Legal pot wins in Oregon, Alaska and Washington, DC

Marijuana legalization momentum builds with wins in more states and nation’s capital, but Florida medical measure fails

A DC Cannabis Campaign supporter in Washington, D.C., on Election Day. A measure to allow marijuana possession but not retail sales won nearly 65 percent of the vote.
Gary Cameron / Reuters

Residents of Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, D.C. voted in midterm elections to legalize recreational marijuana use — key victories that could further fuel the legalization movement as mainstream America increasingly recognizes cannabis usage.

The Oregon and Alaska measures will create a network of retail shops similar to those operating in Washington state and Colorado, which in 2012 voted to become the first U.S. states to allow marijuana use beyond medical prescription.

A narrower proposal in the District of Columbia to allow marijuana possession — but not retail sales — won nearly 65 percent of the vote, unofficial results showed.

The referendums come amid shifts in American opinions on marijuana in recent years that have energized efforts to legalize the drug, which remains illegal under federal law despite the developments in Colorado and Washington state.

Advocates have portrayed the measure in the nation’s capital as a civil rights issue, saying studies have shown that Black Americans are disproportionately more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges than are people of other races.

The D.C. measure had been strongly favored to pass but could still be halted during a review by the U.S. Congress, which has constitutional oversight over the capital. The measure would make it legal to possess up to two ounces of pot and up to three mature marijuana plants for personal use, but it does not provide for the legal sale of marijuana, leaving that matter up to the D.C. Council.

The Oregon law, which drew 54 percent support in preliminary returns, takes effect in July 2015, and stores could open the following year. It requires the state Liquor Control Commission to adopt regulations by Jan. 1, 2016.

Opponents of legal weed in Oregon have said they would take their fight to the Oregon legislature, pushing for stricter laws designed to limit access to pot by children, among other efforts.

Kevin Sabet, a co-founder of anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said his organization would redouble its efforts to build a broader coalition to beat back better-funded pro-cannabis groups ahead of what is expected to be an expanded fight in 2016.

"Tonight is going to inspire us to do better and to try harder and go after the donors we have to go after in order to level the playing field," Sabet said. "The more people that hear about legalization, the more people are uncomfortable with it. For us it's about getting our message out."

The Alaska measure was leading by about 52-48 percent with nearly 97 percent of precincts reporting preliminary results late on Tuesday, and groups for and against the initiative said it had passed.

"Marijuana prohibition has been an abject failure, and Alaska voters said enough is enough," Chris Rempert, political director of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol, said in a news release.

If given official approval, a regulatory body would have nine months to write regulations after the election is certified and the measure becomes law, with stores likely coming at some point in 2016.

Meanwhile, voters defeated a proposed constitutional amendment to make Florida the 24th state — and the first in the South — to allow medical marijuana, with the bill gaining a majority but falling short of the 60 percent support needed to pass, according to groups both for and against the measure.

In Maine, a proposal to legalize the possession of small amounts of recreational marijuana failed in Lewiston and passed in South Portland, advocacy groups said. In Guam, unofficial results indicated that the island has became the first U.S. territory to approve medical marijuana, an election official there said.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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