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Voters In Washington, D.C. And Oregon, And Probably Alaska, Approve Marijuana Legalization

Marijuana Plant

As I noted last week, there were three initiatives across the country to legalize marijuana across the country in Washington, D.C., Oregon, and Alaska, as well as a Constitutional Amendment to allow the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes in Florida. As of right now, it looks as though all three of the legalization initiatives have passed, but that the Florida amendment has failed because it get the supermajority required for passage.

First up, the nation’s capital, where the initiative passed easily but where it could also become the focus of a national debate both over legalization and over Congress’s ability to regulate what the District of Columbia can do to govern itself:

The District followed Colorado and Washington state into a closely watched experiment to legalize marijuana Tuesday, as voters overwhelmingly backed an initiative 7 to 3  [that’s a typo, the actual margin was roughly 70% yes, 30% no — DM] allowing cannabis to be consumed and grown in the nation’s capital. The move to allow the drug almost certainly will take effect unless the next Congress blocks it.

Under a voter-proposed measure, known as Initiative 71, residents and visitors age 21 and older will be allowed to legally possess as much as two ounces of marijuana and to grow up to three marijuana plants at home. Leading candidates for mayor and the D.C. Council have vowed to quickly sign the measure into law. A majority of the council also pledged that if approved by voters, they would submit follow-up legislation to Congress next year establishing a system to sell and tax the drug in the District.

The twin measures will become law, as District bills do, unless Congress vetoes them and the president agrees that the local measures should be halted. That complex layer of federal oversight could thrust Congress — which on Tuesday flipped to Republican control — and President Obama into the middle of a rapidly evolving national debate.

In joining two states to bring marijuana into the mainstream — making it nearly akin to alcohol and tobacco — the District’s vote is the latest sign of growing public acceptance of the drug. Advocates have been trying to give marijuana legal status since the 1960s, losing periodic battles with parent groups and to the war on drugs. But the arguments against weed have lost steam, and public opinion has shifted; about 6 percent of Americans use the drug, including one-third of the nation’s high school seniors.

Unlike the arguments about health concerns elsewhere, the legalization debate in the District became fused with weighty issues of civil rights after a series of studies during the past year showed wide disparities in drug arrests: Eighty-eight percent of people convicted of marijuana possession in the city in recent years were black, even as surveys have shown that whites and blacks are equally likely to use the drug.

Given the overwhelming margin of victory here, you would think that it would be hard for Congress and the President to block this new law, but allowing it to go forward is likely to only happen after there’s been no small degree of negotiation between local authorities and the Federal Government. There will be no pot smoking on the National Mall, for example, or on any other Federal property in the District, and there will need to be some adjustments to law inside the District to handle that issue. In the long run, though, it doesn’t strike me that House and Senate Republicans are going to want to use their new political capital blocking marijuana legalization, or that President Obama would want to go along with it. So, after the technicalities are worked out, you can expect legal marijuana in the District of Columbia by some point in 2015.

Later in the night, we learned that Oregon voters also approved their ballot initiative to join their neighbors to the north in Washington to legalize pot sales:

 Oregon voters said yes to marijuana Tuesday, making the state the third to allow the possession and sale of cannabis for recreational rather than strictly medical use.

The crowd at the Southeast Portland club Holocene, where Yes on 91 held its victory party, erupted into rowdy cheers upon learning Measure 91 had passed. Someone in the audience yelled “Legal cannabis, baby,” as longtime legalization advocate Anthony Johnson took the stage. He called the vote “decades in the making.”

“We have ended a painful, discriminatory, harmful policy that has terrible consequences for our state,” Johnson said. “We replaced it with a policy that is smarter, more humane. … It’s a policy whose time has come.”

The closely watched vote on Measure 91 represents a major victory for state and national marijuana legalization advocates. They viewed Oregon, already home to a robust medical marijuana program, as part of a key second wave of states to legalize cannabis for recreational use.

Oregon joins Washington state and Colorado, the first states to legalize pot for recreational use in 2012. Earlier in the night, Washington, D.C., voters approved a measure allowing residents to possess and grow — but not sell — marijuana. Alaska voters were also considering legalization Tuesday.

Oregon’s Measure 91 took elements from both the Washington and Colorado laws and was primarily financed by out-of-state donors and groups seeking national reform of drug laws. The Yes on 91 campaign collected about $4 million, compared to less than $200,000 raised by the No on 91 effort.

Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, who opposed marijuana legalization, called the race a “David vs. Goliath.” He said Oregonians aren’t likely to see much of a difference when it comes to law enforcement, which already views marijuana as a low priority.

“Marijuana was very low on the priority list in Oregon,” he said. “And now it will essentially be totally crossed off.”

The measure, which will not take effect until July 1, 2015, allows adults 21 and older to possess 1 ounce in public and up to 8 ounces at home, as well as a variety of other marijuana-infused products.

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission will get the job of regulating marijuana production and sales. Tax revenue generated by marijuana will go to public schools; mental health and addiction services; law enforcement; and the Oregon Health Authority. Using marijuana in public or while driving will be prohibited. Current medical marijuana laws won’t change.

Oregon voters rejected marijuana legalization two years ago, and sponsors of Measure 91 hoped this year’s version would be seen as having more regulatory controls than what was on the ballot in 2012.

As of this writing, the results for the ballot initiative in Alaska are not complete enough for an official call, but things certainly look good for passage:

After years of debate — and decades of semi-legal status — it appears Alaskans will finally be able to light up legally. On Tuesday, voters were approving Ballot Measure 2, an initiative legalizing recreational marijuana in Alaska, by about 52 percent in favor to 48 percent opposed, with about 86 percent of the state’s precincts reporting by 11:30 p.m.

