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Is Legalization Around the Corner? 4 States Mobilizing to Radically Reform Pot Policy

2012 could be the year that legalization actually wins, and voters in at least two states -- Colorado and Washington -- will have the chance to make that happen.
 
 
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 As summer draws near, the election picture when it comes to statewide marijuana legalization initiatives is becoming a bit clearer. At the beginning of the year, activists in eight states undertook efforts to get initiatives on the ballot, but the field has been winnowed.

With polling this year starting to show majority support for legalization and regulation, 2012 could be the year that legalization actually wins, and voters in at least two states -- Colorado and Washington -- will have the chance to make that happen. Initiatives in those two states have already been approved for the ballot, and the election campaigns are underway. 

Four separate and competing initiatives from a divided marijuana movement came up short in the past few weeks in California, while the Show Me Cannabis Regulation initiative in Missouri, long on heart but short on funds, gave up the ghost for this year earlier this month. Activists in both states are planning to return to the fray in 2014.

That leaves four states -- Michigan, Montana, Oregon and Nebraska -- where initiatives are still in the signature-gathering phase. Within a few weeks, we will know for sure whether any of them will make it to the ballot in November, but as of this week, Oregon appears best placed to join Colorado and Washington in the fall.

Here's how it's looking in the four states where initiatives are still trying to qualify for the ballot:

Michigan

The Committee for a Safer Michigan is currently circulating petitions for its constitutional amendment to repeal marijuana prohibition. The committee has until July 9 to gather the 322,609 valid voter signatures needed to qualify for the November ballot. So far, it has only handed in about 35,000, but organizers say many signature-bearing petitions are still out in the field.

"The number of signatures we have in hand is significantly lower than the real number," said Brandi Zink, campaign volunteer coordinator. "We have 2500 volunteers out there with petitions."

If each volunteer signature gatherer has only come up with 100 signatures so far, that would be another 250,000, putting the 306,000 valid signatures within reach.

The campaign will make a big push in the final weeks, but desperately needs money, Zink said.

"We've been reaching out to the political parties here," she said. "We have friends in the Democratic Party and Ron Paul supporters among the Republicans. We are going to be at every major festival and we're still recruiting volunteers, but we still need help and we still need donations.  Anyone who would like to give generously to our effort will be most appreciated. We certainly have the will and the boots on the ground. If we had money, we can get this on the ballot and win."

Zink called on drug reformers across the country to chip in.

"We're asking people in the reform movement to please contribute," she said. "If you're not in Michigan, this is how you can make a difference here. What we're doing in the Midwest can have an impact throughout the nation."

Montana

Montana First, the same group of activists and supporters who last summer and fall organized the successful signature-gathering campaign to put the IR-124 medical marijuana initiative on the November 2012 ballot to undo the legislature's destruction of the state medical marijuana distribution network, is also working on a legalization initiative, Constitutional Initiative No.110 (CI-110).

It would add two sentences to the state constitution: "Adults have the right to responsibly purchase, consume, produce, and possess marijuana, subject to reasonable limitations, regulations, and taxation. Except for actions that endanger minors, children, or public safety, no criminal offense or penalty of this state shall apply to such activities."

To qualify for the ballot, campaigners need to gather some 45,000 valid voter signatures, and Montana law also requires that those signatures include 10% of voters in at least 40 of 100 of the state's electoral districts. They have until June 22, and they're less than halfway there, but still holding out hope.

"We're making a serious run, and we have one month left. We're behind on our goals, but we're accelerating rapidly, and that gives me some cause for optimism," said Montana First's John Masterson. "We have about 20,000 signatures so far and we're gearing up for primary day on June 5. If we do everything right on that day we could double what we have," he said.

"We've got a small army of signature-gatherers on the street, and we have some paid signature-gatherers, too," Masterson said. "People are coming out from under their rocks despite the federal raids, despite the radical acts of the legislature, despite their fears. They are saying they have to stand up and fight for the right of adults to use cannabis in responsible ways."

Nebraska

The Nebraska Prop 19 2012 Cannabis Initiative would amend the state constitution so that any law regarding the private, non-commercial cultivation and consumption of marijuana would be forbidden, with the legislature directed to enact regulations for commercial sales and cultivation. Any current laws violating the amendment, such as the current marijuana laws, are declared null and void and convictions for violations of them are set aside.

