Selling cannabis regulation Learning From Ballot Initiatives in the United States in 2012

Publication date:

In 2012, voters in the US states of Washington, Colorado and Oregon were given the opportunity to vote in ballot initiatives for the creation of legally regulated cannabis markets. Washington’s Initiative 502 and Colorado’s Amendment 64 both passed with 55.7% and 55.3% of the vote respectively. Oregon’s Measure 80 failed with 53.4% of those voting rejecting the measure. As calls for and legal processes towards the initiation of cannabis policy reform become more common within US states, it is a timely and useful exercise to reflect upon the campaigns for reform in Washington (WA), Colorado (CO) and Oregon (OR) and examine why the public supported cannabis policy reform in some instances and not others.

Re-Asserting Control: Voluntary Return, Restitution and the Right to Land for IDPs and Refugees in Myanmar - cover

About selling cannabis regulation

Publication type
Policy briefing



Within the United States of America there is abroad and growing consensus that the policy of prohibiting the use of cannabis for anything other than scientific and medical purposes is failing. Yet, most voters still view recreational cannabis use in a negative light. Moreover, as the policy landscape shifts, there is mounting concern that overly commercial and under regulated cannabis policies, particularly those that could harm youth, are not desirable either. Polling and interviews with experts from WA, CO, and OR indicate that swing voters, crucial to passing ballot initiatives, desire to have cannabis policies that are well thought out and not overly ideological. Strong regulations, dedicating tax revenue to education and public health programmes, and strong protections for youth seem to be particularly important to voters. As will be shown, these policy features also align with political messages that most strongly resonate with voters.

Drawing on and developing further the discussions within the GDPO Policy Report, Legally regulated markets in the US: Implications and possibilities, this policy brief will review and analyse what may lie behind the successes and failures of the ballot measures in Washington, Colorado and Oregon, as well as examine the changing national context for cannabis reform. It concludes by bringing together some of the lessons learned within these states in what has been referred to as the process of ‘selling’ policy ideas to the voting public.

Key Points

• In November 2012, Washington, Colorado, and Oregon voted on ballot initiatives to establish legally regulated markets for the production, sale, use and taxation of cannabis.1 Washington and Colorado’s measures won by wide margins, while Oregon’s lost soundly.

• A majority of voters view cannabis in a negative light, but also feel that prohibition for non-medical and non-scientific purposes is not working. As a result, they are more likely to support well-crafted reform policies that include strong regulations and direct tax revenue to worthy causes such as public health and education.

• Ballot measures are not the ideal method for passing complicated pieces of legislation, but sometimes they are necessary for controversial issues. Other states often follow in their footsteps, including via the legislature.

• The successful campaigns in Washington and Colorado relied on poll-driven messaging, were well organised, and had significant financing. The Oregon campaign lacked these elements.

• The Washington and Colorado campaigns targeted key demographic groups, particularly 30-50 year old women, who were likely to be initially supportive of reform but then switch their allegiance to the ‘no’ vote.

• Two key messages in Washington and Colorado were that legalisation, taxation and regulation will (i) free up scarce law enforcement resources to focus on more serious crimes and (ii) will create new tax revenue for worthy causes.

• National attitudes on legalising cannabis are changing, with more and more people supporting reform.

November 2014
GDPO Policy Brief 6

Ideas into movement

Boost TNI's work

50 years. Hundreds of social struggles. Countless ideas turned into movement. 

Support us as we celebrate our 50th anniversary in 2024.

Make a donation