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Josiah M. Hesse Josiah M. Hesse

If Legal Pot Wins in Midterms, It’s No Thanks to the Democratic Party


Ballot initiatives in Florida, Alaska and Oregon are still too close to call. The absence of Democratic support sure hasn't helped the well-organized movement's cause—and it may help cause the Dem's loss of the Senate tomorrow.

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Emboldened by the rollout of marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington state, an unprecedented number of US cities and states will put it to the voters tomorrow to decide whether they should follow suit and reform their own marijuana laws.

Most notably, both Alaska and Oregon have measures on the ballot to fully legalize recreational sale and possession of cannabis, while Florida is potentially set to be the first Southern state to legalize medical marijuana (MMJ). Even farther south, the US territory of Guam is aiming to pass a similar MMJ law, and municipalities in New Mexico, Maine and Michigan are all voting to make various reforms to their pot laws.

“Since 2012, weʼve started to see more and more support from different areas and demographics that weʼd been trying to get to work with us for years,” says Morgan Fox of the Marijuana Policy Project, a cannabis lobbying group. “I think a lot of state lawmakers have looked at the issue and began working on policy alternatives in their own states—and 2016 should see even more than this year.”

More generally, the midterm elections are expected to produce a Republican wavelet, with a last-minute New York Times analysis of the polls showing the GOP winning the requisite six seats to take control of the Senate even as the party increases its majority in the House.

Democrats have hoped that the marijuana ballot initiatives might galvanize younger, more progressive or more libertarian voters to help push the party’s candidates over the top.

While the voter turnout in midterms is typically lower and skews significantly whiter, older and wealthier than the turnout in presidential elections, there has been a well-founded hope among Democrats that the marijuana ballot initiatives might galvanize sufficient turnout among younger people, people of color and progressives to help push the Democratic candidates over the top.

Nowhere has that been more important than in Alaska, where a Democratic incumbent is battling against great odds to hold onto his seat. Similarly, in the Florida gubernatorial race, which has been tight for months, the MMJ initiative may encourage younger and more progressive voters to go to the polls, where they may elect a Democratic governor.

Florida: Thumb’s Up, but Up Enough?

The Marijuana Policy Project’s Fox says that even he was surprised to see medical marijuana being voted on in a Southern state. While New Mexico and Oklahoma failed to gather enough signatures to get their initiatives onto the ballot this year, Floridaʼs Amendment 2 has gone the distance against a heavily funded opposition. But it has one extra mountain to climb that most other states donʼt: a 60% approval rate because legalization requires a constitutional amendment.

This looked doable in July when a Quinnipiac poll showed that fully 88% of Florida voters approved of medical marijuana. In recent weeks, however, the Drug Free Florida Committee has been hammering controversial anti-2 TV ads into the Florida homes around the clock in an attempt to persuade moderate and undecideds to vote against the initiative. A whopping 85% of the groupʼs $5.8 million in funding has come from top GOP bankroller Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnet whose wife is an addiction specialist and operates the Adelson Clinic drug-rehab centers.

Following this barrage of ads, Tampa Bay Times/UF Bob Graham Center poll showed only 48% of likely voters approved of Amendment 2.

“Theyʼve outspent us ten to one over the last two weeks,” says Ben Pollara, executive director of United For Care, the main backers of 2. “Weʼve bled about as much as we can bleed, but weʼre going to hold the fort.” (According to the Washington Post, United for Care has raised a total of $7 million, 91% of it from in-state donors, compared to Drug Free Florida’s 15%.)

A poll by a Democratic firm done last week found that “yes on 2” votes had climbed back up to 59%—just 1% shy of the requisite 60%.

Beyond his longtime anti-drug stance, Adelson has a vested interest in destroying Amendment 2, as it has been endorsed by Florida gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, a former moderate Republican governor of the state who is now running as a Democrat. Other Democrats came out early in support of Amendment 2, and additional Democratic support comes from Sen. Bill Nelson, Rep. Alcee Hastings and Rep. Corrine Brown.

