COVID-19 is wreaking havoc with drug reform initiatives

COVID-19 is wreaking havoc with drug reform initiatives
Kuhina Talimalie, 735th Air Mobility Squadron passenger service and baggage agent, tests a no-touch thermometer on an U.S. Air Force Airman at the Air Mobility Command Passenger Terminal at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, March 25, 2020. Passenger terminal Airmen are screening passengers for fevers to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Anthony Nelson Jr.)

The novel coronavirus pandemic is not just striking down Americans by the tens of thousands and jobs by the tens of millions; it is also wreaking havoc with marijuana and other drug-related voter initiative campaigns this year. It’s damnably hard to gather thousands of voter signatures when there aren’t any mass gatherings and the public is locked inside.


Just a little more than two months ago, we wrote about the 11 states that could see marijuana legalization or medical marijuana on the ballot this year. Stay-at-home orders across the land have winnowed that number, with some campaigns already giving up the ghost while those that are still alive face unprecedented challenges amidst the pandemic.

It’s not just marijuana initiatives, though. In California, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., psilocybin initiatives are facing the same hurdles. And so is an Oregon initiative that would decriminalize the possession of all drugs.

But first, let’s look at what’s changed and what hasn’t regarding those marijuana initiatives. What hasn’t changed is that state legalization initiatives have already qualified for the November ballot in two states, a legislatively-initiated constitutional amendment in New Jersey and Constitutional Amendment A in South Dakota. South Dakota also has a medical marijuana initiative, Initiated Measure 26, already qualified for the ballot, as does Mississippi with Ballot Initiative 65.

Back in February, in addition to those initiatives already on the ballot, signature-gathering efforts for marijuana legalization were underway in seven more states and for medical marijuana in two others. Now, though, the pandemic has already killed off legalization campaigns in Missouri and North Dakota.

Organizers in the latter clearly laid the blame on the pandemic. “Due to the virus all of our major avenues for signature collection have been canceled or indefinitely postponed, and going door to door is not safe for both those knocking and those [whose doors are] getting knocked,” the Legalize ND campaign said. “Businesses will continue to collect, but we don’t want to create another vector for the coronavirus. As a result, at this time if something major doesn’t change we will not be able to make the 2020 ballot.”

The pandemic has also wiped out a medical marijuana initiative in Idaho, where the Idaho Cannabis Coalition announced in March that it was suspending signature gathering. Since it only had until May 1, that marks the effective end to the effort this year. And in Nebraska, the medical marijuana initiative campaign has suspended signature gathering for the duration of the outbreak, even though it says it is still confident it can make the ballot. But it only has until July 8 to come up with 130,000 signatures, and it’s not clear how close it is.

In Oklahoma, the campaign to put a marijuana legalization initiative, State Question 807, on the ballot is not officially dead but is likely to fall victim to the pandemic. Secretary of State Michael Rogers ordered a pause to all initiative signature-gathering activities in March. Given that the campaign needs 178,000 signatures in 90 days to qualify, organizers have all but given up the ghost.

It would be “really difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a scenario in which an initiative petition campaign could responsibly and feasibly collect the signatures necessary in order to make the 2020 ballot if that campaign doesn’t already have the signatures on hand,” said Ryan Kiesel, a proponent of the initiative.

It’s also looking grim for Arkansas, where Arkansans for Cannabis Reform is trying to gather signatures for a pair of initiatives, the Arkansas Adult Use Cannabis Amendment and the Arkansas Marijuana Expungement Amendment. They only had 15,000 raw signatures for the former by late March and need 89,000 valid voter signatures for each by July 3 to qualify. The campaign did get a late injection of cash that allowed for paid signature gatherers, but by then the coronavirus outbreak arrived, and that has effectively put the kibosh on the initiatives.

