The elections of 2012 produced historic outcomes in Colorado and Washington when the people of both states voted to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, becoming the first two to thumb their noses at the federal drug war and declare weed to be safe and worthy of taxation. The midterm elections of 2014 maintained the momentum from two years earlier as legalization measures passed in Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C. They also added a few new models to the laboratory of marijuana regulation by differing from the approaches in Colorado and Washington, the only precedents before this year.
Ballot Measure 2
Passed with 52.1%
Of the three marijuana measures that passed on Election Day, Alaska’s made it by the slimmest margin, 4.3% – no major surprise given that it’s a pretty conservative state on the whole. It creates a regulatory structure similar to those in Colorado and Washington. Like Washington, it hands initial control of pot regulation to the Alcoholic Beverage Control board. Like Colorado, it allows people to grow their own plants (up to six of them). And like both states, it bans public marijuana use and allows localities to ban marijuana businesses but not to ban possession or personal use of pot. It levies a $50 per ounce excise tax “on the sale or transfer of marijuana from a cultivation facility to a retail store or marijuana product manufacturing facility.”
Passed with 55.6%
Oregon’s reputation as a hippie wonderland was already safe. Now it can be written into stone. Voters passed Measure 91 by an enthusiastic 11.2% margin just two years after rejecting Measure 80, which would have legalized possession of unlimited amounts of pot. In doing so they enacted a law that differs in significant ways from the other legalized states. Even though it comes up short of the utopian scenario Measure 80 would have set up in 2012, it’s by far the most generous with its limits on possession, allowing Oregonians to hold up to eight ounces at any given time. They can also grow up to four plants at a time. The measure does resemble Washington’s in that it gives control of licensing and regulation to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.
Passed with 69.51%
The initiative that passed in Washington, D.C., passed by a 39% margin, by far the widest of all the legalization measures passed to date. It’s relatively unique compared to the measures in the four states with legal pot in a number of ways. For starters, it only legalized possession (of up to two ounces at a time) and cultivation (of three plants) of marijuana, rather than creating a regulatory structure, because D.C. law does not allow citizen initiatives to mandate the spending of city funds. But more importantly, Congress exercises control over the law of the District of Columbia – and with both chambers currently in the hands of the Republican Party, it’s likely the initiative’s implementation is going to be fraught with trenchant opposition.
So what do the 2014 election results mean for the national marijuana legalization movement?
For starters, there are now four states, plus the District of Columbia, that have legalized the recreational use of marijuana in defiance of federal law. Given that just a few short years ago more than half of the electorate was against legalization, that’s a significant shift. It suggests that future legalization measures, if well-planned and reasonable in their implementation, will receive similar measures of support.
The fact that Ballot Measure 2 passed in Alaska, in particular, should signal to the Republican Party that opposing legalization and supporting the Drug War status quo isn’t the smartest of strategies going forward. The other three states and D.C. are all much more liberal than Alaska, which is best-known in national politics for producing Sarah Palin. The GOP will probably set up some kind of roadblock in heavily Democratic D.C., just because they can. But that’s not going to be viable in most states in the future.
Legalization in Oregon opens up the first potential market clash between two neighboring states. Oregon’s taxes will be lower than Washington’s, where half of the total retail price of marijuana can be attributed to taxation. Like neighboring states siphoning off revenue from New Jersey in recent years by legalizing gambling, Oregon retail pot shops could derive a fair bit of their business from their neighbors across the Columbia River. Whether that leads to federal interference, or a change in tax rates in one state or the other, is hard to say since there are no real precedents.
We’re now almost certain to see legalization measures on the ballot in a few more states for the 2016 election. Given that turnout is usually significantly higher in presidential election years, and turnout tends to benefit Democrats and liberal social initiatives, we could have five or six states with legal pot before the next president takes office. The electorate continues to get younger, and those most stridently opposed to legalization are taking their support for harsh Drug War regimes with them to the grave. If they have any long-term vision at all, at least some fraction of the GOP will be pushing for evolution on the issue, which only bodes well for the future of marijuana legalization at the state level in America.
The next presidential election will have the biggest bearing on what happens to these experiments in the short term, since it’s been the Obama administration’s hands-off approach that’s allowed them to move forward in the face of federal prohibition. But in the long run, the 2012 and 2014 election results in four western states and the nation’s capital are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to public support for marijuana legalization.