There is something curious happening this election season, and it has nothing to do with 47% or Obamacare. Voters in three states – Washington, Oregon, and Colorado – will be casting ballots on whether or not to legalize cannabis. Whether or not these measures ultimately pass, they amount to the most direct challenge to the legitimacy of US drug policy since the War on Drugs began over 40 years ago. Of particular interest here are the similarities between the proposed measures and the varying degrees of their success thus far.
These are not the first ballot measures to legalize cannabis; that honor goes California’s Proposition 19, which failed in 2010. This time, however, the measures are currently poised to pass in 2 of the 3 states (though election day is still a few weeks away). They represent concerted and collective effort by activists, and have much in common. But it is the way in which they are framed and promoted that matter the most this election season.
Readers may find the full text of each ballot measure in the following links: Washington’s Initiative 502, Oregon’s Measure 80 or Oregon Cannabis Tax Act and Colorado’s Amendment 64, or Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act. Be aware that the latter 2 links go to partisan sites, however the linked text is identical to that which appears on the ballot and, if passed, on the books. All measures limit cannabis use to people over 21, all allow for DUI/DWI enforcement while under the influence of cannabis, all prohibit consumption in public, and perhaps most importantly all measures eliminate any civil and criminal penalties for the possession of cannabis (in Washington and Colorado, up to one ounce). Oregon and Colorado will allow for individuals to grow their own plants, while Washington will not. Functionally, each of these laws put an end to most cannabis prohibition at the state level, and all will establish a tax and regulatory agency.
Unlike California’s Proposition 19, all three of these measures appear on the ballot in a year when voters will be choosing the president. Presidential election years traditionally have much higher voter turnout, a fact that organizers (on both sides, surely) are counting on to increase exposure and attention in all three states. By appealing directly to voters, rather than state legislators, the legalization movements in all 3 states are able to avoid the costly and difficult problems of lobbying and relying on support from elites. Put another way, the largely bypass the need to create or seek out political opportunities from a few powerful actors within the state. Opportunities here come from the electorate.
By bypassing legislatures and by writing the ballot measures as they have (namely, with the establishment of a tax and regulatory agency), activists have been able to frame the debate in terms that already resonate with voters. Specifically, the central topic of this election is the economy, with state governments being particularly cash-strapped. A new vice tax provides a new source of income. And voters who are already conscious of economic issues and hesitant about new taxes, may be more likely to approve a tax that only affects a small part of the population engaged in the voluntary use of a vice (as opposed to, say, higher income or property taxes). Similarly, Colorado’s measure requires the first $40million in cannabis taxes go to fund capital improvements for schools, while Washington’s measure will fund drug treatment programs. In the latter case, at least, this measure functions to mute many legalization critics. Drug treatment, like most healthcare, functions as part of a market economy and notoriously underfunded.
No matter what happens in Washington, Oregon, and Colorado this election day, some things are clear. Activists are using clever framing techniques to push for legalization at a time when public support is high. And even if these measures do pass, there is still a question of how the federal government will respond – cannabis remains a Schedule I drug and the DEA has acted before to shut down medical cannabis dispensaries. So, readers, without weighing in too much on the politics of legalization itself, what are your thoughts on how these measures are being promoted? Are they effective? If you live in one of the aforementioned states, how much have you been hearing about the issue?