Three marijuana legalization initiatives were on the ballot this week, and all three won. That’s a better outcome than I was expecting. I was surprised when voters in Colorado and Washington approved legalization two years ago, and I was surprised again when voters in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., followed suit.
Partly that’s because, after 25 years of advocating drug legalization (along with various other unpopular positions), I am accustomed to losing. But it’s also because I had looked at the polling data. The victory in D.C. seemed like a pretty sure thing, given the legalization initiative’s 2-to-1 advantage in a September survey commissioned by The Washington Post. But the poll numbers were much closer in Oregon and Alaska.
There were other reasons for low expectations. I doubted that Oregonians and Alaskans would be eager to imitate Colorado and Washington so soon after the votes there, especially given that legal recreational sales began only this year in both states. And like the activists who are waiting until 2016 to push initiatives in states such as California and Massachusetts, I thought legalization would have a better shot in a presidential election year.
Judging from the ebullient reactions I saw on Twitter, I was not the only antiprohibitionist who was pleasantly surprised by Tuesday’s amazing cannabis trifecta. Yet anti-pot activist Kevin Sabet—who a week earlier had joked, in an interview with The New York Times, that “it looks bad; I want to be on the other team”—claimed “this was not the complete slam-dunk the legalization groups expected.” Later Sabet, co-founder and president of the prohibitionist group Project SAM, told the Associated Press, “I think we’ve slowed the legal-marijuana freight train.”
As you probably have figured out by now, I am not given to optimism about the prospects for drug policy reform. But Sabet’s spin seems delusional even to me. If the legalization train has slowed, that’s only because so many people are clamoring to get aboard. And if Sabet has failed to stop it, that’s because he unrealistically expects voters to be horrified at the very thought of a profit-driven cannabis industry.
Sabet cites the defeat of a medical marijuana initiative in Florida as evidence that he and his allies are having an impact on public opinion. Yet the Florida initiative, Amendment 2, was favored by 58 percent of voters in a pretty conservative state. Although that was two points short of the supermajority needed to approve a constitutional amendment, it is hard to see this result as a sign that support for prohibition is on the rise.
The picture looks even worse for Sabet and his allies when you consider the numbers from NBC’s exit polling in Florida, which show that Amendment 2 would have been approved if voting had been limited to residents younger than 65. The survey put support for medical marijuana at 79 percent among 18-to-29-year-olds, 65 percent among 30-to-44-year-olds, 60 percent among 45-to-64-year-olds, and 38 percent among voters 65 or older. That trend is consistent with other survey data showing that both experience with marijuana and openness to marijuana reform decline with age. Gallup’s numbers indicate that retirees are the only age group in which a majority still opposes legalizing marijuana for recreational use. As those folks die off, the outlook for prohibitionists like Sabet will be increasingly bleak.
Sabet also took solace from voter-approved bans on the production and sale of recreational marijuana in five Colorado cities. Yet the option of local bans probably improves the odds for legalization initiatives, since it reassures voters in cannabis-unfriendly communities who are put off by the prospect of a pot shop on the corner. Like Colorado’s Amendment 64, the initiatives approved on Tuesday in Alaska and Oregon explicitly provide for a local option. Washington’s initiative, I-502, did not, but Attorney General Bob Ferguson has said cities and counties are nevertheless free to ban marijuana stores and grow operations, which many have done. If anything, that kind of local control helps soothe voters’ fears about legalization.
By Jacob Sullum - Forbes/Nov. 6, 2014
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Marijuana Initiatives Outweigh Cannabis Commerce Fears in Recent Vote