In addition to the web site above, the campaign has a Facebook petition page and has shown some signs of life, holding events in Lincoln and Omaha, but has otherwise been remarkably stealthy. While the initiative was filed by McCook attorney Frank Shoemaker, the signature-gathering campaign has reportedly been taken on by the Nebraska Cannabis Alliance.

We have no reliable reports of far the campaign has progressed, but it needs just under 50,000 signatures to make the November ballot and has until July to do so.

Oregon

In Oregon, two separate initiatives appear poised to make the ballot with six weeks left to gather signatures. The Oregon Cannabis Tax Act (OCTA) initiative, which would allow for the legal cultivation and sale of marijuana, needs 87,213 valid signatures to make the ballot. The Oregon Marijuana Policy Initiative constitutional amendment, which would give adult Oregonians the constitutional right to possess marijuana, has to reach a higher threshold of 116,284.

Both measures have until July 6 to turn in signatures, but also face a Friday deadline for turning in enough signatures to qualify for early verification by the secretary of state's office. The early verification allows campaigns to know whether they have come up short because of invalid signatures and gives them six weeks to make up the difference. Both initiatives appear well-placed to do so.

"As of Sunday, we had 109,000 signatures in hand," said Paul Stanford, the primary force behind OCTA. "That's 127% of the total. Assuming an invalidation rate of 30% to 35%, we need to turn in 132,000 to 136,000. We're getting about 10,000 a week, and we have six and a half weeks left," he said.

Stanford has largely funded the OCTA campaign through his multi-state chain of medical marijuana clinics -- not dispensaries -- and said he had pumped $60,000 of his money into the campaign this month.

"We need 116,300 signatures turned in for early approval, and we currently have 132,000," said Robert Wolfe, proponent for OMPI. "We are going to make the ballot, no question about it. The secretary of state will disqualify some percentage, so we're aiming for 185,000 and we'll be collecting up until the deadline."

Both men said that in the event both measures made the ballot, they would complement -- not contradict -- each other.

"The OMPI is a constitutional amendment that requires that the state regulate cannabis, and our OCTA initiative would fulfill that regulatory requirement and save the legislature from contentious debate," said Stanford.

While Wolfe agreed that the two measures could complement each other, he also expressed concerns about mixed messaging.

"There is a difference in the messaging," he said. "We've been careful to frame this as an issue of social justice and wasted resources, while a lot of the OCTA supporters have a more strident marijuana lifestyle message. Those aren't the voters we're trying to attract. We can't win an election with hardcore cannabis supporters alone; we have to appeal to mainstream voters by talking about things they think are important."

Still, having two marijuana legalization initiatives on the ballot is the kind of problem activists in other states wish they had.

What happened to California?

While the failure of the Missouri initiative to make the ballot was not a huge surprise -- it faced big obstacles in the south-central state -- the failure of an initiative to make the ballot in California was a surprise and a disappointment to many reformers, especially after the state came so close with Proposition 19 in 2010.

But the failure of Prop 19, along with the conflicts over medical marijuana, may have sealed the fate of initiative efforts in the Golden State this year, said long-time California scene-watcher and CANORML head Dale Gieringer.

"We just voted on this, and people didn't quite buy it," he said, referring to the Prop 19 defeat. "And the polling hadn't moved. We have a fair amount of chaos in our medical marijuana system, and as long as California voters don't have the confidence we can regulate medical marijuana well, I think they're reluctant to open the doors to further chaos with legalization."

The ongoing federal crackdown on medical marijuana wasn't helping, either, he added.

The failure in 2010 also scared off big money funders, said Gieringer, who estimated it would cost a million dollars just to make the ballot.

"There wasn't the money to do it. We tried in 2010, and it's hard to come back two elections in a row," he said. "Since the polls hadn't moved, the funders weren't terribly interested and thought they could get better bang for their buck in Colorado and Washington and maybe Oregon."

Although there were four separate initiatives, he said, "You add up all the funding for all the initiatives, and it's just not very much. Even if there had been only one initiative, it wouldn't have had a chance."

California led the way with medical marijuana in 1996 and with Proposition 19 in 2010, but if activists in Colorado, Washington, and maybe Oregon, Montana, Michigan, or Nebraska have their way, it will not be the first state to legalize marijuana.

Phillip Smith is an editor at DRCNet.