Marijuana advocates have placed measures on ballots in six states dealing with the recreational or medical use of the drug, defying federal efforts to crack down on use where it’s already legal.
From Massachusetts to Oregon, measures on tomorrow’s ballots aim to make three states the first in the nation to allow recreational marijuana use and expand on the 17 states that already allow its medical use.
“The attitudes about marijuana have changed sufficiently to make the issue of legalization politically viable and these initiatives are one way to measure that change,” said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a Washington-based group that advocates legalizing marijuana.
The efforts to expand legalization of marijuana defy a federal push to crack down on the industry in states including California, where federal prosecutors sent letters last year to clinic landlords saying they face jail time if they don’t evict pot shops. They also targeted large-scale growers and distributors in the state, the first to permit medical-marijuana use when voters approved a 1996 ballot measure.
Younger voters are more accepting of marijuana use, said John Matsusaka, president of the Initiative & Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
“Younger folks are more comfortable with this drug than maybe their parents or grandparents were,” Matsusaka said in a telephone interview. “Also, the fact that the medical marijuana dispensaries have been around for a while now and the sky hasn’t fallen has helped the proponents of these things to suggest it’s not so bad.”
Voters in Oregon, Washington and Colorado will decide whether their states will become the first to legalize recreational use of marijuana. In Massachusetts and Arkansas, voters will consider legalizing it for medical use. In Montana, they’ll decide whether to affirm or reject a 2011 law that scaled back a 2004 initiative legalizing medical marijuana.
St. Pierre said ballot measures in Washington state and Massachusetts have the best chance at winning voter approval. The Washington measure has the best political support, he said. The initiative has 55 percent backing among likely voters, with 38 percent opposed, according to a KCTS-9 Washington poll.
Although support is declining, 55 percent of 600 likely Massachusetts voters support the medical marijuana measure, while 36 percent oppose it, according to a Suffolk University/7 News telephone survey conducted Oct. 25-28.
In Washington state, the measure could generate as much as $1.9 billion in state revenue over five fiscal years, according to the state’s Office of Financial Management.
The initiative requires a 25 percent tax on marijuana sales by a producer to a processor, by the processor to a retailer and by a retailer to a consumer, according to the ballot language. The measure is opposed by some legalization supporters who say its definition of driving under the influence has too low a threshold.
“A lot of us just aren’t willing to exchange the prosecution of innocent people for faulty reform,” said Anthony Martinelli, a spokesman for Sensible Washington, a Seattle-based nonprofit that supports marijuana legalization.
It’s also drawn opposition from medical-marijuana dispensary owners, who have a financial interest in opposing legalization of recreational use.
“If voters in one of these states pass commercial legalization, there will definitely be a drop in the retail price,” said Beau Kilmer, co-director of the Rand Drug Policy Research Center in Santa Monica, California.
The amount will depend on the type of production allowed, the state tax rate and the federal response, Kilmer said in an e-mail.
In Oregon and Arkansas, where measures got on the ballot late, chances for approval are slimmer, St. Pierre said. If the Arkansas measure is approved, that state would become the first in the South to allow medical-marijuana use.
Jerry Cox, president of the Little Rock, Arkansas-based Family Council Action Committee, which opposes the measure, called it “a back-door effort” to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes.
“Public opinion on marijuana seems to be changing across the country, otherwise there wouldn’t be 17 states that legalized it for medical purposes,” Cox said in a telephone interview. “However, I don’t believe that public opinion has changed enough in Arkansas to enable Issue 5 to pass.”
In Arkansas, 53 percent of very likely voters oppose the measure and 43 percent favor it, according to a poll released by the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville on Oct. 24.
Mark Kleiman, a public policy professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said this year’s ballot measures stand a better chance of passing because a presidential election year draws a much younger electorate than an off-year.
“It’s a more favorable environment,” Kleiman said.
Ballot measures legalizing recreational use of marijuana have failed in California, Alaska, Oregon, Colorado and Nevada, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.
If Washington state succeeds, “politically it would be a very big deal,” Kleiman said. “There would be some signal there to Washington, D.C.”
While the Justice Department has advised U.S. attorneys that prosecuting “significant” marijuana traffickers remains a core priority, focusing on people with cancer and other illnesses who use the drug as a recommended treatment “likely is not an efficient use of federal resources,” the agency said in a statement.
Berit Hallberg, a spokeswoman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, referred to a statement by the agency’s director Gil Kerlikowske.
“As a former police chief, I recognize we are not going to arrest our way out of the problem,” Kerlikowske wrote. “We also recognize that legalizing marijuana would not provide the answer to any of the health, social, youth education, criminal justice and community quality-of-life challenges associated with drug use.”