One week after the nation’s first recreational marijuana stores opened in Colorado, Alaska activists submitted what appear to be enough signatures to put marijuana legalization before voters. The measure – which would go up for a vote Aug. 19 – is one of several 2014 efforts that could yield a good year for pot supporters, particularly in the West.
So far, voters have been at the vanguard of legalization, blowing past state legislatures. In November 2012, more than 55 percent of Colorado and Washington voters approved initiatives to legalize the drug and open state-licensed stores – and polls suggest those successes may be replicated elsewhere.
A CNN/Opinion Research poll released Monday found 55 percent of Americans believe marijuana should be legal, compared to 44 percent who do not. Support was highest in the West – where voter-driven initiatives often become law – and in the Northeast. An October poll released by Gallup put nationwide support for legalization at 58 percent.
Here’s a rundown of the states where smoking weed may become legal in 2014:
The Alaska Campaign to Regulate Marijuana submitted 45,000 signatures – 15,000 more than needed – on Wednesday for a ballot measure that would legalize possession of 1 ounce of marijuana and cultivation of six plants by adults over age 21. The measure also would authorize the opening of recreational marijuana stores.
If enough signatures are validated, Alaskans will vote on the proposal Aug. 19, the same day as primary elections.
The pro-legalization campaigners carefully reviewed signatures before submitting them and are confident the initiative will appear on ballots.
For years, Alaska was the only state where marijuana was legal, following a 1975 Alaska Supreme Court decision that allowed adults to possess 4 ounces of pot and grow 24 plants. State voters criminalized the drug in 1990, but that law was overturned in 2003 by the Alaska Court of Appeals. In 2006, the state legislature approved a new law criminalizing pot.
Organizers of the initiative campaign include a retired law enforcement leader and a University of Alaska Anchorage professor.
“Marijuana prohibition has been just as big a failure as alcohol prohibition,” former Alaska Department of Corrections Deputy Commissioner Bill Parker, one of the initiative’s sponsors, said in a Wednesday statement. “We are confident that voters will agree it is time for a more sensible approach that honors the ideals that unite us as Alaskans; protecting personal freedoms and a commitment to personal responsibility.”
Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) spokesman Mason Tvert tells U.S. News Alaska stands a good chance of becoming the third state to legalize marijuana.
“You can’t be 100 percent confident about anything, but we’re confident that if it qualifies for the ballot, voters will very likely make Alaska the third state to end marijuana prohibition,” Tvert says.
A March 2013 poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research found 60 percent support for marijuana legalization in Alaska.
In California, there may be as many as four ballot measures for voters to consider in November. Each of the four would legalize the drug for adults over age 21 and authorize recreational sales.
The most radical proposal – the California Cannabis Hemp Initiative – would allow residents to grow 99 flowering marijuana plants and possess up to 12 pounds of cannabis.
Mark Newcomb, one of that initiative’s organizers, tells U.S. News approximately 200,000 signatures have been collected so far. Organizers need to collect a total of about 500,000 by Feb. 24.
Newcomb says 1,000 volunteers and 300 paid canvassers are helping out. He sees California as a possible pioneer in cannabinoid medical research and scoffs at more timid legalization bids.
“Tell me you are going to keep Mother Nature from producing more than six plants,” he says.
Supporters of the three other proposed initiatives – each offering different specifications – have not started to collect signatures.
State Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office approved the wording of the Marijuana, Control Legalization & Revenue Act – which would allow residents to grow 12 plants – in December, saying it would save the state “in the low hundreds of millions of dollars annually.” But organizers are refiling their wording, which may be reapproved by Jan. 31, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.
Another proposal, offered by the Drug Policy Alliance, is modeled on Washington state’s law, but unlike in Washington – where possession is legal but personal cultivation is not – the initiative would allow six marijuana plants per residence.
California voters rejected a 2010 marijuana legalization measure by a seven-point margin, but recent polls show support is on the upswing. A December survey by Field Research Corporation found 56 percentsupport for legalization. A September Public Policy Institute of California survey found 52 percent support.
Some national pro-legalization groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the MPP, have urged Californians to wait until 2016 to pitch legalization initiatives. They cite the massive cost of a successful campaign and the greater likelihood of success in a presidential election year, when more young people vote.
Oregon voters rejected an initiative to legalize marijuana in 2012, but the issue likely will get another chance this November.
There are two routes for another ballot battle: Either state legislators can refer a proposal to voters or residents can petition for the question to appear on ballots.
Anthony Johnson, director of New Approach Oregon, a pro-legalization coalition, says activists will work to get an initiative on the ballot if the legislature fails to do so.
The possibility state legislators will refer a legalization proposal is “50-50 at best,” he says.
If the legislature adjourns – in late February or early March – without referring the issue to voters, Johnson says his coalition will immediately begin collecting the required 87,000 signatures.
“We’re confident we can collect the signatures” before early July, Johnson says. His coalition is working closely with the Drug Policy Alliance and plans to use paid and unpaid petition-gatherers.
