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Rising tide: Voters in Oregon, Alaska approve pot legalization

November 5, 2014
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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The number of states where voters have approved measures to legalize recreational use of marijuana immediately doubled this week, in election results that surprised even some strong proponents of legalization. Voter approval of measures in Oregon and Alaska on Nov. 4 bring to four the number of states that have moved to legalize recreational use and establish a regulatory mechanism for the distribution of marijuana to adult users.

The decision by Oregon and Alaska voters to follow in the footsteps of Colorado and Washington in 2012 likely sets the stage for an even more intense debate of this issue in 2016, when states from California to Massachusetts appear likely to consider marijuana legalization initiatives.

This week's results (a vote for legalization had been predicted in Oregon but not in Alaska) generated opposite reactions from advocates on each side of the issue.

“Oregon proved that Colorado and Washington were no flukes,” Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann said in a news release. “These victories are even more notable for having happened in a year when Democrats were trounced at the polls. Reform of marijuana and criminal justice policies is no longer just a liberal cause but a conservative and bipartisan one as well.”

Yet opponents of legalization saw this week's outcomes, including approval of a legalization measure in the District of Columbia, as more of an indication of a stronger lobbying effort by supporters, an effort they vow to counteract in the next election cycle.

Citing the defeat of a medical marijuana initiative in Florida (which had majority support but fell short of the 60% threshold needed for passage in that state), Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) president Kevin Sabet said in a statement, “What we've seen is that the more people hear details about legalization—whether it is details of specific laws or details of experiences in Colorado or Washington—the more they are turned off from legalization.”

Ben Cort, a treatment field leader and opponent of legalization who led the advocacy effort against Colorado's 2012 measure, adds, “While it's sad to see what happened in DC, Oregon and Alaska, it's not at all surprising. Millions of dollars were poured into the 'yes' campaigns by the marijuana lobby and industry, and money moves the needle.” Cort says pro-legalization forces outspent opponents by around a 10-to-1 margin in Alaska and about a 20-to-1 ratio in Oregon.

“As we move forward in this new reality, we all need to pay attention to the details,” says Cort. “What is promised isn't what is delivered with this industry.” Opponents of legalization have cited expanded access to marijuana products among youths as one of several negative byproducts of the approved measures in Colorado and Washington, even though underage use remains illegal in the states.

While the newly approved measures in Oregon and Alaska mirror the regulation- and taxation-focused approaches of Colorado and Washington, the legalization measure in Washington, D.C., was promoted as a strategy for ending racial imbalances in enforcement of marijuana laws. That measure's future remains in doubt because Congress in the coming weeks will determine whether it will go on the books.

On two closely watched ballot items in California, voters approved a measure to reclassify simple drug possession and several other nonviolent offenses as misdemeanors rather than felonies, while rejecting a move to lift a cap on medical negligence damages in lawsuits—which if passed also would have initiated random drug testing of physicians in the state.

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