If the results hold, Alaska would join Washington, Colorado and Oregon — the latter of which approved a similar initiative Tuesday — as the first states in the country to legalize pot. Washington and Colorado approved their own initiatives in 2012.

If passed, the initiative would not become law until 90 days after the election is certified, which is expected to be in late November. Per the law, the state can then create a marijuana control board — expected to be housed under the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. That group will then have nine months to craft regulations dealing with how marijuana businesses will operate.

The initiative was years in the making. Alaska voters considered similar measures in 2000 and 2004. Both failed, though each indicated a measure of support for legalization. Measure 5 in 2000 took 40.9 percent of the vote; Ballot Measure 2 in 2004 gained a few more points, with 44 percent of the electorate voting in favor of it.

Supporters expressed relief Tuesday as results streamed in.

“It looks good for us, but there are still a lot of votes to be counted” said Taylor Bickford, spokesman for the pro-legalization Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska, as the results ticked up to 44 percent of precincts reporting Tuesday.

“No matter how this ends up, a majority of Alaskans believes marijuana prohibition has not worked,” Bickford said. “Even if all the votes are counted and we lose by a small margin, Alaskans clearly want to see a new approach to marijuana.”

What had seemed like an easy win earlier in the year appeared to slip in the weeks leading up to the election. Polls showed support for the measure at over 50 percent earlier in the year, but that appeared to decline over the summer and into fall. Dueling polls commissioned by both sides of the campaign showed striking differences between the two, making it anyone’s guess which side would ultimately come out ahead in the vote.

The Yes campaign fought vigorously to get out their message of the failures of marijuana “prohibition” across the state. They contended that Ballot Measure 2 would regulate and tax a substance already being used by over 100,000 Alaskans each year. Doing so would begin to eliminate the black market and prevent people from being arrested for possessing or using a substance many argue is objectively safer than alcohol.

The campaign noted that Ballot Measure 2 would allow for regulation of marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol by controlling the types of products sold, prohibiting sales to those under 21 and taxing marijuana at $50 per ounce wholesale.

As of the time I’m writing this post, the polls in Alaska have only been closed about four hours and none of the statewide races have been called, which is not unusual for a state where many of the returns have to be flown in from far flung locations, so it may be a day or two before we know for sure, but it seems pretty clear that legalization will pass. The one setback in the marijuana area yesterday, though, came in Florida, where a Constitutional Amendment that would have legalized marijuana for medicinal use failed to gain the supermajority needed to win passage. Under Florida law, a Constitutional Amendment must get 60% of the vote to pass and results by the end of the night had the measure with 58% of the vote, just two points short of the threshold needed for passage. I can’t speak to why this was put on the ballot as a Constitutional Amendment rather than a regular initiative, but the fact that it was so close suggests that those in favor of the measure may try to get the measure back on the ballot for 2016 when a more favorable electorate would likely be heading to the polls.

Notwithstanding the loss in Florida, the success of three initiatives legalizing marijuana for recreational use, and I’m confident enough in the result to call Alaska a success at this hour, is likely to push the issue of legalization even further down the line on the national agenda. There are already efforts to get the matter back on the ballot in California in 2016 in an effort to accomplish in two years what backers were unable to do in 2010 when a similar measure failed by seven points. Beyond California, we may see similar measures in the Northeast in states like Maine, Vermont, or Rhode Island. While legalization is not likely to spread as quickly, what we’re witnessing here is not unlike what happened with same-sex marriage, where public attitudes shifted quickly and the law changed faster than many people expected. Given that the change in public attitudes on this issue seem irreversible, it seems likely that we’ll see legalization become more of a trend, but there will be several issues that will have to be resolved along the way.

The most prominent issue, of course, is the conflict between Federal and State law on this issue. While marijuana is now legal in two states, and likely to be legal in two more and the District of Columbia by some point next year, the Federal laws against use, sale, and trafficking remain on the books and people who are acting in accord with the law of their home jurisdiction remain at risk of Federal prosecution. To a large degree, the Obama Administration has chosen to take something of a laissez faire attitude with respect to state laws regarding legalization and medical marijuana, which has meant that most users and sellers have been safe from the Drug Enforcement Administration. However, that is a temporary solution at best. The Administration could decide to change enforcement policy at any time, for example, and a new President and Attorney General could change the policy on a whim. At some point there will need to be a solution to this conflict, and it will likely require Congressional action. The most logical solution, of course, would be a Tenth Amendment/Federalism based solution that allows states to decide this issue and the Federal Government stands off from enforcement unless there are large scale trafficking schemes that cross state lines or international boundaries. That will require some national consensus, though, and it may take time for that consensus to develop.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Ron Beasley says:

    In Oregon it allows the production of Marijuana as possession of an ounce or less has only been a violation like a parking ticket.

  2. James Pearce says:

    The Administration could decide to change enforcement policy at any time, for example, and a new President and Attorney General could change the policy on a whim. At some point there will need to be a solution to this conflict, and it will likely require Congressional action.

    In my state, the marijuana business didn’t enter the “boom” stage until Holder’s guidelines. Aside from a few raids on some shady operators, the feds have largely kept their nose out of it. As you say, that could all change, probably not with this administration, but the next one?

    I’m not banking on any Congressional action though. Indeed, I fear it. Best case scenario is Congress does nothing until more states are in the “legal” column. Then they step in, not with criminal codes, but with commercial regulations.