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Mixed prospects for next week's marijuana ballot initiatives

October 29, 2014
by Alison Knopf, Contributing Writer
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Next week's mid-term election ballots across the country include three initiatives to legalize marijuana for recreational use by adults. In Oregon and Alaska, ballot measures are modeled on the regulation- and taxation-focused laws of Colorado and Washington, the first two states to legalize adult recreational use of marijuana. In Washington, D.C., the focus is on the oft-cited problem of racial injustice, as data show that young men of color are targeted for marijuana arrests even though they use less marijuana than young whites.

Alaska and Oregon each were among the first states to legalize medical marijuana, in 1998. In Oregon, Measure 91 is seen in recent polls as winning by a wide margin, especially if young voter turnout is strong. More than $2.4 million in support of the initiative came from the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which has long advocated decriminalization/legalization measures.

In Alaska, Amendment 2 is modeled on Amendment 64 in Colorado, and has many parallels to this year's proposal in Oregon. Under the Alaska Constitution, possession and cultivation of personal-use amounts of marijuana have been legal for more than 40 years. Polls have suggested that Alaska's initiative will not win voters' support.

But Alaska is “impossible to read” in terms of polls, says Stephen Gutwillig, deputy executive director for programs at the DPA, the nation's most prominent organization working to promote alternatives to what is widely seen as a failed war on drugs. “Even the professional polls get it wildly wrong in high-profile Senate and gubernatorial races,” Gutwillig says. “So the polls coming in are divergent.”

Alaska newspaper opposes

An editorial published Oct. 27 in the Alaska Dispatch News offered four reasons to vote against the initiative, summing up the main criticism of legalization in other venues:

1) Distrust of “Big Marijuana” commercial interests. The details of legalization will be worked out in rulemaking, and it’s likely to determine whether there will be “a booming new retail business or a few discreet shops”—the editorial states that the former is more likely, and suggests to “keep a sharp eye out for Joe Camel dressed in hemp.”

2) Let other states be the guinea pigs. Wait to see what happens in Colorado and Washington, in terms of social , medical, public health and public safety ramifications.

3) Revenue doesn't offer a good argument. The “decision shouldn’t be made on the basis of shoring up the state treasury, but on the basis of a common good that runs deeper than taxes,” the editorial reads.

4) Who cares? Is marijuana that important, compared to other issues such as the minimum wage? “If the family of a dying loved one passes a joint around the deathbed, don’t call the police,” the editorial states. “But is it wise public policy to legalize—and in effect promote—another powerful intoxicant, and to do so without knowing the full consequences? No.”

Common ground?

People on both sides of this policy issue agree that there needs to be a more effective way to “control” marijuana than by arresting and incarcerating users. Even the DPA wants to focus on “how to educate people about the overall harms, reduce overall consumption by young people, and getting young people to delay experimentation,” says Gutwillig.

However, where paths split is that the DPA and other drug law reform groups believe that licensing of marijuana distribution outlets offers an effective tool for youth prevention, Gutwillig explains, because this would reduce the amount of marijuana that is accessible to young people. Yet legalization opponents, including some in the treatment community in Colorado and Washington, say legalization leads to more widespread legitimization of the drug and greater access for youth because of a lack of effective controls on distribution.

The DPA understands that there is general distrust of “Big Marijuana,” that the cannabis industry will be driven by greed and profit and is comparable to where the tobacco industry was 40 years ago. “The whole question of the scale of the industry is completely understandable, and many of us are concerned about what the new industry will be like,” says Gutwillig. “But those are questions that are left up to the local regulatory agencies and communities.” That’s why the ballot initiatives are “responsive to those community concerns, instead of legislating preemptively or inflexibly,” he says.

For example, in Colorado, where marijuana edibles have led to overdoses and adverse effects due to unknown concentrations, there has been a “conversation about how to do a better job of packaging and labeling marijuana-infused products,” Gutwillig says.

“Colorado had a robust medical marijuana industry that now includes a robust recreational industry; that industry has been very responsible,” he says. Colorado's law was not specific about issues such as product labeling; this is an area that other states are concerned about, and what individuals in those states mean when they say “let’s see what happens in Colorado first,” Gutwillig says.

Gutwillig also is sensitive to the idea that perception of risk goes down as legalization emerges, which may lead to increased use. However, he believes that the “messaging” of regulation can counteract that. The overall message that regulation sends is that “marijuana is for adults, and is also sometimes for very sick people,” he says.

Decriminalization, legalization in D.C.