Marijuana is going to be part of the political conversation between now and Election Day 2016. Support for legalization is now consistently polling above 50% nationwide, four states and DC have already voted to legalize it, and activists at least ten states are doing their best to make it an issue this time around.
In those states, they're working to take marijuana legalization directly to the voters in the form of initiatives. Not all of those efforts will actually make the ballot -- mass signature-gathering campaigns require not only enthusiasm but cold, hard cash to succeed -- and not all of those that qualify will necessarily win, but in a handful of states, including the nation's most populous, the prospects for passing legalization next year look quite good.
Presidential contenders are already finding the question of marijuana legalization unavoidable. They're mostly finding the topic uncomfortable, with none -- not even Rand Paul -- embracing full-on legalization, most staking out middling positions, and some Republicans looking for traction by fervently opposing it. Just this week, Chris Christie vowed to undo legalization where it already exists if he is elected president.
It's worth noting that it is the initiative process that is enabling the process of ending marijuana prohibition. Only half the states have it -- mostly west of the Mississippi -- but it is the use of citizen initiatives that led the way, first for medical marijuana and now with outright legalization.
In the face of overwhelming support for medical marijuana, state legislators proved remarkably recalcitrant. It took five years after California voters made it the first medical marijuana state for Hawaii to become the first state to pass it through the legislature. Even now, with nearly half the states having approved some form of medical marijuana, getting such bills through legislatures is excruciatingly difficult, and results in overly restrictive and ineffective state programs.
It's been the same with legalization. Voters approved legalization via initiatives in Colorado and Washington in 2012 and Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia last year. But even in states with majorities or pluralities in favor of legalization, legalization bills haven't gotten passed.
Efforts are afoot at a number of statehouses, and one of them will eventually be the first to legislate legalization, maybe even next year -- it's not outside the realm of possibility. But for now, if legalization is going to continue to expand, it's going to come thanks to the initiative states. In fact, marijuana policy reform is an issue on which elected officials have been so tin-eared and unresponsive to the will of the voters that their failure is an advertisement for the utility of direct democracy.
By the time the polls close on Election Day 2016, we could see the number of legalization states double and the number of Americans living free of pot prohibition quadruple to more than 60 million -- or more. Attitudes on marijuana are shifting fast, and by this time next year, the prospects of even more states actually approving legalization could be even higher.
But right now, we have five states where the prospects of getting on the ballot and winning look good, three states where it looks iffy but could surprise, and two states where it looks like a long-shot next year.
Looking Good for Legalization:
A June Rocky Mountain Poll from the Behavioral Research Center has support for legalization at 53%, and Arizonans could find themselves having to decide which competing legalization proposal they like best.
The Marijuana Policy Project-backed Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of buds or five grams of concentrates, as well as allow for home grows of up to six plants per person, with a cap of 12 plants per household. The initiative also envisions a system of regulated marijuana commerce with a tax of 15%. Localities could bar marijuana businesses or even home growing, but only upon a popular vote.
The second initiative, from Arizonans for Mindful Regulation, would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of buds or concentrates, as well as allow for home grows of up to 12 plants -- and home growers could keep the fruits of their harvests. The initiative envisions a system of regulated marijuana commerce with a 10% tax on retail sales. It would allow localities to regulate -- but not ban -- marijuana businesses.
Both campaigns are in the signature-gathering process. They will need 150,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the 2016 ballot and they have until next July to get them.
Will the Buckeye State do it this year or next?
A May PPIC poll had support for legalization at 54%, and Californians have a variety of initiatives to choose from. At least six legalization initiatives have already been cleared for signature-gathering by state officials, but everybody is still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
That would be the much anticipated initiative from the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform, which represents many of the major players in the state, as well as deep-pocketed outside players from all the major drug reform groups. The coalition's initiative was delayed while it waited for the release of a report from Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy, led by pro-legalization Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D). That report came out last week, and the coalition says it expects to have its initiative ready within a few weeks.
The delays in getting the initiative out and the signature-gathering campaign underway are going to put pressure on the campaign. To qualify for the ballot, initiatives must come up with some 366,000 valid voter signatures, and that takes time, as well as money. Most of the other initiatives don't have the money to make a serious run at signatures, but the coalition does. All of the California initiatives have until at least the third week of April to gather the needed signatures -- after that they can still gather signatures, but risk getting pushed to the 2018 ballot.
The most recent polling, a Public Policy Polling survey from 2013, had only a plurality (48% to 39%) favoring legalization, but that's nearly two years old, and if Maine is following national trends, support should only have increased since then. Maine is winnable.
This is another state where a Marijuana Policy Project-backed initiative has competition from local activists. The MPP-affiliated Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol would legalize possession of up to an ounce of buds and allow for six-plant home grows. It would also create a system of regulated marijuana commerce with a 10% tax above and beyond the state sales tax, and it would allow for marijuana social clubs as well as retail stores.
The competing initiative, from Legalize Maine, is a bit looser on possession and home grows, allowing up to 2.5 ounces and six mature and 12 immature plants. Unlike the MPP initiative, which would have the Alcohol Bureau regulate marijuana, this one would leave it to the Department of Agriculture. It would also allow for marijuana social clubs as well as pot shops and would impose a 10% flat sales tax.
Initiatives need 61,126 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot. The campaigns have until next spring to get them in.
