By Phillip Smith
State-level marijuana law reform won big in this month’s elections, with legalization initiatives triumphing convincingly in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC. The Florida medical marijuana initiative lost, but only because it had a higher bar of 60% of the popular vote. It ended up with 57%, a clear sign of solid majority support. And don’t forget Guam — the US territory approved medical marijuana with 56% of the vote.
Local marijuana reform initiatives also fared well. In Maine, Massachusetts, and Michigan, activists built on earlier successes to win more victories this year, while in New Mexico, voters in Albuquerque and Santa Fe voted in favor of decriminalizing pot possession.
All in all, a good year for marijuana law reform, the second good election year in a row. Since 2012, voters in four states and DC have been asked to legalize marijuana. They’ve now said yes in all of them.
And now, eyes to turn to 2016 and beyond. There are excellent prospects for more victories in the West, as well as in the Northeast. And there could be some surprises lurking out there in the middle of the country.
California, of course, is the big prize, and efforts are already well underway to ensure that legalization is on the ballot in 2016 — and that it actually wins this time. Arizona and Nevada are also on the radar, and the Nevada initiative campaign has already turned in twice the number of signatures needed to make the 2016 ballot.
In the Northeast, both Maine and Massachusetts are initiative states, and legalization appears headed for the ballot in both. In Rhode Island and Vermont, the push will come in the state legislatures.
“Things are clearly headed in the right direction,” said Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) communications director Mason Tvert, scanning the post-election terrain. “Even in a midterm where we saw large Republican gains, we also saw large gains for marijuana policy reform. A lot of people would say the turnout was smaller and more conservative, yet we still saw strong majorities approving measures making marijuana legal in various states and cities.”
MPP will be backing 2016 initiatives in five states, Tvert said, although the Nevada legislature could ease its burden by just approving an initiative rather than punting to the voters.
“In Nevada, the petition drive has just wrapped up. At this point, our goal there is to pass the ballot initiative; if the legislature chooses to take an objective look and give it some real consideration, that would be excellent, too,” he said.
“We also have committees filed to support initiatives in Arizona, California, Maine, and Massachusetts,” Tvert said. “In California, we want to begin to raise money to support that effort, but it’s pretty early in the process. We expect to see very solid support for such a measure in California, especially running in a presidential election year when support for legalizing marijuana has been growing nationwide. Prop 19 got 47% in 2010; that will be six years ago come 2016.”
“We have a pretty comprehensive statewide coalition working on this,” said Dale Gieringer, executive director ofCalifornia NORML, which is a key part of that grouping, the California Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform. “The coalition includes us, the Prop 19 people, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, MPP, the Emerald Growers Association, and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) has been a partner in this, too.”
A little less than two years out, it’s a work in progress, said Gieringer.
“Pretty much all the leading groups interested in drug reform are interested in collaborating, but exactly how that will work hasn’t been settled yet,” he said.
Now that four states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana, Gieringer sees some political space for pushing the envelope.
“Home cultivation will be in it,” he said. “They have that in Oregon and Colorado, and we’re going to have it in California. I also want to provide for on-site consumption; we’re working to get that instituted here in Oakland. In Colorado, they banned public use, which is one thing if you mean smoking pot on the street, but governments tend to have an expansive view of what constitutes public use, like a public accommodation under the Civil Rights Act. I think we can provide for licensed on-site consumption, at least by local option.”
And no reason to make what he called “unnecessary concessions.”
“We have a DUID law, and we don’t need to change that,” he said. “They didn’t do that in Colorado and Oregon, and we don’t need to do it. We learned a lesson in Washington — that lack of an express DUID provision didn’t make a difference — and we’re not going to repeat that.”
Although more than any other group in the coalition, CANORML represents the interests of marijuana consumers, Gieringer said it’s not pot smokers or growers who are going to make an initiative victorious.
“Marijuana users are 12% to 15% of the population here; we really have to depend on more than that,” he said. “The users and growers will not determine this campaign. And I’m sure there will be people discontented with however the initiative turns out; there always are. But there aren’t that many growers in the state, anyhow. Some growers didn’t like Prop 19, but it failed for other reasons. It didn’t win in Los Angeles County, and that’s not because of the growers.”
In some states, such as Massachusetts, activists have been piling up marijuana reform victories for years.MassCANN/NORML and the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts have an unbroken record of winning non-binding public policy questions on marijuana reform issues going back seven election cycles. Voters in the Bay State have also signaled their approval of marijuana law reform by passing statewide medical marijuana (2008) and decriminalization initiatives (2012).
Now, Bay State Repeal has formed to free the weed in 2016, and it has a pot populist tinge to it. The group wants home cultivation, not just to keep prices down, but “to keep the cops from busting through the door just because there is marijuana growing there” and it wants taxation and regulation, but only “moderate,” not “cash-cow taxation or giant licensing fees.”
In Maine, where MPP has been active, putting successful municipal legalization initiatives on the ballot in Portland and South Portland (but losing one in Lewiston), there could be not one but two legalization initiatives unless differing actors come together. In addition to the MPP effort, a new group, Legalize Maine, is also moving forward with plans for an initiative.
As with Bay State Repeal, there is a pot populist tinge. Legalize Maine couches its argument not only in terms of justice and common sense, but also talks about jobs and economic development. And it wants marijuana regulated in a way that “focuses on people instead of large economic interests that seeks to dominate the marijuana industry.”
