Marijuana advocates to bring legalization battle to 2016 California ballot

On Wednesday, the Marijuana Policy Project filed paperwork with the state of California to put a legalization initiative on the 2016 ballot. Greater numbers of young voters turn out for presidential elections – and tend to favor legalizing marijuana.

Paul Sakuma/AP/FILE
California voters in 2010 defeated Proposition 19, which would have legalized certain low-level marijuana-related activities. In this file photo, supporters rally on the University of California, Berkeley campus in 2010. The question of legalization is headed for the state ballot again in 2016.

On Wednesday, the nation’s largest marijuana advocacy group, the Marijuana Policy Project, filed paperwork with the state of California to put a legalization initiative on the 2016 ballot. 

This follows a similar move in Arizona this week, adding to the growing number of states being targeted for a 2016 vote on recreational marijuana use. Supporters in Nevada announced a 2016 ballot target back in April.

Experts say this strategy is a focused effort to take advantage of higher voter turnout in presidential elections – in particular younger voters, who tend to support marijuana legalization efforts.

The big question a couple of years ago was whether advocates would aim for November 2014 or November 2016, says Rob MacCoun, a Stanford University law professor who has studied the social impact of drug laws around the globe. 

The political case for 2016 – that the presidential election will bring more young voters to the polls – is particularly true if Hillary Clinton is on the ballot, he notes. 

Advocates have had to weigh this against the potential downside of more than two years of on-the-ground experience in states that already have legalized recreational marijuana use.

“The risk is that by 2016, we will know more about the consequences of legalization in Colorado and Washington, so the debate will shift from abstractions to actual outcomes,” he says. 

Supporters run the very real risk that egregious events linked to marijuana use could sour public attitudes toward more widespread legal use.

The strategy of skipping the 2014 elections also means that legalization advocates run the risk of losing momentum, says Professor MacCoun. Right now, the polls suggest that Californians favor legalization by a small margin, he says.

“Opinions may be soft, and propositions tend to lose support as we approach Election Day,” he says.

On the other hand, he points out that every passing year brings more and more members of a generation that grew up around more casual attitudes toward marijuana use, as children of baby boomers become eligible to vote.

In every election, “a greater share of eligible voters come from birth cohorts with plenty of marijuana experience, and they tend to favor legalization,” he adds. 

Activists maintain that California will help tip the balance for their cause. 

“As the nation's largest state, California has been a national trendsetter in cannabis going back to 1972, when the world's first-ever marijuana initiative appeared on our ballot,” says Dale Gieringer from the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

“In 1996, we approved the first-ever medical marijuana law, which has since been copied by 23 states,” he says via e-mail.  

During the 2014 election, voters in two states, Oregon and Alaska, will vote on whether to legalize recreational marijuana use, while the District of Columbia and more than a dozen Michigan cities will vote on measures that would decriminalize possession.

Paul Armentano, deputy director for NORML, says, if those measures pass, it could give the issue momentum heading into 2016. 

“We expect that voters in various states in 2014 and again in 2016 will elect to replace America’s failed and unpopular policy of pot prohibition,” he said via e-mail.

However, not all of recent history is on their side. In 2010, California voters defeated Proposition 19, which would have legalized certain low-level marijuana-related activities. And the prevailing political winds from Sacramento are running counter to legalization. Gov. Jerry Brown, for one, does not support legalization.

As Governor Brown asked one interviewer recently, “How many people can get stoned and still have a great state or a great nation?”

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