A Suffolk/Boston Herald poll from February has support for legalization at 53% in the Bay State, where activists have since the turn of the century been laying the groundwork for legalization with a series of successful non-binding policy questions demonstrating public support, not to mention voting to approve decriminalization in 2008 and medical marijuana in 2012.
Like Arizona and Maine, Massachusetts is another state where a Marijuana Policy Project-backed initiative is being contested by local activists. The MPP-affiliated Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol is still in the initiative-drafting process and details of its initiative remain unknown.
Meanwhile, local activists organized as Bay State Repeal have come up with a very liberal initiative that would legalize possession and cultivation -- without limits -- allow for marijuana farmers' markets and social clubs. This initiative would also create a system of licensed, regulated, and taxed marijuana commerce.
Neither Massachusetts initiative has been approved for signature-gathering yet. The state has a two-phase signature-gathering process, with a first phase for nine weeks between September and December. Then, if sufficient signatures are gathered, the legislature must act on the measure before next May. If it fails to approve the measure, a second, eight-week signature-gathering process commences. Initiatives will need 64,750 valid voter signatures for the first phase, and an additional 10,000 signatures for the second phase.
A Moore Information poll from 2013 had support for legalization at 54%, and legalization supporters will most definitely have a chance to put those numbers to the test next year because the Marijuana Policy Project-backed Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol initiative has already qualified for the ballot. It would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of buds and an eighth-ounce of concentrates, and it would allow for the home growing of six pot plants per adult, with a household limit of 12. Home growers could keep the fruits of their harvest. The initiative would also create a legal marijuana commerce system with a 15% excise tax.
There's a Decent Chance:
An April Michigan Poll had support for legalization at 51%, which doesn't leave much margin for error. Nonetheless, at least two groups are embarked on legalization initiative campaigns. (A third appears to have gone dormant.)
The more grassroots Comprehensive Cannabis Law Reform Initiative Committee would legalize the possession of up to 2 ½ ounces by adults and allow home grows of 12 mature plants and an unlimited number of immature ones. Home growers could possess the fruits of all their harvest. The non-commercial transfer of up to 2 ½ ounces would also be legal. A system of regulated marijuana commerce is included and would feature a 10% tax.
The competing Michigan Cannabis Coalition initiative appears to have no personal possession limits, but would only allow for home grows of two plants. It provides an option for localities to ban home grows, or to raise the limit to four plants. It envisions a system of regulated marijuana commerce, with taxes to be set by the legislature.
Michigan only rates the "decent chance" category because of its razor-thin support for legalization and because of its history of marijuana legalization initiatives failing to qualify for the ballot. Initiatives will need more than 250,000 voter signatures to qualify, and they have until next June 1 to do so. Both campaigns have just gotten underway with signature-gathering.
A Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research poll from February showed only 45% in favor of marijuana legalization, but Missouri activists organized as Show-Me Cannabis have been waging a serious, hard fought campaign to educate Missourians on the issue, and it could pay off next year.
Their initiative would legalize up to 12 ounces of buds, one ounce of concentrates, a pound of edibles, and 20 ounces of cannabis liquids, as well as allow for home growing of up to six plants. It would also create a medical marijuana program and a legal, regulated marijuana commerce.
Since it is a constitutional amendment, the initiative will need at least 157,788 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot. Organizers will have until next May to get them.
Ohio is a special case. By the time you read these words, the ResponsibleOhio initiative either will or will not have qualified for the ballot. [Editor's Note: As of August 3, we're still waiting to see.] If it qualifies, the state could well be the next one to legalize marijuana, since it would go to a vote this November. An April Quinnipiac University poll had support for legalization at 52%.
If it doesn't qualify, others are lined up to take another shot. Responsible Ohioans for Cannabis have a constitutional amendment initiative with no specified possession limits for people 18 and over. It also allows home grows of 24 plants per person, with a limit of 96 plants per household.
Another effort, Legalize Marijuana and Hemp in Ohio, is mainly a medical marijuana initiative, but does allow for the possession of up to an ounce by adults.
Constitutional amendments need 385,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot; initiated statutes only need 115,000. Like Michigan, however, Ohio is a state with a history of initiatives failing to make the ballot.
Not Likely Next Year:
In the states below, activists are undertaking efforts to get on the ballot next year, but the odds are against them, either because of poor (or no) polling, or lack of funds and organization, or both.
The Mississippi Alliance for Cannabis is sponsoring Proposition 48, a constitutional amendment initiative which "would legalize the use, cultivation and sale of cannabis and industrial hemp. Cannabis related crimes would be punished in a manner similar to, or to a lesser degree, than alcohol related crimes. Cannabis sales would be taxed 7%. Cannabis sold for medical purposes and industrial hemp would be exempt from taxation. The Governor would be required to pardon persons convicted of nonviolent cannabis crimes against the State of Mississippi."
There is no recent polling on attitudes toward legalization in the state, but it is one of the most conservative in the country. To get on the ballot, supporters need to gather 107,216 valid voter signatures by December 17, one year after they started seeking them.
Ballot Issue 7, which would legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults, but not create legal marijuana commerce, is the brainchild of a Glendive man who says he plans to bicycle across the state to gather support and signatures.
Prospects for 2016:
Five states are well-positioned to legalize marijuana via initiatives next year, another three could possibly do it, and that would be further evidence that the apparent ongoing sea change in marijuana policy is no aberration. Five, six, or seven would be a good year for marijuana, eight or more would be evidence of a seismic shift. It's going to be interesting.