Three marijuana legalization initiatives were on the ballot this week, and all three won. That’s a better outcome than I was expecting. I was surprised when voters in Colorado and Washington approved legalization two years ago, and I was surprised again when voters in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., followed suit. Partly that’s because, after 25 years of advocating drug legalization (along with various other unpopular positions), I am accustomed to losing. But it’s also because I had looked at the polling data.
By legalizing marijuana through direct democracy, Colorado and Washington have fundamentally changed the national conversation about cannabis. As many as 58 percent of Americans believe marijuana should be legal. The political establishment is catching on. Former president Jimmy Carter endorsed taxed-and-regulated weed. In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy suggested "to amend the Federal Controlled Substances Act to allow possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, at least in jurisdictions where it is legal under state law."
Weed is legal in at least some form in 22 states and the District of Columbia. Most allow it for medical use only. Colorado and Washington this year enacted laws that allow recreational use by adults. But more than two dozen states are considering new or expanded marijuana reform legislation, including complete legalization for adults, medical marijuana, hemp use and decriminalization. Which are the next five states likely to legalize marijuana?
Colorado and Washington became the first U.S. states to legalize the possession and sale of marijuana for recreational use in defiance of federal law, setting the stage for a possible showdown with the Obama administration. Another ballot measure to remove criminal penalties for personal possession and cultivation of recreational cannabis was defeated in Oregon. The Drug Policy Alliance, a national advocacy group that backed the initiatives, said the outcome in Washington and Colorado reflected growing national support for liberalized pot laws.
Oregon voters will decide whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use after state elections officials said the measure qualified for the November 2014 ballot. The measure would allow adults 21 and older to buy and possess marijuana and would give the Oregon Liquor Control Commission the job of regulating and taxing the drug. Voters rejected a legalization measure two years ago, but little money was spent promoting it. By contrast, New Approach Oregon, the group behind the initiative, has received contributions from some of the same donors who backed successful marijuana initiatives in Washington and Colorado.
On November 4, several states radically altered their approaches to a drug once known for Reefer Madness. In Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC, voters approved marijuana legalization measures. But in Florida, a medical marijuana amendment fell short of the 60 percent approval it needed to pass under state law. Here's a breakdown of each state's initiative, the latest results, and how the opposing campaigns pushed their messages to voters.
In Oregon - a state with one of the nation's highest rates of pot use and a reputation for pushing the boundaries on marijuana laws - organizers are looking at a bank account with just $1,800. Marijuana activists who have ploughed big bucks into campaigns in the other two states complain the Oregon measure is poorly written and doesn't poll well. It didn't qualify for the ballot until July, severely limiting the time available to sway voters. They also don't care for the man with a blemished record who's pushing Oregon's measure. More than $4 million has flowed to Washington and close to a million in Colorado.
The decision by California voters in 1996 to legalize medical marijuana produced a wave of similar initiatives around the country. Less than two decades later, over half the states allow at least limited medical use. Now it looks as though recreational use of the drug may follow the same path. In 2012, Washington State and Colorado legalized recreational marijuana. This November, voters in Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia will decide whether to do the same — effectively disregarding the misguided federal ban on a drug that is far less dangerous than alcohol.