Jason Redmond / Reuters

Pot legalization victories spur advocates and opponents of reform

After successful ballot measures in two states and DC, legalization backers say California is next big target

Voters in Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., decided to legalize recreational marijuana use this week in ballot measures that cannabis law reform advocates welcomed as a sign of public opinion opening up to legal pot.

Reform backers say the next battleground will be legalization in California — America’s most populous state, and a major producer of marijuana — as opponents point to their modest victories in Tuesday’s midterm election: A recreational-use initiative failed in one city in Maine, and a medical-use initiative was rejected in Florida.

But analysts noted that the success of legalization measures in two states and one federal district comes amid a tidal wave of electoral wins for Republicans, who have traditionally opposed loosening rules on pot.

“I think it really shows how trans-partisan this [legalization] issue has become,” said Sanho Tree, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, where he studies drug laws.

The driving force behind the new reforms seems to have come from a range of political impulses. Alaska is known for a libertarian mindset and general wariness of the federal government. In D.C., civil rights campaigners pointed to deep disparities in rates of marijuana arrests between white and black residents as an indicator of a need for reform.

Though white and black Washingtonians use marijuana at similar rates, black residents were eight times more likely to face arrest for possession — before the nation's capital decriminalized amounts under an ounce in July

Oregon voters came from both the libertarian and civil rights perspectives to support legalization, Tree said.

He said that Florida voters nearly approved the medical marijuana measure, and that medical marijuana advocates should remain hopeful. Part of a constitutional amendment, it needed 60 percent of the vote to pass. It got 57 percent.

“Any politician that won with a 57 majority would be over the moon,” he said.

Robert Capecchi, deputy director of state policies at the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, hailed the new rules as outstanding victories for a progressive cause amid a crush of conservative triumphs. He said he was not disheartened by defeats in Colorado — which legalized recreation use in 2012, but where several towns banned pot stores on Tuesday — or by legalization foundering in parts of Maine.

“There’s been 80-plus years of marijuana prohibition, so it’s not surprising that some people still … are hesitant to take another approach,” Capecchi said.

In Oregon, voters saw the success of marijuana legalization in neighboring Washington state and decided to take the same path, said Jill Harris, a managing director with the Drug Policy Alliance, another pro-reform lobbying organization.

“They just didn’t see it [legalization] to be a problem at all,” she said of voters in Oregon. Possession of the drug had already been decriminalized there. 

As for Alaska, Harris said an existing law making it legal to possess marijuana inside one's home set the stage for the legalization vote Tuesday.

Ballot initiatives in Oregon and Alaska provided for the establishment of stores and dispensaries. But in D.C., where adults over 21 will be allowed to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and to grow up to six plants, the city council still has to set terms of taxation and sale.

The new laws could also have international implications, with Latin American countries weighing legalization or decriminalization likely to look at how U.S. reform proceeds. Uruguay has already legalized marijuana, and Peru and Colombia have decriminalized the drug, Tree said.

“I think the writing is on the wall,” said Tree. “If you look at it as a West Coast juggernaut coming down from Alaska, Washington, Oregon — and California is going to be next — it’s all pointed at Latin America.”

But the trend has its vocal opponents, determined to make sure marijuana stays illegal.

Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a lobbying group opposed to legalization, said that he is ready to fight any 2016 measure in California. There, proponents of reform are confident they will win, bolstered by a youth vote more motivated by a presidential race than by midterm campaigns.

Despite the momentum that legalization advocates say they have, he said he believes Americans will reject legalization as unsafe and unhealthy. “This is definitely not a lost cause,” he said.

Marijuana candies, he said, that are marketed toward children now pose a real risk in Colorado. He said “Big Tobacco–like interests” are pouring money into legalization campaigns.

“The current marijuana industry is acting a lot like the tobacco industry: Ruthlessly promote your product, target kids and downplay harms,” Sabet said in an email.

As for the civil rights arguments for legalization, he contended that the existing laws must be applied more fairly.

“Should we examine existing laws and practices with regards to race? Absolutely. But would legalizing drugs be a way to do that? Definitely not,” he said.

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