Weed Won the Midterms

In a blow to prohibitionists, Oregon and Alaska became the third and fourth states to fully legalize weed Tuesday. Voters in Washington, D.C., also approved a sweeping measure to legalize the drug.

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Nov 5 2014, 4:28pm

Democrats may have gotten crushed in the midterm elections last night, but there was one bright spot for progressives, or at least a concession prize to numb the pain: Legal weed. Oregon and Alaska became the third and fourth states to fully legalize marijuana, and Washington, D.C. followed suit, passing a measure that allows people to possess up to two ounces of pot, although sales are still illegal.

With full legalization now a reality in four US states and the capitol, voters made it even harder for the federal government to crack down on state drug laws, sending a message that Americans-even the older, whiter ones who vote in midterm elections-are ready for drug policy reforms.

"The results are particularly encouraging since voter turnout during a midterm election is typically smaller, older, and more conservative. Clearly, support for ending marijuana prohibition spans the political and ideological spectrums," Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement.

Joining Washington and Colorado in states with full legal access to recreational marijuana, Oregon and Alaska will legalize recreational marijuana for adults twenty-one-years and older, and establish commercial regulatory systems for the production, sale, and taxation of weed. Meanwhile, the Washington D.C., initiative legalizes personalize growth and possession but not a legal market, although the D.C. City Council is already considering new laws that would regulate commercial sales. Because the city doesn't have control over its own budget, though, the laws are subject to review by Congress, which means federal drug warriors could still get in the way.

"This Election Day was an extraordinary one for the marijuana and criminal justice reform movements," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Oregon proved that Colorado and Washington were no flukes. Washington, D.C. voters sent a powerful message to Congress that federal marijuana prohibition has no place in the nation's capital."

Drug reformers were also victorious in Maine, where South Portland became the second East Coast city to legalize marijuana, and in New Mexico, where Santa Fe and Bernalillo counties voted overwhelmingly in favor of decriminalizing marijuana. Voters in six Michigan counties also approved decriminalization measures (similar proposals were voted down in two other counties). Several key criminal justice reforms also passed on Tuesday, with California voters approving a law to downgrade low-level, nonviolent offenses, including drug possession, to misdemeanors; and New Jersey voting to reform its bail system to keep more people out of jail. On top of that, Guam became the first US territory to legalize marijuana for medical purposes.

Even in Florida, where voters narrowly defeated a constitutional amendment to legalize medical weed, drug reformers were heartened by the results. Despite a well-funded opposition campaign, 58 percent of voters supported the initiative, falling just shy of the 60 percent threshold needed to pass a constitutional amendment.

"A tremendous majority of Floridians voted to legalize marijuana for medical purposes today - and that's what really matters notwithstanding the fact that the initiative will not be implemented," Nadelmann said Tuesday night. "Today's vote is a confirmation of medical marijuana's broad support across the political spectrum and sends a powerful message not just to Florida legislators but also throughout the South and even nationally."

Legalization supporters pointed to the strange politics surrounding Florida's marijuana vote as a reason for the defeat, noting the powerful opposition campaign funded by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, but also criticizing the pro-legalization movement for relying to heavily on its primary advocate and bankroller John Morgan, a Democratic superdonor. "Next time medical marijuana is on the ballot, organizers should put patients and medical professionals at the forefront of the campaign rather than relying on a well-meaning but much less sympathetic political donor as the chief spokesperson," said Marijuana Majority chairman Tom Angell.

The victories in Alaska and Oregon come after years, if not decades, of organizing around the legalization issue. Both states were pioneers in legalizing marijuana for medical uses, but failed to pass full legalization in previous years. The success this year reflects both the momentum of movement, as well as the political maturation of campaigns for legalization.

"To bring home wins for legal marijuana with such differing campaign approaches bodes well for our movement's efforts leading into 2016," Angell said. "The Oregon campaign focused much more on reaching undecided voters with arguments about why legalization is good policy without necessarily trying to change their minds about marijuana itself," whereas "the Alaska campaign, in contrast, seems to have focused quite a bit on actually trying to get people to like marijuana by fronting arguments about its safety relative to alcohol."

Angell said the Oregon technique is typically more effective, but added that success in both states speaks to the necessity of using diverse strategies to campaign for legalization. "I've personally found that it's much easier to help people understand that legalizing marijuana is the better policy option even if they hate marijuana than it is to get someone to think marijuana is safe when they previously thought it was dangerous."

After Tuesday's results, it seems all but guaranteed that more states will pursue full legalization, making it even more difficult for federal law enforcement to crack down on pot in places where it is legal. Already, efforts are underway to get full legalization on the ballot in California, Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada and Arizona. And while it might be poor consolation for Democrats after Tuesday's routing, the successes of the marijuana movement will likely be much harder to turn back than any temporary power shifts in Washington.

"Proposals to regulate marijuana like alcohol are headed for the ballots in at least five states in 2016, and they're being considered in legislatures around the country, said Kampia. "This year's election was a large step forward, but the 2016 election will be a huge leap toward ending marijuana prohibition in this country once and for all."

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