squeaked in just before the deadline, courtesy of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), a national marijuana reform group with ties to billionaire progressive funder George Soros. Getting enough signatures before April—the deadline for the November 2014 ballot—could be a daunting prospect, but of the three measures, this is the one that has enough funding and national support to succeed.

DPA has yet to say whether they’ll actually campaign for the initiative. Steven Gutwillig, the organization’s deputy executive director, says they’re still weighing their options, and will announce a decision early in 2014.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), another drug reform group, speculates that backers of the last initiative may be concerned that if they wait until 2016, they’ll lose momentum from the victories in Washington and Colorado. “When the metal’s hot, you want to strike it,” he says. But he adds that another loss in California could be devastating for the marijuana reform movement. “I don’t think it would be a death knell, but it would make people very gun-shy about trying a third time.”


Ballot Initiatives in Oregon and Alaska

If California isn’t on the table for 2014, reformers will turn to what St. Pierre calls the “low-hanging fruit”—states like Oregon and Alaska, where legalization will be, if not a total slam-dunk, a substantially more restrained gamble. Oregon voters almost sanctioned pot in 2012—it was defeated 46 to 54 percent—despite an astonishingly badly organized campaign that barely made it onto the ballot and failed to attract the billionaire backers who blanketed Washington in message-tested advertising in the lead-up to that state’s election. The group behind the 2012 law is pushing for state legislators to send their measure to the voters on a referendum; if not, they’ll try to gather the signatures to get it on the ballot themselves.

2014’s Oregon initiative will be far more conservative than the proposal that went before voters two years ago, which means that its chances of passing are much stronger. The 2012 measure would have allowed adults over the age of 21 to possess unlimited quantities of marijuana (in Colorado and Washington, they’re limited to an ounce). The regulation of pot retail operations would have been placed in the hands of cannabis industry veterans, rather than state officials. The new initiative will limit adults to eight ounces of usable marijuana and four plants, and give responsibility for regulation to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.

Alaska may seem like an odd contender for the third state to legalize pot, but according to Tvert, it’s one of the safest bets for next year. Medical marijuana has been legal in the state since 1998, although state legislators—like their compatriots in California, Washington, and a handful of other states—failed to establish a system of state-regulated dispensaries at the same time. This puts pot in a strange gray area; although patients can have up to an ounce of usable marijuana in their homes, even those with a doctor’s recommendation have to go to the illegal market to buy it. Reformers hope that the dysfunctional system—and Alaskans’ libertarian streak—will convince the state’s voters to sanction legal marijuana.


State Legislatures

National reformers like MPP will use the years before the presidential election to tackle a bigger challenge: Legalizing marijuana through state legislatures. Bringing lawmakers on board is a taller order than convincing voters—who, if the polls are to be believed, wake up each day more enthusiastic about legalizing pot—to support a ballot measure. The sluggishness of the political process, combined with legislators’ unwillingness to rock the boat, can put the brakes on reform, even in a progressive state like California or Vermont. But approximately two-dozen states forbid ballot initiatives, giving reformers little choice but to dive in.

“It’s not really a surprise that elected officials lag behind their constituents,” Tvert says. “It’s hard to predict when the change will actually happen. It’s not like an election where it happens on a single day and there’s an up-or-down vote. In a legislature there are a lot more moving parts and even if a majority is in support of a particular policy, it may not pass.”

Rhode Island, where a bipartisan group of legislators will reintroduce a marijuana legalization bill early in 2014, is the likeliest to successfully push through a law. Last year, state lawmakers decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. Matt Simon, MPP’s New England political director, points out that politicians in the cash-strapped state could be enticed to legalize the drug by the promise of a large tax windfall.

There are a couple of states where convincing lawmakers to support legal marijuana is more than a pipe dream—but still pretty far from reality. Maine came within a few votes of legalizing last spring, but thanks to a quirky state rule, its sponsor, Diane Russell, can’t reintroduce the bill until 2015. New Hampshire legislators will vote on marijuana legalization in early January, but according to Simon, the chances that it’ll pass are slim to nil—even if the state House of Representatives votes in favor of the law, the state Senate and the governor will kill it.

Hawaii is also a possibility; with a two-year legislative session, a legalization bill introduced last winter is still alive. But lawmakers have done little to act on it. Pam Lichty, the president of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, says that the controversy over the state legislature’s recent decision to legalize gay marriage has made lawmakers less eager to tackle another divisive issue.

Many anxious legislators want to see what happens in Colorado and Washington before diving into the policy minefield. “A lot of people are open to marijuana reform, but they want to see it work in practice,” Simon says. “If the sky doesn’t fall in Washington and Colorado, that will really mean something to legislators.”


The Federal Government

The year’s biggest test for the marijuana reform movement will happen in Colorado and Washington, which will begin selling state-regulated marijuana for the first time in decades. As I wrote in November, there are dozens of potential hiccups that could bring the federal government crashing down on the nascent industry.

But it’s also possible that next year the Justice Department will decide to make marijuana business owners’ lives a little easier. In a hearing last September, deputy attorney general James Cole said that he was working with federal banking regulators to make it clear to financial institutions that they can do business with the owners of state-legalized marijuana retail stores without fear of government retribution. Right now, few banks will allow marijuana business owners to open accounts (and forget about a loan). This means that the operators of dispensaries and grow houses can’t take credit—and they are forced to pay their rent and all other expenses in cash.

The odds are good that 2014 will be an exciting year for marijuana reform. But will it be able to top 2012? We’ll have to wait and see whether California turns out to be a serious contender for legalization next November.

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