In Montana, the never-say-die New Approach Montana campaign joined two in-state political figures to file a lawsuit charging that prohibiting electronic signature gathering during the coronavirus pandemic is unconstitutional. The group is behind a pair of legalization initiatives: a constitutional initiative (Ballot Issue 11) that would set 21 as the legal age when people can use marijuana and a statutory initiative (Ballot Issue 14) that would set up a system of taxed and regulated marijuana commerce. Not allowing for electronic signature gathering would violate the “constitutional rights of Plaintiffs and the people of Montana to amend the constitution and enact laws by initiative, as well as the rights of Plaintiffs and the people of Montana under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution,” the lawsuit argued.

But that argument fell on deaf ears. As April came to an end, a district court judge in Missoula ruled against the initiative campaigns, saying state social distancing orders did not block the campaigns from signature gathering. He also denied New Approach’s motion to extend signature gathering to July 17. New Approach is considering an appeal.

The one bright spot for marijuana legalization initiatives still trying to make the ballot is Arizona, where the Smart and Safe Arizona Act needs 237,000 valid voter signatures by early July to qualify for the November ballot. The campaign had already collected 270,000 raw signatures before pandemic lockdowns began and has joined with three other initiative campaigns in the state to petition the state Supreme Court to allow electronic signature gathering via E-Qual, the state’s online signature platform, during the pandemic. The campaign had set a goal of 400,000 raw signatures, which it is now unlikely to reach, but even with the lockdown, getting enough raw signatures to ensure it has collected enough valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot seems to be within reach.

In Oregon, where marijuana is already legal, a pair of drug reform initiatives appear poised to weather the storm and actually get on the ballot. A drug treatment and decriminalization initiative, IP 44, needs 112,000 valid voter signatures by July 2 (in early March, an initiative spokeswoman said they planned to turn in signatures for verification earlier, in May), but already had 125,000 raw signatures before the state shutdown began. The campaign has moved to online signature gathering in a bid to get those raw signature numbers further into the comfort zone. As of the end of March, the campaign said it still needed 8,000 valid voter signatures.

he Oregon Psilocybin Program Initiative, IP 34, is in a similar place. The campaign to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes is moving to online signature gathering during the coronavirus pandemic. It, too, needs 112,000 valid voter signatures, also with a July 2 deadline, and had already gathered 100,000 raw signatures before moving to online signature gathering at the end of March. At that point, its raw signature count was up to 128,000, but it was still seeking to create a cushion by adding at least 15,000 more signers.

California psilocybin legalization initiative led by Decriminalize California was not in as good a place as its brother to the north. It needed 623,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot, but only had about a quarter of that in raw signatures by mid-March, when the state moved toward lockdown. It and two other initiative campaigns have asked the governor or the legislature to authorize the electronic collection of signatures, but that hadn’t happened by late April—so the campaign called it quits for this year.

And in Washington, D.C., Decriminalize Nature D.C., the group behind a psychedelic decriminalization initiative, has been forced to suspend conventional signature-gathering because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so now the campaign is looking at other options, including “micro-scale petition signature collection.” The campaign would mail petitions to supporters, who could collect signatures from “registered DC voters in their immediate vicinity, such as family, roommates, friends and close-by neighbors” and then return the petitions to campaign headquarters.

In some late potential good news, the ACLU of Washington state in late April unveiled a drug decriminalization initiative, Initiative 1715, similar to the one in Oregon. While acknowledging the impact of social distancing on signature gathering, the campaign says it plans to devote the month of June to the task.

What promised to be a banner year for marijuana and drug reform initiatives as the year began is now unlikely to turn out that way as initiative campaigns, like the nation at large, are buffeted by the coronavirus storm. Still, marijuana legalization will be on the ballot in at least two states—New Jersey and South Dakota—and probably in Arizona. Medical marijuana will be on the ballot in at least two states, Mississippi and South Dakota. And with any luck, those Oregon drug decriminalization and psilocybin initiatives will be on the ballot, too, and that late Washington state decriminalization effort has a shot, too. Even in a year of retrenchment forced by viral circumstance, there are opportunities to make progress.

Phillip Smith is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug policy journalist for the past two decades. He is the longtime author of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the non-profit StopTheDrugWar.org, and has been the editor of AlterNet’s Drug Reporter since 2015. He was awarded the Drug Policy Alliance’s Edwin M. Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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