Marijuana Legalization Update

This year may see some progress on legalization, but it will be limited. But there are five state-level efforts where news is being made on the legalization front.
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Tomorrow, Washington state will become the second state with a legal recreational marijuana market (look for a whole bunch of stoner jokes on tomorrow's television news, in other words). While Colorado and Washington both passed their legalization laws at the same time, Colorado's was fully implemented at the start of this year, while Washington waited until now to completely implement the new law. So it seemed like a good time for an update on which other states are moving toward full legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes, since there is news from a handful of other states as well.

Of course, medical marijuana laws are also gaining widespread acceptance, and the number of states which have legalized medical marijuana is now approaching half of all states (or has surpassed this goal already, depending on how you count -- some states have now legalized only one particular form of medical marijuana, for seizure prevention purposes). But as the states of Colorado and Washington have now shown, full-out legalization is now seen as an achievable goal for marijuana reformers. For the time being, I'm going to ignore the progress on medical marijuana and concentrate mostly on the current recreational legalization efforts.

This year may see some progress on legalization, but it will be limited. Marijuana legal reform organizations in many states (even deep-blue states like California) have already said they're going to wait until 2016 to even attempt ballot measures, since the electorate in presidential election years is a lot more youthful and Democratic than in midterm years. California, in particular, already got burned by this once, when a legalization ballot measure failed in 2010. But there are five state-level efforts where news is being made on the legalization front. In alphabetical order:


Alaskan voters will get the chance to vote on marijuana legalization this November. Initially, it looked like the referendum was going to be on the primary ballot (August 19), but due to a legislative technicality it has been bumped back to the general election. Chances for passage are probably in the good-to-excellent range.

Alaska has one of the longest and most convoluted legal histories when it comes to marijuana possession laws, as a 1975 state supreme court case (Ravin v. State) essentially legalized the possession of up to four ounces of marijuana in the privacy of your own home. This decision has been attacked on many legal fronts since the 1990s, although many of these efforts have been struck down by the courts (who insist that Ravin is still valid Alaskan law).

The voters may have the final say this November, when they get a chance to vote on Ballot Measure 2. The pro-reform movement looks well organized and energetic, while the anti-reform movement seems exactly the opposite. Both marijuana and libertarianism are popular in Alaska, so Measure 2 could easily succeed. It's currently polling [PDF link] at 55 percent in favor to 39 percent opposed.


Today was the deadline for submitting ballot signatures to qualify initiatives for 2014, and sadly two ballot measures (one for medical marijuana and one that would have legalized recreational use) both failed to get the required number of signatures. Arkansas voters will therefore not get the chance to weigh in on the subject at all this year. Supporters of the measures are looking forward to 2016, in their efforts to qualify for the ballot.


Last week, the supporters of the Control, Regulation, and Taxation of Marijuana and Industrial Hemp Act turned in over 145,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot this November. They only needed 87,213, so Oregon voters will almost certainly get a chance to vote for Initiative Petition 53 this year.

Oregon, like California, has already seen one legalization ballot initiative fail, in 2012. However, this first effort was widely seen as poorly written -- and the campaign effort for the measure wasn't very impressive either. This time around, the proposed law's draft is a lot better and it includes creating a better taxation system than what Colorado and Washington have implemented (Oregon would levy excise taxes on specific amounts of marijuana, rather than taxing the value when it is sold).

Oregon will get an up-close look, from tomorrow until November, at how the experiment in neighboring Washington is working out. They will see the tax dollars flowing into Olympia and the tourism Washington is attracting. As of last month, the general idea of legalizing recreational marijuana was polling at 51 percent for and 41 percent against. Now that one ballot measure has qualified, voters will have the chance to learn about its details. The pro-reform movement is already running their first web ad. Chances for success this November have to be seen as good, although not assured.

Rhode Island

Rhode Island has the chance to make history this year by legalizing marijuana not through a ballot initiative or popular vote, but rather through the legislative process. Bills have been introduced in the past four years to legalize recreational marijuana, but so far none has passed into law. This year's effort, however, will be the first one to be voted on (if it gets a vote) after Colorado and Washington legalized their marijuana marketplaces. If Rhode Island does legislatively legalize, it will be the first state to do so. Chances for passage are anyone's guess, though. Currently, it is stalled in committee and could just die a quiet death there.

Washington, D.C.

Just today, marijuana reformers delivered their petition signatures to qualify for the November ballot. They turned in over 57,000, more than twice the required 22,400. This means Initiative 71 should easily qualify for the ballot.

However, this does not guarantee that it will even be on the ballot. Congress has veto power over everything done in the District of Columbia, and they have previously shown an extraordinary (and un-American) amount of pettiness when it comes to letting the residents vote on such issues. When medical marijuana was on the ballot in 1998, Congress stepped in and refused to allow the votes to be counted, which is about as un-American as you can get. This time around, Congress may pre-emptively withhold all money to even print ballots with Initiative 71 on them. Congress is also currently fighting to nullify a decriminalization law put into effect earlier this year, so the congressional marijuana battles have already begun.

If legalization is qualified for the ballot, if Congress allows the ballots to be printed, if Congress allows the votes to be counted, and if they don't find some other petty way of halting the will of the people -- if all these "ifs" come to pass -- then the chances for passage are probably pretty good. But the likely result is that it'll be tied up in the courts for years, even if it does pass.

So, out of five possible state-level legalization laws passing in 2014: one has already failed, one may get tied up in committee forever, and one may pass but be blocked by congressional shenanigans for years to come. Optimistically, however, there are two states where it seems like a fairly good bet for full legalization of recreational marijuana this year.

Today, Colorado. Tomorrow, Washington state. Perhaps in November, Alaska and Oregon. The wildcards of D.C. and Rhode Island could also be added to the mix (although both may be delayed for a while). For the obvious reason that the 2016 electorate is seen as much friendlier to marijuana reform efforts, most states won't change their laws at all in the next few years (2016 may see a stampede of ballot measures, though). But in the meantime, the number of states with legalized marijuana could rise in the foreseeable future from two to as high as six.

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