Marijuana Legalization Close to Passage in 2 States

Support for marijuana legalization ballot initiatives in Colorado and Washington exceeds 50 percent, according to recent polls.
by | October 31, 2012

Nov. 7, 2012 8:05 a.m. Update: Voters in Colorado and Washington state approved measures to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, while voters in Oregon rejected a similar measure.

Sixty-three percent of Massachusetts voters approved a measure to legalize medical marijuana, and 51 percent of Arkansas voters have rejected such a measure, with 92 percent and 80 percent of precincts reporting, respectively.

For full election coverage and analysis, go to Governing's 2012 Election Center.

Barring an abrupt reversal in support among likely voters on Nov. 6, at least two states will become the first to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

COLORADO

Colorado’s Amendment 64 would allow adults 21 and over to possess marijuana and requires the state to license and regulate cultivation and retail centers. In essence, marijuana would be regulated and taxed like alcohol.

The amendment requires that the first $40 million in revenue be directed to the state’s public school capital construction assistance fund. A study by the Colorado Center on Law and Poverty estimates that legalization would create up to $40 million in new tax revenue and save an additional $12 million in criminal justice costs.

An October poll by the University of Denver found the amendment has 50 percent support among likely voters with 40 percent opposed. That’s keeping with a general trend dating back to 2011 that showed the proposal with a healthy lead.

“The genie is out of the bottle,” State Sen. Pat Steadman told Governing earlier this year. Colorado has had one of the more successful medical marijuana systems in the United States, and many view full legalization as the logical next step.

WASHINGTON

Washington’s Initiative 502, which would also legalize marijuana for adults 21 and over while regulating and taxing its sale like alcohol, also holds a significant edge heading into Election Day. A poll by Elway Research found the question leading 50 percent to 38 percent in mid-September.

The initiative has earned the endorsement of leaders in the state legislature, though both gubernatorial candidates (Democrat Jay Inslee and Republican Robert McKenna) have said that they’re opposed to it.

“We want to be the first,” State Rep. Roger Goodman told Governing earlier this year. “Current law is running headlong into cultural change.”

An analysis by the Washington Office of Fiscal Management estimated that legalization would generate up to $560 million in new tax revenue in its first year, with the expected state income projected to increase in later years. More than half of those dollars would be funneled to the state’s Medicaid program, thanks to earmarks included in the initiative.

The question does include one provision that the Colorado amendment does not: those caught driving with a THC-level above five nanograms per millimeter could be charged with “driving under the influence of marijuana.”

OREGON

Oregon voters will also be deciding whether or not to legalize marijuana, regulating and taxing it much like alcohol. However, polling shows much less enthusiasm for that prospect than in Colorado or Washington. An October poll by SurveyUSA found 43 percent of likely voters oppose it, and 38 percent support it.

Supporters have argued that the ballot measure would create up to $160 million in new tax revenue and save up to $40 million in criminal justice costs.

With all three initiatives, federal prohibition looms. The White House has not issued any official position on the legalization initiatives, but President Obama’s top drug czar has said in the past that the president does not support outright legalization. According to the Washington Post, nine former directors of the Drug Enforcement Administration sent the White House a letter in October, urging the administration to publicly oppose any efforts to legalize marijuana.

As Governing reported earlier this year, there is a belief among academics that any legal questions related to international treaties or the Controlled Substances Act could be reconciled if an individual state were to legalize marijuana. There is also a sense that public opinion is inevitably trending toward majority support of abandoning prohibition. An October 2011 Gallup poll found for the first time that 50 percent of Americans support legalization.

MEDICAL MARIJUANA

While those states consider moving from medical to fully legalized marijuana, two other states (Arkansas and Massachusetts) will decide whether to allow medical marijuana use for the first time. Both would authorize marijuana consumption and possession for medical purposes with a doctor’s referral, and both would establish state-regulated dispensaries to sell the drug.

If both states passed the initiatives, a total of 19 states would have medical marijuana systems. Polling shows greater support in Massachusetts than Arkansas. An August poll by Public Policy Polling found 58 percent support for the Massachusetts initiative. In Arkansas, however, an October poll by Hendrix College found 54 percent of voters were opposed to that state’s ballot measure.

In Montana, voters will be deciding whether to reaffirm their medical marijuana program or refine it. The program went into effect in 2004, but the state legislature voted to repeal it in 2011 and replace it with greater restrictions on who could access the drug and how much they could possess. The 2012 ballot question asks voters whether they want to affirm (with a Yes vote) or reverse (with a No vote) the Senate’s action.

September polls from Public Policy Polling and Mason Dixon found healthy support for the question, though nearly one-quarter of voters were undecided.

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