After a run of successes, drug reformers continue to take advantage of the initiative and referendum process to bring the issue directly to the voters. This fall, the movement to loosen marijuana laws is flourishing in the West, while some of the movement's bigger guns are moving on to broader challenges to the war on drugs.
The initiative and referendum route to political change, where citizens initiate a petition drive to place a proposed change on the ballot, has proven especially popular with drug reformers facing entrenched and unresponsive elected officials. The Initiative and Referendum Institute (http://www.iandrinstitute.org), a non-profit organization devoted to analyzing the impact of initiatives on the political process, this year named drug policy as its number two hot issue, second only to animal rights (!) and ahead of such perennial hot-button initiative issues as taxes, gun control, and health care reform.
Drug policy-related initiatives this year fall into four broad categories: medical marijuana, legalization or decriminalization of marijuana, sentencing reform, and asset forfeiture reform.
MEDICAL MARIJUANA: Seven states and the District of Columbia have already approved medical marijuana through the initiative process, but despite an unbroken record of electoral victories there are only two medical marijuana initiatives on the ballot this year, in Colorado (Amendment 20) and Nevada (Question 9). In Nevada, voters approved medical marijuana in 1998, but must go back to the ballot for a second round approval. The campaigns in both states received funding and technical support from the 800-pound gorilla of the medical marijuana movement, Americans for Medical Rights (AMR).
The influence of AMR is evidenced by the carefully crafted, narrowly drawn wording of the initiatives, typical of AMR-supported efforts, but criticized by some reformers as too restrictive. Both initiatives call for a low specified number of plants or quantity of marijuana and limit approved uses of the herb to certain specified illnesses or symptoms.
AMR is funded by a troika of wealthy backers -- financier George Soros, insurance magnate Peter Lewis, and University of Phoenix founder John Sperling -- and Soros alone has given more than $900,000 this year to finance drug reform efforts on the ballot in California, Massachusetts, Oregon, Utah, and Nevada, the Sacramento Bee reported.
Still, AMR is retrenching slightly, spokesperson Gina Pesulima told DRCNet.
"We are only involved in the Colorado and Nevada initiatives this year," she said. "We don't have the money to be everywhere and we're concentrating on consolidating our victories in states where we have already won at the ballot, such as Maine, but where actually delivering marijuana to the patients remains problematic."
As the slew of recent court battles over medical marijuana delivery in California makes clear, AMR has its work cut out for it.
According to recent polls, the initiatives should pass easily in both states. A mid-September poll conducted by the Rocky Mountain News and Denver's TV News 4 showed the Colorado measure leading 71% to 23%. A Las Vegas Sun poll, also taken in mid-September, indicated that the Nevada measure was also comfortably ahead, 63% to 28%.
MARIJUANA LEGALIZATION: Voters in Alaska, having already passed a medical marijuana initiative and having experienced decriminalization from 1975 to 1990, will have the opportunity to vote for total legalization in November. Ballot Measure #5 would do away with civil and criminal penalties for persons 18 years or older who use marijuana, or other hemp products.
The groundbreaking initiative, co-sponsored by Alaskans for Privacy, Free Hemp in Alaska, and Hemp 2000, not only legalizes the consumption, possessions, growth, and distribution of marijuana for adults, it also grants amnesties to person previously convicted of marijuana crimes, and establishes a panel to study the question of reparations for those harmed by marijuana prohibition.
In an early sign of popular support, campaign organizers garnered 40,000 signatures for their petitions, nearly twice the number needed to qualify for the ballot. According to a Free Hemp spokesman, popular support remains strong with some 58% telling independent pollsters they will support the initiative, up slightly from early August figures in Free Hemp's own polls. But another late poll, from Anchorage-based Dittman Research, has the measure failing.
The Alaska effort has been grass roots, with no funding from AMR, and has instead relied on donations, t-shirt sales, bumperstickers, "you name it," a Free Hemp volunteer told DRCNet.
"We've been on the road all summer," he said, "and in Alaska summer is the only time people get out. We've hit every major event, every fair, every music festival."
"We are winning and we will win. Call your bookie in Vegas and put some money on it because it's going to happen," he predicted.
"It's not about marijuana, or medical marijuana, or confiscating people's property, it's about common sense and justice. We want a free and just country."
Alaska voters are not the only ones contemplating legalized marijuana; in California's Mendocino County, Measure G would allow adults to grow 25 plants apiece, but not for sale. The measure further directs the county sheriff and prosecutor to make marijuana crimes their last priority and directs county officials ro seek an end to state and federal marijuana laws.
Mendocino County is part of California's "Emerald Triangle," the heart of Northern California's billion dollar marijuana industry. The measure has no organized opposition.
SENTENCING AND ASSET FORFEITURE REFORM: The most closely watched of this year's drug policy initiatives is California's Proposition 36, which, in a frontal attack on the imprisonment binge, would require those convicted of nonviolent drug possession offenses for the first or second time be sent to rehabilitation programs instead of state prison.
