In no state have voters or legislators legalized marijuana for recreational use, but if drug reformers have their way, this could be the year. (In Alaska, the courts have interpreted the state constitution as allowing the legal possession of up to four ounces in the privacy of one's home.) Efforts in two Western states, Colorado and Nevada, should give voters there the opportunity to break new ground when the November elections roll around.
In Nevada, the Marijuana Policy Project and its local affiliate, the Committee to Regulate and Control Marijuana are in the fourth year of their effort to legalize marijuana possession and create a system of taxation and regulation for its sale. With MPP having already completed signature-gathering last year, the Nevada initiative is already on the ballot and eleven months of campaigning are about to get underway.
The Nevada initiative, tweaked to reflect reformers' increasing knowledge of what works and what doesn't with Nevada voters, would allow people 21 and older to legally possess up to one ounce of marijuana (down from three ounces in 2002) and direct the state to license, tax, and regulate establishments for selling marijuana. The measure also sets aside half of marijuana tax revenues for alcohol and drug prevention and treatment, maintains penalties for public use, underage use, and use in schools or prisons, and increases current maximum penalties for people who give pot to minors and drivers who kill someone while under the influence of any substance.
"We've been working in Nevada for years, and we get feedback from people about their concerns," said Neal Levine, head of the CRCM. "This is a huge step, creating a system of legal manufacture and retail sale of marijuana, and we have tried to address those concerns. What we are proposing is something sensible with appropriate safeguards. For example," he told DRCNet, "we have regulations about where retail shops can be located because people were worried about folks buying pot at the 7-11."
"We're laying the groundwork for a very aggressive campaign in Nevada," said Bruce Mirken, MPP communications director. "For obvious reasons, we can't reveal exact details on the tactics, but it will be a very serious and energetic campaign to educate the voters," he told DRCNet.
MPP has publicly posted job listings for a number of paying positions in the Nevada effort and is gearing up for an 11-month push. "We are in the process of staffing the Nevada campaign," said Mirken. "We have filled some positions, and we're doing interviews and hiring for those positions yet to be filled."
"We are just getting all hands on deck for this year's run," said Levine. "We're just settling in to new office space, we'll open the doors to volunteers this weekend, we're pulling our database together, and voter and community leader outreach is just getting underway. We're staffing up right now."
The proposed Colorado initiative is less ambitious. Unlike the Nevada effort, SAFER's statewide measure would only legalize marijuana possession and would not establish a means of legal, regulated access. This initiative would simply amend the state statute barring marijuana possession by adding the words "under the age of 21" to it. If it passes, adult Coloradans would be free to possess up to an ounce of marijuana.
While the Nevada effort is well-established and well-funded, the Colorado organizers are going to try to pull off signature gathering and campaigning on a small budget, they told DRCNet. "We will be relying on volunteers for signature gathering," said SAFER campaign director Mason Tvert. "We're currently trying to raise money and we're getting donations from people around the state and the country, but we haven't landed any large donations yet."
"We have thought carefully about how best to gather the signatures on a shoe-string budget," said Sensible Colorado's Brian Vicente. "Between us and SAFER, we have connections all across the state, and I think we can get the volunteers out and pull it off."
While SAFER's Denver initiative managed to fly somewhat under the radar and shocked state officials with its unforeseen victory, that won't be the case this time around. Colorado Attorney general John Suthers responded almost immediately to the initiative's announcement, and he came out swinging. "On this statewide ballot initiative, law enforcement will weigh in significantly to say what a bad policy legalization is," Suthers said in a statement last month. "If you want to have a debate for legalization of marijuana, then let's have a full-out debate, which I think this initiative will engender," he said.
With little money, no polling completed, and facing a state population considerably more conservative than traditionally Democratic Denver, the Colorado initiative organizers face an uphill battle, but it's one they are willing to undertake. "We're working very closely with Sensible Colorado," said SAFER's Tvert. "They will concentrate on the legislature and we will concentrate on the initiative, but we are allies. The idea is to move this issue front and center, get some action in the legislature, get the initiative moving on a parallel track, and don't forget we have the court case where we are challenging the refusal of Denver authorities to heed the will of the voters."
The question is whether the initiative is in tune with voters outside Denver. "Outside of Denver, Colorado is certainly more conservative," said Vicente, "but the state also has an independent, almost libertarian streak, and I think our message will resonate with those sorts of voters as well. Also, some parts of western Colorado that are not traditionally Democratic have very high use rates, both medicinally and recreationally," he told DRCNet. "We should also do well in the college towns of Boulder and Fort Collins, and I think people will be surprised how well we do in Colorado Springs. People think of it as very conservative, but it has the largest number of medical marijuana patients in the state, and they are very organized."
Sensible Colorado and SAFER will have a division of labor with SAFER aiming at the grassroots and Sensible Colorado aiming at the grasstops, Vicente said. "A lot of what we have done and will continue to do is work with legislators and other officials. In the wake of the Denver results, we are seeing higher levels of support from legislators. Some of them are deciding this is a safer issue -- no pun intended -- than they thought."
A victory at the polls this year would set the stage for a full-blown, Nevada-style initiative, said Vicente. "Simply legalizing the possession of an ounce, while a step in the right direction, is only a step," he said. "Assuming we can win this year, our ultimate goal is a statewide 2008 tax and regulate initiative. The simplicity of this year's initiative may appeal to Colorado voters, but in the end it will be more beneficial to allow regulated access to marijuana, build the tax base, and take the black market out of it. Once we win this year, people will wake up and say, 'Okay, so how do we get access to marijuana?' We will be ready to answer that question."
While recent Gallup polls show support for marijuana legalization nearing 50% in the West, no one has yet gotten over the hump. This year, we will see strong pushes in Nevada and Colorado. Legalization, while remaining elusive, draws ever nearer.