A Bumper Crop of Pot Referenda

In the halls of state legislatures, few folks laugh at the exploits of Cheech and Chong or Harold and Kumar. There is a bipartisan consensus that marijuana laws are political kryptonite, as if touching the topic of drug legalization, even medicinally, might prompt immediate backlash. The lack of mainstream support is surprising, given that sizeable groups in both parties have long clamored for an end to the “War on Drugs.” Some drug war critics point to the costs, both societal and budgetary, associated with imprisoning millions of people for a crime that doesn’t seem to hurt anyone. Others like the fiscal possibilities for marijuana legalization: If pot is legal, it will be taxable, and at a time when state governments are starved for cash, any possibility for new revenue is an opportunity.

Though mainstream lawmakers remain reluctant, citizens seem to be warming to the idea of marijuana as something other than an illegal substance. (Maybe stoner movies have had some success.) A 2011 Gallup poll showed, for the first time, 50 percent of Americans supporting marijuana legalization. More recently, a May 2012 Rasmussen poll found that 56 percent of Americans support treating marijuana “similar to alcohol and tobacco” in terms of regulation. With disparate but significant political support, marijuana is ripe for direct democracy.

This year, six different states will put marijuana legislation in the hands of voters. In Montana, Massachusetts, and Arkansas, the question will simply be about permitting and regulating medical marijuana, increasingly common around the country. Three other state ballots, however—Colorado, Washington, and Oregon—will ask the more radical question: whether marijuana should be legal for recreational use. Voters have never before supported a legalization initiative, but polling shows Washington’s measure likely to succeed. Marijuana will still be illegal by federal law, and in particular, those selling pot, even if they’re abiding by state laws, could face DEA agents. But building support in states will help move the national conversation, and in that respect, it could still be a landmark year for the small, green plant.

Legalizing Recreational Marijuana

Over the years, there’s been no shortage of ballot initiatives aimed at recreational legalization. Just two years ago, California’s Prop 19, an especially well-publicized effort, failed. In Alaska, California, and Nevada, such initiatives have failed more than once. Voters in both Oregon and Colorado, who will vote on measures this year, have already voted down popular initiatives to legalize marijuana in the past. Oregon did so in 1986 and Colorado, more recently, in 2006. But public support for medical marijuana continues to grow, as has national support for marijuana legalization. Eighteen states have legalized medical marijuana, and 11 did so through the initiative process. Marijuana advocates are hoping voters are now coming to embrace total legalization.

In Washington State, the coalition of pro-pot voices has been particularly successful in building support. A September poll from Survey USA showed 57 percent of likely voters supported the measure. Some of that support undoubtedly comes from the economic message supporters have put out. The measure would create a 25 percent tax that could raise $2 billion over five years. It also includes restrictions: no smoking in public and a limit of the amount of THC in blood (the marijuana version of a blood-alcohol level.) Thanks largely to three six-figure gifts, Washington's pro-marijuana front has raised more than $3 million, using the money to launch, among other things, an early television campaign.

Colorado’s supporters have also successfully created a coalition with those across the political spectrum. On the right, former congressman and presidential candidate Tom Tancredo, most famous for his virulent rhetoric against undocumented workers, has supported the initiative, while on the left, Melissa Etheridge, an outspoken advocate on a variety of progressive political issues from environmental regulation and gay rights, has crooned her support. The campaign has raised over $1 million, mostly from billionaire Peter Lewis. But the law, which would allow up to one ounce of marijuana to be used and owned by anyone over 21, and permit the drug to be bought and sold at regulated retail stores, doesn’t enjoy the same level of support as the Washington initiative. The latest poll from the University of Denver showed that support had dipped below 50 percent; 48 percent of likely voters supported the measure while 43 opposed it.

In Oregon, the initiative is a long shot. Though state voters (like those in Washington and Colorado) have already approved medicinal marijuana, the Oregonians are skittish about the actual business side of things. While it’s legal to possess and use marijuana in the state, voters have rejected initiatives to legalize buying the drug for medicinal reasons just two years ago. A September poll from Survey USA showed only 37 percent of likely voters supported the measure, compared with 41 percent who disapproved. (Twenty-two percent were undecided.) Controversy around the sponsor of the measure, who has pleaded guilty to income tax evasion, has further sullied the push. And while big money has poured into Washington and Colorado to help the campaigns, donors have largely bypassed Oregon, according to The Oregonian.

Legalizing Medical Marijuana

The three state measures regulating marijuana for medical use are less radical and all seem to have reasonable likelihood of success. Since 1996, when California first allowed medical marijuana, the concept has been extremely popular with voters—of the 12 states that have had such initiatives on the ballot, only South Dakota has rejected measures to legalize medical marijuana. The advocates of these health care measures, often representing those struggling with cancer or chronic illness, stand in contrast of young skateboarding college students one might imagine fervently advocating these policies. Regardless of who winds up with a prescription, medicinal marijuana is an easier political sell, and, as it spreads, people are getting pretty used to it. According to Jennie Bowser, a specialist on ballot measures at the National Conference of State Legislatures, this year’s medical marijuana measures should likewise do well: “History tells us that it’s likely that the legalization measures won’t pass in all states if they pass anywhere,” she says. But “it’s likely that the medical marijuana measures will pass.”

Interestingly, Montana voters already approved one such measure—and now must effectively vote on it once more. In 2004, voters approved a plan to legalize and regulate medicinal marijuana. But in 2010, the state legislature repealed that set of regulations, replacing them with more restrictive legislation. Critics now have a popular referendum on the ballot that will allow voters to reject the legislature’s action and go back to the 2004 law. It looks like they’ll succeed in the effort; an October 11 poll from Public Policy Polling (PPP) showed 44 percent of voters favored the measure while 30 percent were against. There’s still time for things to change—more than a quarter of respondents weren’t sure where they stood.

Massachusetts looks even more likely to pass its medical marijuana measure. The state has already de-criminalized marijuana possession. The ballot initiative, according to another October 11 poll from PPP, showed 57 percent of likely voters supported the measure, and only 31 percent disapproved.

The fate of Arkansas’ initiative is less clear. This is the first time such a measure has been on the ballot in a Southern state. The South has traditionally had tougher drug laws, and it’s not legal to use marijuana medicinally anywhere in the region. Legalization advocates hope a victory in Arkansas will be the beginning of a regional shift. So far, however, it’s hard to tell what will happen; there’s a dearth of polling on the measure. We may not know until November 7 whether the push for medical marijuana has entered Dixieland.

I can think of one way they can celebrate.

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