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Election 2013: What takeaways from votes on marijuana taxes, GMO foods? (+video)

Coloradans voted Tuesday to slap big taxes on their state's budding recreational marijuana industry, and Washington State's voters said 'no' to labels for GMO foods. Some analysts see lessons as hot-button issues of legal pot and GMO labeling continue to simmer in other states.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / November 6, 2013

A cyclist rides past a car with a figurine of a soybean crossed with a fish on top of of it in front of a Whole Foods Market in downtown Seattle, on Election Day, Nov. 5. The vehicle was promoting a Yes vote on Initiative 522, which would require the labeling of food that contains genetically modified ingredients.

Ted S. Warren/AP

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Among the 31 ballot initiatives before voters on Tuesday, two outcomes in Western states – one to slap big taxes on Colorado's budding recreational marijuana industry, and another in Washington State to forgo special labels on foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – hold lessons for citizens considering similar measures in the future in other states, political analysts say.

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Coloradans, who voted last year to allow sales of marijuana for recreational use, this year handily approved a 15 percent excise tax plus a 10 percent sales tax on pot sales when they begin next year. The tax revenue, estimated to be $70 million a year, is earmarked for constructing schools and regulating pot sales.

Washingtonians, meanwhile, appear to have said "no" to a measure that would have required food manufacturers to disclose on labels whether their products contained genetically engineered ingredients. (Final vote tally was not public before this story went live, but the measure was trailing.) Initiative 522 touched off an intense battle by special-interest groups, in which 94 percent of the campaign spending came from out-of-state donors. A similar ballot initiative in California last year likewise failed.

Those two ballot issues, some analysts say, hint at a surge of interest in citizen-crafted ballot initiatives in the wake of voter frustration with their representatives, from statehouses to Congress.

“Both of these ballot measures signal how dramatic and consequential the ballot will be for politics in 2014,” says David McCuan, a professor of political science at Sonoma State University, in Rohnert Park. Calif. “If we look from state-level ballots to local ballots, we will see battles brewing over drugs and food that are a spillover from past battles that began just a few short cycles ago.”

He sees both votes as indicative of what lies ahead.

“First, the folks in favor of marijuana legalization smell a few critical victories wafting their way,” Mr. McCuan says. “It will only take a small chink in the armor of a law-enforcement organization that embraces some type of legalization effort that could grow the number of measures across the country seeking to tax dope as a way out of a fiscal crisis.”

He also foresees the spread of GMO-related food-labeling ballot measures, despite the back-to-back setbacks in California and Washington. Because of industry's demonstrated willingness to spend big bucks to fight such laws, he says, “we could see monumental spending clashes as recent labeling battles in Washington and California move on to other states with the initiative process, as well as local, county-level battles over the same issue.”

More than two dozen other states are considering labeling laws similar to the defeated Washington measure, as is the federal government.

GMO-labeling

Had voters approved Initiative 522, Washington would have been the first state in the US to require labeling of foods made with genetically altered crops, as well as the labeling of genetically engineered seeds and seed products sold in the state.

But the fact that voters rejected it is not likely to stem similar measures elsewhere going forward, some say.

“I can’t believe that Washington’s decision will affect the other states much,” says John Johannes, a political scientist at Villanova University. Even if it takes a bit of the wind out of the sails of the pro-labeling movement, “states differ so much that it is rare for one state's results to affect others, unless, of course, it’s a legal challenge and a court ruling.”

Opponents of the initiative, however, hailed the outcome. "This is a clear victory for Washington consumers, taxpayers and family farmers across our state," Dana Bieber, spokeswoman for No on 522, said in a statement. "Washington voters have soundly rejected this badly written and deceptive initiative.”

Supporters had argued that the measure would help consumers make informed shopping choices. But they were outspent 3-to-1 in the roughly $30 million campaign, Washington's most expensive ballot-initiative fight ever. 

Early polling showed voters favored the measure. But a barrage of TV and radio spots, financed by a food industry group and five biotechnology companies, shut the gap. Among the deep-pocketed opponents were Monsanto Co., DuPont Pioneer, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which collected millions in donations from some of America’s best-known food companies, including Nestle SA, General Mills Inc., Coca-Cola Co., and PepsiCo Inc.

Many of those companies mounted a reported $46 million defense to defeat a similar food-labeling measure in California last year, which failed 51.4  percent to 48.6 percent.

Villanova University political scientist Robert Langran expressed surprise at the Washington vote, which he suggests might have been affected by turnout more than anything else.

The state "is usually quite progressive, so I am surprised," he says. "But in an off-year election, most of the voters have an agenda item, and the opponents of labeling obviously showed up in greater numbers that the proponents of it.”

Marijuana taxes

A total 25 percent tax on the sales of recreational marijuana is undeniably a hefty surcharge. Denver, moreover, voted for an additional local sales tax that will drive the retail price of pot even higher. Some analysts say some buyers no doubt will keep shopping on the black market, to avoid paying the tax. But Coloradans were definitive in their support for the measure, voting roughly 65 percent to 35 percent in favor.

“Coloradoans voted in a sin tax, which often accompanies legal soft drug and inebriant use,” says Ben Agger, director of the Sociology Department's Center for Theory at the University of Texas, Arlington. “Prohibition was repealed during the Depression in part to reap the economic benefits of legal alcohol sales. Colorado shows yet again that weed and capitalism go hand in hand.”

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