Legalization could also pop up in some unexpected places, too. While the major movement organizations already have selected targets for 2016 and have plans well afoot, things could break faster than the big players anticipate, and local activists in some states — Arkansas and Missouri, for example — may manage to get initiatives on the ballot without significant outside support.
In Missouri, Show Me Cannabis has been undertaking a vigorous and energetic campaign to put an initiative on the ballot in 2016. It submitted its initiative to state officials earlier this month; the first step in getting the measure before the voters. Similar efforts by different groups are also underway next door in Arkansas.
Those Ozark-area efforts don’t have the backing of big national organization behind them, but that could change.
“If these initiatives are well-drafted and the polling is strong, we’ll help as best we can, but we’re not making any financial commitments,” said DPA executive director Ethan Nadelmann. “We have a major commitment in California, and we’re helping MPP draft initiatives in other states. In Missouri, let’s make sure there’s a solid draft initiative, and if the polling is there, well, a victory in Missouri would be very compelling.”
Seeing marijuana legalization creep along the West Coast, make inroads on the East Coast, and maybe even in the Ozarks would make for a very impressive 2016, but some Midwestern activists are looking further down the road.
Led by indefatigable Tim Beck, Michigan activists have managed to pass municipal personal legalization initiatives in all the state’s largest cities in the past few years. This year, they went eight for 13 with similar initiatives in smaller Michigan communities.
Michigan voters also approved marijuana in a statewide initiative in 2008, but, for Beck, getting the state’s dispensary situation settled — not legalization — is the first order of business.
“Although the state legislature is totally controlled by the GOP, we’ve been working with them, and they’ve kind of seen the light on a regulated system with a lot of local control, which is big with Republicans,” he said. “We have one of the best medical marijuana laws in the country, and it’s going to get better with a regulated dispensary system, as well as ingestibles. We won 95-14 in the House, and it’s going through the Senate now,” he said.
“We have over 1.5 million people now living in cities that have decriminalized,” Beck said. “And we liberated 140,000 this year — on the cheap. This has an impact. When we have dispensaries and when we have decriminalization, local officials won’t be able to say ‘Oh, we don’t want marijuana here,’ because the voters do.”
Legalization may not be the first order of business, but it is the ultimate goal, Beck said.
“My philosophy has never been that the solution is medical, but straight-out, unadorned legalization, but we’re -having to do it on our own,” he explained. “Michigan is fly-over country for the big players. It’s a large state with a population of more than 10 million, so it’s expensive to win a campaign, and it’s a bit more conservative than the East or West coasts.”
That means Michigan needs to be patient.
“Our realistic priority for the next couple of years is to work with the legislature,” Beck said. “We have a new class of entrepreneurs who have come out of the closet, and we’ve been able to fund our own lobbyist to the tune of about $150,000. Once we get dispensaries, then we’ll turn to decriminalization at the statehouse. We had a decriminalization bill this year, but it was introduced by a Democrat and went nowhere.”
Beck is also waiting for the opinion polls to move further in the right direction.
“There’s a weird dichotomy in our polling,” the veteran activist explained. “We get well over 60% saying yes to reallocating police resources away from small-time marijuana users, but when it comes to legalization, that number drops dramatically. We might be at 50%; we’ll do another poll at year’s end, but I don’t think much will change. It’s hard to demand that anyone open their checkbook when you’re only running 50%. We have to just keep going on an incremental basis. Maybe by 2018 or 2020, we’ll be ready.”
While Beck counsels patience, Nadelmann is counseling prudence. And while he is of course happy that all the legalization initiatives passed, he doesn’t want people to think it’s going to be a walk in the park from here on in.
“The downside is a sense of overconfidence, a feeling that marijuana will legalize itself,” he said. “That could make it more difficult to fundraise if there’s a sense that you can put anything on the ballot and not anticipate serious opposition. There could be a sense in the industry that you can be free riders while the activists raise the money.”
There are other potential pitfalls. Entrepreneurs trying to push the envelope could push too far, Nadelmann said.
“Don’t forget the Montana disaster,” he warned, referring the wide open medical marijuana expansion there that created a backlash that drove the industry back into the ground. “Don’t be short-sighted and greedy, and contribute and support the organizations working on this.”
And don’t forget federal pot prohibition.
It’s one thing for a handful of states — or even more — to legalize marijuana, but as long as federal marijuana prohibition remains on the books, even the legal marijuana states could theoretically face a concerted federal effort to roll back the clock. Using federal marijuana prohibition as a hammer, a hostile Congress and president could wreak havoc with state-level regulation and taxation. (Ironically, a move to do that could result in marijuana being legal to smoke and possess in those states, but not to sell or be taxed or regulated.)
But if repealing federal pot prohibition is the Holy Grail, reformers still have a ways to go.
“A lot more states are going to have to approve this before it gets to the point where repeal can pass,” said Nadelmann. “When you look at medical marijuana and how slowly that moves on Capitol Hill, you see that it wasn’t until this year that we actually got something passed, and that was just to stop federal interference in medical marijuana states. I’m more optimistic about winning votes like that next year, to get the federal government out of the way.”
Congress has not been especially responsive to growing support for marijuana legalization, and there’s no reason to expect that to change anytime soon, Nadelmann said.
“It’s hard to imagine Congress playing any sort of leadership role on this stuff,” he explained.
Maybe when we have 24 legal marijuana states, not just four of them. That means there’s still plenty of work to be done at the state house and the ballot box.