Tuesday was a good day for local marijuana initiatives, with victories at the polls in Ann Arbor, Columbia, MO, and Oakland. Only an initiative in Berkeley that would have increased allowable quantities for medical marijuana patients appears to have lost, although organizers there were slow to concede defeat. Meanwhile, a Massachusetts effort to pass non-binding marijuana reform questions in legislative districts continued to maintain its perfect record of success in the third election of that campaign.
In the Bay State, the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts (http://www.dpfma.org) and the Massachusetts Cannabis Coalition (http://www.masscann.org) went 12 for 12 on marijuana decriminalization and medical marijuana questions in legislative districts, bringing the record for the overall campaign to let representatives know voters support marijuana law reform to 36 wins and no losses.
In five districts, voters supported a question on medical marijuana, while in six others voters supported decriminalizing marijuana possession and in one district voters gave the thumbs up to a question calling for the legalized and regulated sale of marijuana. Margins of victory ranged from 58% to a high of 80%.
Although the questions are non-binding, they allow voters to clearly signal support for marijuana law reform to their representatives. And that should allow marijuana reform legislation to get some traction at the statehouse next year, said Whitney Taylor, executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts, which ran nine of this year's question campaigns.
"We have never lost a single one of these questions, and now over half the state has had a chance to take a stand on this," Taylor told DRCNet. "While in 2002 we focused on the Boston area, this time we targeted specific districts, for example, the medical marijuana questions where representatives or senators sit on the health committee and the decrim questions where representatives or senators are on the criminal justice or judiciary committees," she said.
One exception was the 24th Middlesex representative district, where Rep. Anne Paulsen already supports decrim. "That is Gov. Romney's home district," Taylor explained. "His wife has Multiple Sclerosis, and we wanted him to see the question on the ballot when he voted."
The victories this year will only strengthen the push to get marijuana reform through the legislature in the next session, said Taylor. "This is a new world for us. The old speaker, who was a real obstacle for us, is gone, and the new speaker, Sal DiMasi, is supportive. We will have many more opportunities to get things done," she said.
While Massachusetts voters were approving pro-reform questions, voters in the college towns of Ann Arbor and Columbia gave overwhelming approval to medical marijuana measures, and Columbia also passed an initiative that will make small-time pot possession a municipal instead of a state offense, thus protecting students from losing financial aid under the Higher Education Act's anti-drug provision if they get caught with a joint or two.
In Ann Arbor, which decriminalized marijuana possession back in the days when hippies walked the earth, residents okayed a measure that will waive fines for medical marijuana patients and caregivers who have the recommendation of a health care professional. The measure also lowers the maximum fine for third-offense and subsequent pot busts to $100.
Supporters of the measure told the Michigan Daily they expected the measure's impact to be limited at first. "Initially, the proposal will help only a small number of people, and then it will grow to be quite a large amount once people realize how many ailments cannabis helps," said Scio Township Trustee Charles Ream, who promoted the measure.
In Columbia, a measure approving medical marijuana won with 69% of the vote, while the decrim measure won 61%. "We are especially cheered by these results," said Students for Sensible Drug Policy (http://www.ssdp.org) chapter head Amanda Broz, who also heads the Columbia Alliance for Patient Education (CAPE), the umbrella group that led the initiative fight.
A similar decrim measure was defeated two years ago, but this time, voters came around, said Broz. "I think educating people was critical to our success," she told DRCNet. "Once Columbians understood the issues, they were willing to stand up for the rights of patients and their fellow citizens." Proponents of the measures concentrated not only on marijuana's medicinal uses, but also on the deleterious impacts of marijuana busts. "People can lose financial aid, they can lose job opportunities, not to mention arresting people for small amounts of marijuana is a waste of police resources," said Broz. "People could understand that."
That sentiment was echoed by the national leadership of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. "Forcing at-risk students away from education and into cycles of crime and failure is not a smart tactic in the effort to reduce our nation's drug problems," said SSDP executive director Scarlett Swerdlow. "While this misguided law remains on the books, citizens are taking action to prevent students from losing their financial aid and having their lives unnecessarily ruined."
The education campaign was helped by $50,000 from the Marijuana Policy Project, Broz said, and the victories in Columbia could help pave the way for action on a medical marijuana bill in the state legislature. "We had a bill in the House last year, but it went nowhere. This year, we think we can do better."
In Oakland, an initiative directing local law enforcement to make marijuana the lowest priority and directing city officials to tax and regulate marijuana sales as soon as is permitted by state and federal law (http://www.yesonZ.org) cruised to victory with 64% of the vote. Oakland had been the home of Oaksterdam, a cluster of medical marijuana clubs near downtown, until the city council earlier this year moved against it by restricting the number of clubs permitted to operate.
"The citizens of Oakland voted to legalize marijuana," said Dale Gieringer, head of the California branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (http://www.yesonZ.org) and one of the members of the Oakland Civil Liberties Alliance, the group behind the initiative. "The L-word was on the ballot, and that didn't scare Oakland voters. Oakland has become the first political entity anywhere to declare itself in favor of the tax and regulate model."
The vote's immediate practical impact will be limited, Gieringer predicted. "The Oakland police have said they will obey the will of the voters, but they have also said marijuana is already a low priority with them, and I think that's probably true," he told DRCNet Thursday. And the city will not move to tax and regulate the trade until it is legal under state and federal law.
But voter support for the initiative will strengthen reformers as they seek to revisit the question of Oaksterdam, said Gieringer. "Oaksterdam was shut down because of spurious and hysterical claims," he said, "but now the decrease in economic activity is noticeable and the business has moved south into unincorporated areas of Alameda County. We need to reexamine the Oaksterdam situation. We will go to the city council and say that the voters have said they support taxed and regulated marijuana, we can do medical marijuana under state law, and the city needs to remove these unwise, unwarranted restrictions on the cannabis clubs."
But while voters in Oakland were giving the okay to legalization, next door in Berkeley it appears that an initiative to raise quantity limits on medical marijuana has gone down to defeat. While organizers there are holding onto an ever slimmer hope that a count of absentee and provisional ballots there will take them over the top, the measure continues to trail. Sponsored by the Berkeley Patients Group, the measure would have increased the 2.5 pound per patient limit, but city officials argued it would remove the city's ability to regulate cannabis dispensaries.