Marijuana advocates optimistic about legalization measures

Initiatives on ballots in Oregon, Alaska, D.C.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia could join the ranks of Colorado and Washington on Tuesday as places in the U.S. where marijuana is legalized.

While it’s not a shoo-in that all three ballot initiatives will pass, polls are showing voters are leaning towards favoring legalization.

Washington, D.C., leads the group with the highest chance of passage. Many are calling the district a lock, with polls giving it a 2 to 1 likelihood of passing. The measure, Initiative 71, has faced little opposition throughout the political season.

Passage of D.C.’s decriminalization measure would remove any penalty in the city for possessing small amounts of marijuana or giving the drug to others. Earlier this year, D.C.’s city council lowered penalties for the possession of small quantities of cannabis to an infraction with a fine of $25.

If Initiative 71 passes, the D.C. city council would next have the job of creating a regulatory and tax system.

In Oregon and Alaska, the fight for legalization remains a lot closer. Polls for Oregon’s Ballot Measure 91 currently show a pretty split electorate. A recent survey by Elway Research for The Oregonian newspaper found 46 percent of respondents opposed the measure, while 44 percent backed it. Another poll by SurveyUSA showed pro-marijuana advocates leading by a margin of 52 percent to 41 percent.

In Alaska, polls are just as divided. Two recent ones conducted by separate interest groups show the electorate moving in opposite directions. One poll found that 53 percent of Alaskans would vote no on Measure 2 while the other said 57 percent were poised to vote for it.

“I’m guessing based on the ideology of the state, Oregon is more likely to pass. But it’s not to underestimate Alaska’s Independent and Libertarian streak,” said John Hudak, a governance fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Marijuana advocates said a tight race in Oregon and Alaska was to be expected.

“We always really thought these would be close votes, particularly because of the political climate in the midterms which always veers more conservative and older," said Erik Alteri of The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “We knew the demographic make up would work against us. We always knew that it would be a bit tougher of a fight than in the Colorado and Washington in 2010.”

In Florida, efforts to legalize medical marijuana are hitting a roadblock. Under Amendment 2, doctors could offer marijuana to patients with debilitating conditions and allow licensed dispensaries to sell the drug.

But passage is looking increasingly unlikely. Constitutional amendments in the state must generate at least 60 percent of the vote for passage. While legalization is polling over the 50 percent mark, it’s looking slim that there will be enough votes to push it over 60.

One reason for marijuana advocates to be hopeful, however, is that polling in the Sunshine state paints a hazy picture of voters’ moods. Over the course of the past two weeks, numbers have been all over the place.

A poll commissioned by the Tampa Bay Times released Oct. 15 found the amendment in deep water with only 48 of respondents saying they would support the measure.

A Survey USA poll conducted in early October found that support for the measure had dropped week over week decreasing from 56 percent to 51 percent. But a poll by the University of North Florida was a bit more optimistic, showing 67 percent of respondents backing Amendment 2.

A recent influx of outsider spending against the initiative also has played a large factor. Vegas Casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson reportedly donated close to $5 million to Drug Free Florida, the main opposition group to Amendment 2. Much of the argument against the amendment is that, while it’s for medical legalization, it’s a backdoor to a broader legalization bill.

“Florida is definitely going to be the biggest challenge,” said Alteri of The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “We are seeing a fight in Florida unlike other states. Florida combined with that opposition and the 60 percent threshold it will be a very uphill battle… It’s really anyone’s guess and it’s going to be all about the turn out.”

The legalization ballots in other states have not generated much outside influence, and the donations that were raised have been largely pro-legalization.

“Opposition is not nearly as organized or as passionate as the pro-legalization movement,” said Hudak of Brookings. “There is opposition from some law enforcement communities and organizations more oriented towards social conservativism like the Mormon Church. But in general it’s a much more scattered movement than the pro legalization crowd.”

As reported by the New York Times, liberals and libertarians are both supporting legalization efforts and pouring money behind those efforts. In Alaska for instance, the pro legalization movement is outspending its foes 12 to 1.

Although it would be a surprise if all four states passed their legalization measures, advocates for the movement say turnout numbers have already surpassed their expectations. They add that any states that adopt legalization will only aid in pushing more to follow suit in 2016.

Looking to 2016, pro-marijuana groups already have their eyes set on California, Massachusetts and Maine, and also plan to revisit those states that are not successful on Tuesday.

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