Three states and the District of Columbia may pass new marijuana laws come Election Day, a potential second wave of cannabis policy reform following legalization in Colorado and Washington state in 2012.
Cannabis initiatives are on the Nov. 4 ballot in Oregon, Alaska, Florida and Washington, D.C.
While Oregon and Alaska have proposals on the ballot to legalize marijuana possession, production and sales, Washington, D.C., is voting only to allow possession. All legislation would apply to adults 21 and older.
Florida, on the other hand, is voting to legalize medical marijuana, the first southern state to consider such legislation. Twenty-three states and Washington, D.C., already have legislation in place that make the drug legal for medical reasons.
If these new laws pass, how will they affect cannabis legalization efforts in California?
Regardless of results, an initiative to legalize marijuana will be on the California ballot in 2016, said Dr. Dale Gieringer, director of the California chapter of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
“There’s going to be a 2016 ballot initiative in California in any case,” Gieringer said. “Obviously, we hope that some of these state initiatives win, but come hell or high water, we’ll go ahead in 2016.”
If cannabis is legalized in other states, there will be greater pressure on California to do the same, said Fresno State political science professor Dr. Thomas Holyoke.
“This is especially true if no great problems develop in these states, and most especially if sales taxes on cannabis bring in lots of extra revenue for these states,” he said.
In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in March, Gov. Jerry Brown said he is looking to Colorado and Washington to “show us how it’s going to work.”
“How many people can get stoned and still have a great state or a great nation?” Brown asked. “The world’s pretty dangerous, very competitive. I think we need to stay alert, if not 24 hours a day, more than some of the potheads might be able to put together.”
Marijuana legalization was last on the California ballot in the 2010 midterm elections, an effort Brown was against. Proposition 19 resulted in 53.5 percent of the population voting no to legalization and 46.5 percent voting yes.
Opponents to the proposition included Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, as well as then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Gieringer believes around 10 percent more of the vote would move toward legalization in 2016 since Proposition 19.
“Five percent is a real swing in opinion, and then there’s probably another 5 percent we get by running in a presidential election year, opposed to an off-year election,” Gieringer said.
He attributes the expected swing in opinion due to cannabis being legalized in Colorado and Washington.
Holyoke also said attitudes in California since Proposition 19 have likely changed a “fair amount.”
“Much of the opposition came from older votes, and many of them are no longer with us,” Holyoke said. “Younger voters tend to be more in favor of legalization.”
A nationwide poll conducted by Pew Research Center this month showed 52 percent of those surveyed voting for marijuana to be legal. Forty-five percent voted it should be illegal, and 3 percent were unsure.
In March 2013, a Pew poll showed a majority of Americans favoring legalization for the first time in the organization’s four-decades of polling on the issue. That poll saw 52 percent voting yes to legalization.
Following that poll, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an interest group opposed to cannabis legalization, said the survey indicated “more than anything, of the careless discussion about legalization currently going on in this country.”
“We owe it to ourselves to have a careful dialogue about the possible downsides of the legalization of marijuana, which includes health care costs, car accidents, mental illness, learning dysfunctions and addiction,” the organization said in an statement.
Yet advocates still face barriers in passing legislation.
“People associate legal cannabis with greater crime,” Holyoke said. “Of course, many argue the opposite, that making it legal will reduce crime associated with it, because making it legal means criminal industries will lose their markets.
“That is something California should be watching other states to see.”
Gieringer said other than the normal difficulties of raising money for a statewide initiative and formulating polling, a 2016 ballot will not be a challenge.
“I’m confident that we’ll have a proposal that will be acceptable to the majority of California voters, and I’m not terribly concerned about opponents,” he said.
Another complicating issue is that marijuana is still illegal under federal law. However, the federal government has yet to intervene in any state legislation that has legalized the drug, as seen when Colorado and Washington passed their laws.
President Barack Obama told ABC News in December 2012 that the federal government has “bigger fish to fry” than state legalization laws.
In August 2013, the Obama administration said it would not challenge the Colorado and Washington laws. Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said the Justice Department was “committed to using its limited investigative and prosecutorial resource to address the most significant threats in the most effective, consistent and rational way.”
“I think the federal government, whose resources are limited, had better things to do like worrying about really dangerous drugs, as well as problems in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, ” Holyoke said.
“Federal lawmakers can only concentrate on so many things at a time, and cannabis just does not come to the top of the list, or anywhere even close.”
Even if this new wave of cannabis initiatives pass in November, Congress is unlikely to act either way, Holyoke said.
“Congress, which would have to make a new law, is becoming increasingly conservative and is not likely to want to pass new legislation legalizing cannabis in the future,” he said.
However, with Washington, D.C., partially under federal law, Congress is able to override the cannabis legalization Initiative 71 if passed by the council of the District of Columbia.
“A more conservative Congress might be inclined to do just that if D.C. legalizes it,” Holyoke said.
Both Oregon and Alaska have attempted to legalize cannabis in the past.
Oregon voters rejected Measure 80 in 2012, 53.42 percent voting no to legalize marijuana for recreational use, and 46.58 percent voting yes. In Alaska, the cannabis legalization ballot, Measure 2, was defeated in 2004 when 55.7 percent voted no and 44.3 percent voted yes.