As the dust settles following an election night that's surely left many political progressives with a nasty hangover this morning, those in the marijuana law reform movement actually have ample reason to rejoice.
Just two years after Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana, voters in Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, DC, have decisively followed suit — suggesting that America's seismic shift in favor of ending pot prohibition is gaining momentum. Even Guam got in on the act, becoming the first United States territory to approve medical marijuana.
Oregon's Measure 91, approved with 54.4 percent of the vote, legalizes possession of up to eight ounces of cannabis for all adults 21 and over, who can also grow up to four plants at home. The state will regulate the commercial cultivation, distribution, and retail sale of recreational marijuana, including collecting a $35 tax on every ounce of buds produced (a rate significantly lower than other legalization states). Non-commercial cultivation will not be taxed.
Measure 2 was approved with 52 percent support in Alaska, legalizing possession of up to one ounce of cannabis for adults 21 and over, who can also grow up to six plants at home. As in Oregon, it tasks the state government with creating and implementing an effective system to tax and regulate the commercial cultivation, distribution, and retail sale of recreational marijuana. The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board will assume oversight, but the new law allows the legislature to establish a Marijuana Control board, and stipulates that regulations must be enacted within nine months.
Voters in the District of Columbia approved Initiative 71 with 69.4 percent of the vote. It will legalize possession of up to two ounces of cannabis for all adults 21 and over, who can also grow up to six plants at home. The initiative doesn't specifically authorize commercial cultivation or sales of cannabis, but a majority of the DC Council supports such a system, and has vowed to pass legislation to that effect in the next few months.
Congressional oversight of DC's laws presents a potential snag, however. Congress has 30 days to undo any law written by the Council or approved by voters. That said, Congress allowed DC lawmakers to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana earlier this year after an amendment by Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) blocking district funding "to enact or carry out any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution" of controlled substances was dropped — but Harris is expected to reintroduce the amendment following Initiative 71's victory.
Even the night's lone defeat at the statewide level looks something like a triumph, when you consider that roughly 58 percent of Florida's electorate endorsed medical marijuana. But Florida requires a 60 percent majority to pass a ballot initiative, so while the tally looks impressive and the mandate for reform is crystal clear, cancer patients in the Sunshine State remain subject to arrest for the foreseeable future if they use cannabis to get through a chemo treatment.
John Morgan, the failed amendment's primary financial backer and a leading Florida powerbroker, has vowed to try again in 2016, when the younger, more socially liberal demographics of a presidential election year could yield a more favorable result. Given last night's impressive showing for marijuana at the ballot box, the revived amendment will likely be joined by up to a dozen other legalization and medical cannabis initiatives nationwide.
In fact, many within the marijuana movement believe that legalization might become a sleeper issue in the next presidential race, particularly if it is championed by viable insurgent candidates from outside the traditional political power structure — like Kentucky's libertarian-leaning Senator Rand Paul on the right, or Vermont's socialist-leaning Senator Bernie Sanders on the left, both of whom have sponsored legislation to prohibit the federal government from targeting medical marijuana patients and providers acting in compliance with state law.
According to the National Journal, which identifies Paul as "the most pro-reform Republican 2016 contender on the issue of marijuana," he is already "carving out marijuana policy as an area of leadership" in advance of his presidential run.
Sanders has also suggested that he may run for president, and appeared open to making the issue part of a campaign in an interview with Time magazine in March.
Marijuana "has a lot of political support from young people especially," he noted. "Colorado led the way. Other states I expect will follow. I have supported the increased use of marijuana for medical purposes, and I can tell you when I was Mayor of the City of Burlington, which includes the University of Vermont, I don't recall that anybody was arrested for marijuana use. And I have real concerns about implications of the war on drugs."
Meanwhile, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic frontrunner, has managed to spend the last six years under public scrutiny without substantially addressing marijuana policy — but that luxury won't last much longer. CNN recently assessed her uncertain position on marijuana — advocating a "wait and see" stance on state legalization, then labeling cannabis a "gateway drug" — and wondered whether she's capable of staking out a coherent view in time for the election.
"I'm a big believer in acquiring evidence, and I think we should see what kind of results we get, both from medical marijuana and from recreational marijuana, before we make any far-reaching conclusions," Clinton remarked to KPCC radio in July. "We need more studies. We need more evidence. And then we can proceed."
A cynical observer might conclude that the evidence she is waiting on has little to do with the long proven medical properties of cannabis or how the plant's legalization has so far affected public safety and quality of life in Colorado and Washington State, and everything to do with the direction of the political winds come 2016.
The good news is that it's hard to imagine her or any other savvy national politician failing to get the message loud and clear that a large and growing majority is fed up with 800,000 marijuana arrests every year and wants to see weed sold, taxed, and regulated in a manner similar to alcohol. In advance of the next election, voters may soon see smart candidates on both sides of the aisle begin paddling out ahead of this green wave.
Follow David Bienenstock on Twitter: @pot_handbook
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