DENVER, CO — After last weekend’s International Drug Reform Conference in Denver, a clear picture is emerging of which states are likely to be the first to follow Colorado and Washington down the path of marijuana legalization. And while some recent polls suggest the American public is getting ahead of even the leading marijuana reform honchos, well-laid plans already in place point to the possibility of a 2014 trifecta, with Oregon following Alaska to legalization through the initiative process and Rhode Island becoming the first state to legalize through the legislature.
While activists in a number of other states — including Arizona, California, and Wyoming — are already working on legalization initiatives for next year, reform leaders cautioned that 2016 remains a better prospect. But they also acknowledged that recent favorable shifts in public opinion, most notably last week’s Gallup poll showing an historic 58% in favor of legalization, could accelerate matters.
“We’ve been saying wait for 2016, but we seem to be changing our minds, at least a little,” said Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) executive director (and key funding conduit) Ethan Nadelmann.
“I keep getting surprised,” agreed Graham Boyd, counsel to Progressive Insurance founder Peter Lewis (and key funding conduit). “Activists in any number of states are saying they can win now, and we’re hearing this from multiple states, and polls in multiple states are also coming in much more favorable.”
While groups like DPA and the Marijuana Policy Project (another key funding conduit) have a game plan for the next few years that largely emphasizes 2016 for initiative states, the movement needs to be flexible enough to take advantage of emerging opportunities, Boyd warned.
“The main thing is growing public support. I think you can look at the list of 2016 states and argue that any of them could go in 2014,” he said. “If the public is ready in 2014 and something happens before 2016 and that lift tails off, we may find ourselves saying we missed the wave.”
Among those initiative states where the plan had been to wait for 2016 are Arizona, California, Maine, and Montana. In Arizona, a signature gathering campaign for 2014 is underway, but appears to be running up against the clock, while in California, two separate initiatives have been filed for 2014, but so far lack the access to big money required to actually make the ballot.
Major marijuana reform players in California led by the ACLU of California also recently attempted to set the stage for a 2016 initiative (and perhaps smother the 2014 efforts, some activists feel) with the formation of a blue ribbon panel to study policy issues around marijuana regulation, taxation and legalization. The panel would study and deliberate for the next two years, meaning their recommendations would not be ready by 2014.
“We put together a panel of experts headed up by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the highest-ranking official to come out in support of taxing and regulating marijuana,” explained ACLU of California criminal justice and drug policy director Allen Hopper. “We tried to bring together a group of experts who right now may not advocate for legalization — including doctors, an elected sheriff, and the California Society of Addiction Medicine — to begin to tackle some of the policy issues that need to be resolved in California. We haven’t asked people to write ballot language, but we have a range of folks who can talk to their communities. We support legalizing, but in terms of how we talk about it and how a ballot initiative campaign would be run, you have to meet the people where they are.”
While even the reform movement leaders concede that things could move faster than they think, the three surest bets for a legalization effort next year are Alaska, Oregon, and Rhode Island.
In Alaska, a tax and regulate marijuana initiative that would also allow adults to grow up to six plants has been certified and is now in the signature-gathering process. Proponents have until next June to gather 30,169 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot.
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