Sponsored by Campaign for New Drug Policies (http://www.drugreform.org), another face of the AMR drug reform goliath, Prop. 36 has generated intense opposition among California's powerful police and prison guards' unions and provoked fierce editorial page battles across the state.
Still, with the office of the California Legislative Analyst reporting that the proposition would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars in the medium-term and divert 25,000 drug offenders into treatment annually, the measure maintains a significant but shrinking lead in the polls.
The latest Field Poll, conducted at the end of August found 55% supporting the measure and 27% opposed. The June Field Poll had the measure passing 64% to 20%.
CSDP's Scott Ehlers is unflustered. "The other side has a built-in advantage with its network of opposition groups. In every county, there are sheriffs, prosecutors, drug court workers who are organized," Ehlers told DRCNet.
"But we've actually gained ground, I think, since that poll; we've been on the offensive," he said.
The well-funded CNDP campaign most recently fought back with ads in the Hollywood Reporter attacking actor Martin Sheen, chairman of a "vote no" campaign, for his repressive stance.
And, said Ehlers, CNDP recently brought on board Gretchen Burns Bergman of Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing (PATH) to chair a statewide campaign on behalf of the initiative.
"Gretchen's story contrasts nicely with Martin Sheen's," Ehlers pointed out. "Current policy means treatment for rich people, while poor people go to jail instead. Charlie Sheen went to treatment, Gretchen's son went to prison."
Massachusetts' Question 8, also well-funded by the AMR/CNDP troika, is virtually identical to California's Proposition 36. In addition to diverting nonviolent drug offenders from jail into treatment, the measure includes asset forfeiture reforms.
Question 8 asks Massachusetts voters to direct forfeited proceeds to a drug treatment trust fund and would require the civil equivalent of a guilty verdict before allowing property to be forfeited, instead of an easier-to-obtain probable cause ruling.
Rob Stewart, the initiative campaign's communications director, explained to the Worcester Telegram & Gazette that asset forfeiture reform was a matter of fundamental fairness.
"Now the law puts the burden on the property owner to prove his property is innocent," Stewart said. "It's the only example I know of when someone's guilty until proven innocent."
And, he added, allowing the police to keep seized property only "encourages seizing instead of policing."
Reformers in Oregon (Ballot Measure 3) and Utah (Initiative B) are putting asset forfeiture alone on the ballot. The measures, nearly identical and both receiving funding from George Soros, will prohibit asset forfeitures unless the owner of the property is first convicted of a crime involving the seized property.
The measures will also hold the government to stricter standards of proof that the property was the proceeds of or used to commit a crime. In Utah, profits from seized assets will be deposited in the school fund, while in Oregon law enforcement agencies would be restricted to claiming no more than 25% of seized assets.
The Utah measure, also known as the Utah Property Protection Act, has gained the support of Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, but unsurprisingly is opposed by police and prosecutors' groups. Both major party gubernatorial and attorney general candidates oppose the measure. No polling numbers are available.
In several other states, drug reform initiatives failed to make the ballot. In Arizona, a medical marijuana initiative lost steam after AMR and local supporters abandoned it because of "flawed" language. Opponents of the measure claimed that its wording allowed people certified to use medical marijuana to avoid prosecution for any drug law violation.
Local drug attorney Michael Walz attempted to move forward anyway, but his group, Plants Are Medicine could not gather enough valid signatures on their petitions to qualify. Walz told the Arizona Daily Star they will be back in 2002 -- and without the ambiguous wording.
In Oregon, an initiative that would have had recreational marijuana sold through state liquor stores failed to get enough signatures to make the ballot, and Michigan saw both a state-wide decriminalization initiative and an Ann Arbor medical marijuana initiative fail, though for different reasons. The state-wide grassroots effort, led by Saginaw attorney and NORML state coordinator Gregory C. Schmid, chronically low on funds, could gather only half the necessary 300,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Schmid, too, vows to return. "With a little luck and $75,000, we should be able to successfully pull it off" in 2002, he told the Saginaw News.
Ann Arbor Libertarians, who spearheaded the medical marijuana measure in that university town, fell victim to an interim city clerk who gave them the wrong deadline for filing their petitions.
Libertarians filed nearly 6,000 signatures on August 15th, almost 1700 more than necessary, but the correct filing date was August 9th, and a county circuit court judge ruled that the Libertarian Party was responsible for knowing the correct deadline.
If passed, the initiative would have been the first local medical marijuana ordinance. In one bit of good news, the judge ordered the city of Ann Arbor to return the petitions to the Libertarians, who say they will submit them, along with more, well ahead of next year's deadline.
In Florida, Floridians for Medical Rights began a medical marijuana initiative, but despite support polled at above 60%, failed to make the ballot. Reformers there, however, have four years from the beginning of their drive and are aiming at 2002.