Why 2014 Is a Major Election Year for Marijuana Reform
Voters in several states and municipalities nationwide will head to the polls this November and decide whether or not to radically alter the way many parts of America deal with pot.
Voters in three states – Alaska, Florida, and Oregon – will decide on statewide measures seeking to legalize marijuana use and commerce. In addition, voters in the District of Columbia and in various other cities will decide on municipal measures seeking to depenalize the plant’s possession and consumption by adults.
Come November, Colorado and Washington may no longer be the only places in the United States where marijuana is legal for purchase by anyone over the age of 21. Alaska voters on November 4th will decide on Measure 2: “An Act to tax and regulate the production, sale, and use of marijuana.” The ballot initiative seeks to allow for the personal possession and cultivation of cannabis by adults while simultaneously regulating and taxing the commercial production and retail sales of the plant.
Under the proposal, a person age 21 or older may legally possess or transfer without remuneration up to one ounce of cannabis. Adults would also be permitted to cultivate up to six marijuana plants (only three of which may be mature at any one time) for non-commercial purposes. Commercial cannabis enterprises will be subject to oversight by the state Department of Commerce, which has up to nine months following the measure’s passage to adopt rules to allow for the licensed production and retail sale of the plant.
As is the case in Colorado and Washington, public consumption will remain a violation – albeit a noncriminal one – under state law. Local governments will also possess authority under the law to enact moratoriums on commercial cannabis enterprises if they desire to do so. (Both Colorado and Washington impose similar local controls.)
According to a statewide Public Policy Polling survey, Alaska voters "think (that) marijuana should be legally allowed for recreational use, that stores should be allowed to sell it, and that its sales should be taxed and regulated similarly to alcohol" by a margin of 55 to 39 percent. This majority support is hardly surprising. Alaska’s high court has allowed for the private possession and cultivation of small quantities of cannabis since the mid-1970s, and in 1998, 58 percent of voters approved ballot language permitting qualified patients to grow and use the plant.
Sunshine State voters will decide this November on Amendment 2, which seeks to permit for the physician-authorized possession and state-licensed distribution of cannabis. Because the proposal seeks to amend the state constitution, support from over 60 percent of state voters is necessary for the amendment to become law.
If passed, the amendment would allow for a physician to recommend cannabis therapy to any patient at his or her discretion. However, neither qualified patients (nor their designated caregivers) would be permitted to cultivate cannabis. Rather, the proposal authorizes the state Department of Health to determine rules within six-months following the act’s passage for the registration of ‘Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers’ (dispensaries), which would be authorized to cultivate, process, and sell medicinal cannabis and other related products. If regulators not begin registering these facilities within this time frame, “any Florida citizen shall have standing to seek judicial relief to compel compliance with the Department’s constitutional duties,” the measure states.
Despite coordinated opposition by the Florida Sheriff’s Association, former Reagan anti-drug aide Carlton Turner (who once infamously claimed that marijuana smoking leads to homosexuality and “therefore to AIDS”), and gambling mogul Sheldon Anderson (who recently donated $2.5 million to defeat the measure), public support for Amendment 2 remains high. According to a May 2014 Quinnipiac University poll, 88 percent of Florida voters support the medical use of marijuana when authorized by a physician.
Like Alaska’s Measure 2, Oregon’s initiative (Initiative Petition 53) similarly seeks to authorize both the personal use of cannabis as well as the plant’s retail production and sale. Under the plan, adults who engage in the non-commercial cultivation of limited amounts of cannabis for personal use (up to four marijuana plants and eight ounces of usable marijuana at a given time) will not be subject to taxation or commercial regulations. Commercial producers and retailers will require state licensing (available at a $1,000 per year annual fee), but retail sales will not be subject to special taxes or fees, as is the case presently in Colorado and Washington.
Will the second time be the charm for Oregon? Possibly. Although a broader, less funded measure gained only 47 percent of the vote in 2012, recent statewide polling on the issue finds that a slight majority of Oregonians (51 percent) support legalizing pot for recreational purposes.
District of Columbia
Earlier this month, proponents of a District initiative to permit the possession and cultivation of limited amounts of marijuana by those age 21 or older turned in 57,000 signatures to the DC Board of Elections. The number is more the twice the total of signatures from registered voters necessary to place the measure on the 2014 electoral ballot. District of Columbia election officials have until mid-August to certify the measure for the ballot.
The proposed measure (Initiative Measure 71) seeks to remove all criminal and civil penalties pertaining to the adult possession of up to two ounces of cannabis and/or the cultivation of up to six plants (no more than three mature at any one time). Adults who engage in the not-for-profit transfer of cannabis or who possess marijuana related paraphernalia will also no longer be subject to penalty. The measure further states, “[N]o district government agency or office shall limit or refuse to provide any facility service, program or benefit to any person based upon or by reason of conduct that is made lawful by this subsection.”
Though supported by a solid majority of District voters, the measure still faces an uphill battle. Even if approved by voters this fall, members of the DC City Council still possess the authority to amend the measure. Members of Congress could also thwart the process since all District regulations are subject to Congressional review prior to their implementation. Finally, pending Congressional legislation that seeks to prevent DC from imposing any laws reducing the regions marijuana penalties also remains pending in the US House of Representatives.
Other municipal measures
Voters in numerous other cities will have the opportunity in November to decide on local measures seeking to depenalize marijuana. In Michigan, local activists are gathering signatures for municipal measures in over a dozen cities, including Saginaw and East Lansing, which would eliminate local laws outlawing the simple possession of marijuana by adults. (Voters in Detroit and five other Michigan cities have already approved similar citizens’ initiatives in recent years.) In Maine, voters in the cities of Lewiston, South Portland, and York will vote on similar measures. (Nearly 70 percent of Portland voters approved a similar proposal last year.) Reform groups are contemplating 2016 statewide campaigns in both states.
Finally, in New Mexico, activists are seeking to place a pair of depenalization measures on the municipal ballots in Albuquerque and in Santa Fe. If enacted, the proposals would amend local laws to reduce the penalty for the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana (and/or marijuana-associated paraphernalia) to a civil infraction punishable by no more than a $25 fine.