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Voters in four of five states say yes to recreational marijuana legalization

November 9, 2016
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Voters this Tuesday appeared to double the number of states approving the legalization of recreational marijuana use, with milestone affirmative votes happening on both coasts of the U.S. Despite what would seem to be a resounding call across the country for a new approach to regulating marijuana, the leader of the main national group that opposes legalization initiatives sought to sound an optimistic tone for his cause on the morning after Election Day.

“We won in Arizona,” says Kevin Sabet, co-founder of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), referring to the only state of five where voters appeared to reject a recreational marijuana initiative on Tuesday. “The overarching lesson is that if we could raise enough money early, we can win. Arizona was the only state where we were toe to toe with the yes side, and it's the only state we started early in. In every other state we were late and way outspent.”

By the end of Tuesday night, it was clear that legalization initiatives in California, Nevada and Massachusetts had comfortably won voter approval. California's vote clearly has the greatest potential impact on many fronts, particularly because California already rests at the nation's epicenter of marijuana growing and could be poised to become a significant supplier outside its borders. It is of course unclear whether the administration of President-Elect Donald Trump would support any change to the federal government's longstanding opposition to altering marijuana's legal status.

The Massachusetts vote also carries great significance because legalization no longer is only a Western state phenomenon (the first states to adopt legalization of recreational use were Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska). It also appeared by midday Wednesday that Maine will be joining Massachusetts, although the margin remained narrow there (less than one percentage point separating the yes and no votes) and thus the final outcome was still in question.

California's result was widely anticipated both at the state level and nationally, which is why some treatment advocates in the state decided early on to work with initiative proponents to ensure that funding for addiction treatment would be part of the ballot language that voters considered.

With California voters adopting the initiative and at least one Northeast state doing the same, it is widely believed that more states now will be at the ready to pursue the same approach in the next election cycle, or perhaps even directly through the legislative process.

Looking ahead

Sabet believes that even in the states where Project SAM's efforts did not sway a majority of voters against legalization, the organization's ability to identify partners at the local level will eventually pay dividends. He calls these newly identified resources “lifelong advisers and teammates for the future,” adding, “We will take these lessons forward.”

Sabet adds that $1 million has been raised for a new effort called the Marijuana Accountability Project, which he says will demand the type of data collection and analysis on legalization's effects that has been promised in the initial states but not sufficiently delivered. He says these efforts will focus in part on ensuring that “municipalities are empowered to ban [marijuana-selling retail] stores in their neighborhoods, and the industry pays for their damage.”

SAM honorary adviser Patrick Kennedy added in a statement, “It's disappointing that big marijuana and their millions of out-of-state dollars were able to win in many states tonight, but this is just the beginning of the story. We will continue to hold this industry accountable, and raise the serious public health and safety issues that will certainly come in the wake of legalization.”

It will be some time before much data is collected in the latest states to approve recreational use. Retail sales in Massachusetts are not expected to begin until 2018, for example. Tax rates on marijuana in Massachusetts and Maine are expected to be considerably lower than those used in Colorado and Washington.

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