A Nevada initiative (Question 7) that would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and provide for its regulated sale and taxation lost with 44% of the vote, while a Colorado initiative (Measure 44) that would have legalized the possession of up to an ounce lost with 40% of the vote. Both were bitterly opposed by local law enforcement and the federal drug war bureaucracy. In both cases, organizers are vowing to come back and try again.
The Nevada result is a 5% improvement over 2002, when a similar initiative garnered 39% of the popular vote. In Colorado, where legalization had never before been on the statewide ballot, four out of ten voters were prepared to vote for it the first time around.
In both states, anti-drug activists joined forces with law enforcement to turn back the tide. In Nevada, where gambling is legal and so is prostitution in most counties, the ironically named Committee to Keep Nevada Respectable resorted to misrepresentations of the measure to insist it would prevent employers from doing drug testing, as well as arguing that allowing for the regulated sale of marijuana would somehow increase youth marijuana use. The Committee consisted of a number of community anti-drug coalitions, the Reno and Las Vegas Chambers of Commerce, the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, the Southern Nevada Conference of Police and Sheriffs, and the Nevada Sheriffs and Chiefs Association.
In Colorado, the organized opposition was headed by Gov. Bill Owens and Attorney General John Suthers, who held a late press conference denouncing the measure (and who were rudely surprised by a vigorous counter-demonstration by Measure 44 supporters during that press conference). In both states, representatives of the Office of National Drug Control Policy showed up to interfere with state ballot measures.
While initiative organizers in both states professed disappointment at the results, they have vowed to continue the fight. "Today, a record number of Nevada voters called for an end to marijuana prohibition, the highest vote ever to end prohibition," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the parent group for the Committee to Regulate and Control Marijuana, the Nevada-based entity that led the campaign. "The momentum is with us. Major social change never comes easily, but change in our failed marijuana laws is coming because prohibition does nothing but harm. Prohibition funds criminals and guarantees that teens have easy access to marijuana, and voters have begun to see through the drug czar's lies. We've made huge progress since our 39% to 61% loss on a similar ballot measure in Nevada four years ago. We plan to try again with another marijuana initiative in Nevada in November 2008 or 2010."
"We are not disappointed at all with the results of today's election," said SAFER Colorado campaign director Mason Tvert. "This campaign, following on the heels of our successful legalization initiative in Denver last year, was just one step in a five- to ten-year battle to make marijuana legal in Colorado. Now we see that a number of counties support changing the state law regarding adult marijuana possession so that they have the right to set their own local policies."
Without significant outside funding, SAFER Colorado managed to reach out to hundreds of thousands of Coloradans with an "alcohol vs. marijuana" campaign that clearly resonated with voters. "One low-budget initiative campaign cannot overcome 70 years of government lies and propaganda," Tvert said. "If it were possible to make marijuana legal with a $60,000 campaign in a state with nearly three million voters, it would have been done long ago. But the writing is on the wall in Colorado and we will continue to educate the public while pressuring government officials and community leaders to explain why they think adults should be punished for using a substance less harmful than alcohol."
Although lost elections are never popular, other leading drug reformers looked for the positive. "Even though they lost, hundreds of thousands of people in two states still voted to legalize marijuana," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "I think that is very respectable, especially in Nevada, where the measure was so far-reaching."
Question 7 in Nevada would not only have legalized the possession of up to an ounce by adults, it would also have established a state-sanctioned system of regulated marijuana distribution. Colorado's Measure 44, on the other hand, was a simple marijuana possession legalization initiative that would have protected adults holding up to an ounce.
"These outcomes, while disappointing, were not unexpected," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), who traveled to Colorado to assist in the campaign's final days. "Despite these results, adults in Colorado and Nevada continue to live under state laws that authorize the medical use of marijuana and allow adults to possess and use small amounts of pot without the threat of incarceration or a criminal record."
That's good, but it's not enough, said SAFER Colorado's Tvert. "There will be a continuing effort in Colorado," he told Drug War Chronicle. "We were up against 70 years of marijuana prohibition, 70 years of lies and distortions about marijuana. This was the first time Colorado voters had to confront marijuana prohibition, and it won more votes than the Republican governor candidate. We got the message out and shocked the hell out of Colorado, even with no money and what some people would call a reckless campaign."
Nearly seven decades after national marijuana prohibition was enacted, no state has yet voted to end it at the state level. But the forces of reform are edging ever closer to victory. Will 2008 be the beginning of the end? Stay tuned.