After last weekend's International Drug Reform Conference in Denver, a clear picture is emerging of which states are likely to be the first to follow Colorado and Washington down the path of marijuana legalization. And while some recent polls suggest the American public is getting ahead of even the leading marijuana reform honchos, well-laid plans already in place point to the possibility of a 2014 trifecta, with Oregon following Alaska to legalization through the initiative process and Rhode Island becoming the first state to legalize through the legislature.
Reformers hit the 16th Street Mall in Denver last weekend. (Phil Smith)
While activists in a number of other states -- including Arizona, California, and Wyoming -- are already working on legalization initiatives for next year, reform leaders cautioned that 2016 remains a better prospect. But they also acknowledged that recent favorable shifts in public opinion, most notably last week's Gallup poll showing an historic 58% in favor of legalization, could accelerate matters.
"We've been saying wait for 2016, but we seem to be changing our minds, at least a little," said Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) executive director (and key funding conduit) Ethan Nadelmann.
"I keep getting surprised," agreed Graham Boyd, counsel to Progressive Insurance founder Peter Lewis (and key funding conduit). "Activists in any number of states are saying they can win now, and we're hearing this from multiple states, and polls in multiple states are also coming in much more favorable."
While groups like DPA and the Marijuana Policy Project (another key funding conduit) have a game plan for the next few years that largely emphasizes 2016 for initiative states, the movement needs to be flexible enough to take advantage of emerging opportunities, Boyd warned.
"The main thing is growing public support. I think you can look at the list of 2016 states and argue that any of them could go in 2014," he said. "If the public is ready in 2014 and something happens before 2016 and that lift tails off, we may find ourselves saying we missed the wave."
Among those initiative states where the plan had been to wait for 2016 are Arizona, California, Maine, and Montana. In Arizona, a signature gathering campaign for 2014 is underway, but appears to be running up against the clock, while in California, two separate initiatives have been filed for 2014, but so far lack the access to big money required to actually make the ballot.
Major marijuana reform players in California led by the ACLU of California also recently attempted to set the stage for a 2016 initiative (and perhaps smother the 2014 efforts, some activists feel) with the formation of a blue ribbon panel to study policy issues around marijuana regulation, taxation and legalization. The panel would study and deliberate for the next two years, meaning their recommendations would not be ready by 2014.
"We put together a panel of experts headed up by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the highest-ranking official to come out in support of taxing and regulating marijuana," explained ACLU of California criminal justice and drug policy director Allen Hopper. "We tried to bring together a group of experts who right now may not advocate for legalization -- including doctors, an elected sheriff, and the California Society of Addiction Medicine -- to begin to tackle some of the policy issues that need to be resolved in California. We haven't asked people to write ballot language, but we have a range of folks who can talk to their communities. We support legalizing, but in terms of how we talk about it and how a ballot initiative campaign would be run, you have to meet the people where they are."
While even the reform movement leaders concede that things could move faster than they think, the three surest bets for a legalization effort next year are Alaska, Oregon, and Rhode Island.
In Alaska, a tax and regulate marijuana initiative that would also allow adults to grow up to six plants has been certified and is now in the signature-gathering process. Proponents have until next June to gather 30,169 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Alaska already allows for adults to possess small amounts of marijuana in their homes under the state Supreme Court's interpretation of the state constitution's privacy provisions. If the initiative makes the ballot and passes, Alaska will be the next state to legalize through the ballot box simply because under state law, ballot initiatives are voted on during primary -- not general -- elections, and thus will be a done deal before Oregon gets a chance to vote.
In Oregon, the oft-fractious marijuana reform community appears to have largely coalesced around a control, regulate, and tax initiative from New Approach Oregon filed with secretary of state's office last Friday. As important as a unified movement is financial support from big funders, and the Oregon effort appears to have it. The campaign has already collected more than $120,000 in early funding from DPA's political action arm, Drug Policy Action; Peter Lewis; and the Oregon-based 501(c)(4) nonprofit American Victory Coalition.
"New Approach Oregon is doing a legalization campaign in 2014, and based on the polling data, we think this is viable and there is a really good chance of this happening, and we've secured some funding. so I think Oregon is the next state to legalize," predicted New Approach founder Travis Maurer.
Back east in Rhode Island, initiatives aren't an option, so activists there are looking to make it the first state to legalize via the legislative process. And they're getting some help from MPP, which thinks the prospects are good.
"I think Rhode Island will be next, followed by Alaska next year and Oregon soon after," said MPP director of state policies Karen O'Keefe.
"We've had medical marijuana for seven years and got decrim in 2012," explained Rebecca McGoldrick, executive director of the Providence-based Protect Families First, which has stepped in to do drug reform advocacy in the state. "Last year was the first year we focused exclusively on regulation, and the conversation is changing; even our opponents are coming around, and we believe the governor is likely to sign a bill if it's done in the right way."
Those are the three states reform leaders deem most likely to legalize next year, although, as noted above, the situation remains fluid -- especially if public opinion continues to shift as dramatically as it has been doing in the last couple of years, and particularly since the victories in Colorado and Washington last year.
One long-shot is Missouri, where Show-Me Cannabis Regulation has been building the marijuana reform movement for the past two years. Show-Me activists are busily holding educational meetings across the state this year, and have plans in the state legislature, but they're also eyeing the initiative process.
"I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Missouri," said Boyd. "There is a lot of belief there that they are in striking range."
"People say 'Missouri…really?' but Missouri is in the middle of the country, and the country is ready," said Show-Me's Amber Langston. "There's a slight possibility for 2014. We have the language pretty much wrapped up and ready; we'll see what the poll numbers look like. If not 2014, we'll do it in 2016."
The race to legalize is on. The early favorites are set, but there's still time for other entrants to join the race, and there may be some surprises. It's going to be an interesting next 12 months.