New Approach Oregon’s initiative language would legalize marijuana for adults over 21 and allow state-regulated stores to open. Residents would be permitted to keep 8 ounces of pot at home and grow four plants.
“There’s enough momentum and enough support for an initiative in Oregon to pass,” Tvert of the MPP says.
Polls seem to confirm that optimism: A Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research poll of likely 2014 voters in May found support for legalization at 63 percent.
In Arizona, grassroots activists hope they can pull off a voter-driven victory for legalization in 2014, even though many national marijuana advocates are keeping their distance.
Safer Arizona is attempting to gather 300,000 signatures by July 3 to get its legalization measure before voters in November.
Robert Clark, chairman of Safer Arizona, tells U.S. News the campaign has netted about 30,000 signatures.
“We’re a long ways off from getting it on the ballot right now,” he acknowledges.
Unlike nearly every other state-level legalization proposal, the Arizona initiative would set the marijuana age at 18. Clark says if 18-year-old adults can vote, enlist in the military and sign contracts, they should be allowed to smoke marijuana.
If the initiative scores ballot access, polls suggest it will have significant support. A January 2013 poll conducted by Public Policy Polling (PPP) found 59 percent support among Arizonans for legalizing marijuana for adults over 21.
Clark says the group is beginning to see an uptick in interest and has signed up 35 new volunteer canvassers since Jan. 1.
“We figure we have another three months to get this all put together until [ballot access] is out of reach,” he says. In the meantime, the group is soliciting political endorsements and asking paid petition-gatherers to voluntarily carry around the initiative petition.
If enacted, the Arizona initiative would permit residents to possess 2.5 ounces of marijuana and grow 12 plants.
Residents in the nation’s capital also may get a chance to vote on legalization in November.
D.C. Cannabis Campaign leaders plan to submit draft ballot language Friday with the city’s elections board. The proposal would legalize possession of 2 ounces and six plants by adults over 21.
The board will deny the proposal if it decides it involves appropriation of city funds – a determination that’s doomed other initiatives – but campaign coordinator Adam Eidinger tells U.S. News lawyers advising the effort are confident officials will approve the “bare-bones” and loophole-ridden proposal because it avoids enforcement matters.
The activists filed a decriminalization ballot measure as a trial balloon last year and used the board’s rejection as a roadmap for writing the legalization proposal.
If the draft language is rejected, activists may sue. If it’s approved, the campaigners plan to begin petition-gathering in late February or early March, with a goal of netting the required signatures by the end of June.
“People have a lot of anger about this and they’re tired of bailing people out of jail,” Eidinger says.
Although an April PPP survey put support for legalization at 63 percent in D.C., Eidinger says supporters “can’t count out the opposition” and estimates a half-million dollar campaign is necessary to win.
“I think we’re going to lose support once opposition comes out,” he says.
The campaign leader notes the ballot language will cap the number of plants per residence at 12 to head off fears about fraternity houses with 100 plants.
Councilman David Grosso, an independent, introduced a legalization bill in the 13-member city council in September. It’s unlikely to pass in the near future, but a decriminalization bill sponsored by Tommy Wells, a Democratic councilman running for mayor, appears certain to prevail this year.
“There’s going to be an increase in demand with decriminalization, but there isn’t going to be anywhere safe for people to go purchase marijuana,” Grosso told U.S. News after unveiling his bill. “They’re still going to be on the street corners, we’re still going to have problems with violence on the street, with people getting arrested for nonviolent offenses.”
Eidinger says if the referendum is approved by voters in November, it would be up to the city council to embrace the spirit of the initiative and pass the reform into law. Congress has the power to block legislation in D.C. and did so for years after city voters approved medical marijuana in 1998. The city’s first medical marijuana facilities opened in July 2013.
In addition to voter-driven initiatives, legalization bills have been proposed in at least 13 state legislatures.
“Rhode Island would be the most likely if a legislature passed [legalization] this year,” says Tvert, who co-directed the successful Colorado initiative campaign. “Last year there was a bill to regulate and tax marijuana like alcohol that received significant bipartisan support.”
Vermont’s governor, Democrat Peter Shumlin, said he’s closely watching developments in Colorado and Washington, but that he doesn’t consider legalization a priority in 2014.
New Hampshire’s legislature will consider a legalization proposal Jan. 15, state Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, a Republican, tells U.S. News. Its prospects are unclear.
Although it’s possible several states will legalize marijuana in 2014, the MPP sees 2016 as a more likely watershed year for legalization and plans to support voter initiatives in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana and Nevada.
The Department of Justice announced Aug. 29 it will not seek to block the opening of recreational marijuana stores, as long as there’s tight state regulation. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but officials cite a lack of manpower to force prohibition upon states where marijuana is legal.
Nearly 750,000 Americans were arrested for marijuana-related offenses in 2012, according to FBI crime data.