Now that medical marijuana is permitted in about one-third of the
nation, advocates hope to move beyond therapeutic uses with ballot
questions in three states that could legalize pot for recreational use.
in Colorado, Washington state and Oregon face proposals to change state
laws to permit possession and regulate the sale of marijuana - though
the plant with psychoactive properties remains an illegal substance
under federal law.
Approval in even one state would be a dramatic
step that most likely would face legal challenges but could also bring
pressure on the federal government to consider modifying the national
prohibition on marijuana that has been in place since 1937, backers say.
of these states crossing that Rubicon will immediately set up a
challenge to the federal government,'' says Allen St. Pierre, executive
director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
polls have shown proponents leading in Washington and Colorado a month
or more before the election, but the outcome remains in doubt, and both
sides are aware of what happened in California in 2010: The similar
Proposition 19 lost 53.5% to 46.5% after an early lead in favor
"It's a similar trajectory here,'' says Laura
Chapin,? spokeswoman for a group opposing Colorado's Amendment 64, who
predicts the proposal will be defeated.
John Matsusaka, a
professor of law and business who is president of the Initiative &
Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California, says the
ballot questions on recreational use reflect growing acceptance of
A Gallup poll in October 2011 showed support for
legalization of marijuana at 50%, the highest since Gallup began asking
the question in 1970, and 46% opposed. Seventeen states have permitted
marijuana use and possession for medical reasons since 1996, when
California became the first, and many cities have instructed police to
make pot a low priority for enforcement.
"Public opinion is trending in this direction,'' Matsusaka says. "It's a matter of time before one of these passes.''
Medical-marijuana proposals are on the ballot in three states: Arkansas, Massachusetts and Montana.
The ballot issues arise as the conflict between the federal ban and more permissive states has been growing.
of marijuana for medical purposes is legal in Washington, D.C., and 17
states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware,
Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island,
Washington and Vermont
California, federal prosecutors have been shutting down
medical-marijuana dispensaries, sometimes threatening landlords with
asset forfeiture for leasing space to pot shops. Yet federal prosecutors
typically do not go after cases of simple possession of small
quantities. In Washington state, former federal prosecutors and law
enforcement officials are among the supporters of legalization.
have been intense in Washington and Colorado. In Oregon, St. Pierre
says, marijuana advocates are less hopeful and support is not as
Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper, who
supports Washington's Initiative 502, says some police and prosecutors
have grown frustrated at the futility of marijuana prohibition and see
regulation by states as a way to take the trade out of the hands of
criminals and free up the justice system to focus on more serious
"They've seen the enormous costs associated with
marijuana prohibition, and they've concluded there ought to be a better
way,'' Stamper says. "None of us is advocating marijuana use.''
Washington state, the issue is being sold as a chance to license,
regulate and tax marijuana and impose a tough legal standard banning
driving a vehicle while impaired by marijuana. Backers added the
drugged-driving provision after seeing opponents of California's
proposition two years ago attack it for failing to address driving after
smoking or otherwise ingesting pot.
Colorado's proposal would
authorize state-licensed production and retail facilities but leave it
to lawmakers to follow up with any driving restrictions, says Mason
Tvert, co-director of a group pushing the amendment.
Washington is airing $2 million worth of TV ads in favor of Initiative
502, campaign director Alison Holcomb says. Among them are ads featuring
endorsements from two former U.S. attorneys from the Bush and Clinton
administrations and a former Seattle FBI chief.
"We know firsthand
that decades of marijuana arrests have failed to reduce use, and the
drug cartels are pocketing all the profits,'' Charlie Mandigo, former
special agent in charge of the FBI in Seattle, says in one ad.
502 passes, we will have more resources to go after violent crimes,''
John McKay, former U.S. attorney for western Washington from 2001 to
2007, says in another.
In Colorado, Chapin's opposition group,
Vote No on 64, has no TV ads. It touts opposition to the measure by
Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, area
teachers, ministers and law enforcement groups.
In Washington, the
opposition group No on I-502 is led by Steve Sarich, a
medical-marijuana entrepreneur, who calls the legalization initiative "a
Trojan horse'' for the strict anti-drugged-driving provision.
a new plan for prohibition in this country,'' Sarich says. "The
government knows they're losing the battle, with more medical-marijuana
states ... so their new strategy, a deviously brilliant one, is 'You can
have your pot - but we're going to arrest you now for drugged driving.'
Holcomb, who directs the campaign in support of the
initiative, laughs off Sarich's charge and says the provision was added
because "Washington state voters, just like voters around the country,
are very concerned about impaired driving.''
She says approval of
the legalization initiative would demonstrate to the federal government
that, as in the repeal of the prohibition on alcohol in the early 20th
century, the public is ready for change.
"This is one of those
issues that has to percolate up from the states,'' she says. "Congress
and the administration need to see that the will of voters has shifted
and we are ready to try something different.''