Republican Governor Rick Scott has opposed all efforts to reform drug laws, including those for marijuana for medicinal uses. But in June, he approved a bill providing select patients with a low-THC medical marijuana treatment, which is effective against only neuropathic pain and nausea. He remains opposed to Amendment 2, which would allow access to normal-to-high THC strains that are more effective for the vast majority of pain sufferers.

Although rates of pot use are comparatively low in Florida—only 6.65% of the state’s citizens admitted to having gotten high in the last month, according to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration—the state has a high proportion of senior citizens, who often support marijuana use for medical as opposed to recreational purposes.

A poll by a Democratic firm done last week found that “yes on 2” votes had climbed back up to 59%—just 1% shy of the requisite 60%. In last-minute polling of the Scott vs. Crist battle, the race remains a toss-up.

Oregon and Alaska: Too Close to Call

Youʼd think that in places like Alaska and Oregon—the number two and four, respectively, highest states in the nation, each with over 12% of their citizens regularly toking (more even than Washington and Colorado)—it might be smooth sailing for efforts to legalize. Oregon was actually the first state to “decriminalize” possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1973, followed by Alaska in 1975. The two states were also both pioneers of legalizing medical marijuana in 1998—though 16 years later Alaska has yet to put together a regulated market for the sale of medical cannabis

Oregon: Oregon’s race to become the third state to go fully legal is “a tossup,” says John Horvick of DHM Research, an independent research and polling firm. Measure 91 had a 52% approval rating in early October. A KGW/the Oregonian poll in late October saw a small flip-flop, with 44% for, 46% against.

“In our surveys we saw 70% of 18-to-34-year-old likely voters were planning to vote for it, so we see some big differences in age groups,” Horvick says. “But the age group of 18-to-34-year-olds is often less likely to turn out for an election if theyʼre not excited about it. And thereʼs the factor of independent voters—who approve the measure by 68%—but are also less likely to vote in a midterm election.”

Advocates are hoping that the exclusively vote-by-mail aspect of Oregonʼs election will encourage these key demographics to participate in the vote.

Pro-pot groups have outspent opponents to 91, $7.5 million vs. $168,000, respectively. Thirty-three of Oregon’s 36 District Attorneys have come out against Measure 91.

Measure 91 had a 52% approval rating in early October. A KGW/the Oregonian poll in late October saw a small flip-flop, with 44% for, 46% against.

In early September a Democratic lawmaker called for a federal investigation amidst accusations that federal funds were being used for the so-called Oregon Marijuana Education Tour, slated to travel the state in the weeks leading up to the election. These events feature some leading anti-legalization advocates like Kevin Sabet, and they focus only on the negative aspects of cannabis, although they donʼt mention Measure 91 by name. Critics say they are timed to sway voter opinion against the measure. The federal dollars have since been removed from the events, which are now funded privately.

“Our data says it’s going to be a close race—leaning toward yes. But it’s not a sure thing,” says DHM Research’s Horvick.

If Measure 91 wins, it is expected to embolden—and make fundraising easier—for a pro-legalization ballot initiative and possible victory in California in the 2016 elections.

Alaska: Alaska’s libertarian culture and red-state status are both a boost to, and a burden on, legalization. The state shares the Western ethic emphasizing personal freedom and keeping law enforcement out of private lifestyle choices. The state supreme court decision that originally decriminalized home possession in 1975 was based on the right to privacy; consequently, it did nothing to acknowledge sale, transport or possession of marijuana outside the home.

“There’s a lot of people, even here, who think marijuana is already legal in Alaska, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Taylor Bickford, a spokesman for the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol campaign in Alaska. “Since there’s no legal market to buy it, people are forced into the black market. We have a few thousand medical card holders, but they’re only legally allowed to grow it themselves.”

Ballot Measure 2, the pro-legalization initiative, is opposed by the Alaska Republican Party, including the state’s Republican governor and the mayor of Anchorage.

Two polls in October ended up with conflicting results: 43% pro vs. 53% anti, and 57% vs. 39% anti.

The measure has seen little official support. But a surprise event by a member of the media shook things up. Charlo Greene, a local television reporter, quit on-air after telling viewers that she owns the Alaska Cannabis Club and wanted to advocate for a measure 2 victory.

Two polls in October ended up with conflicting results: 43% pro vs. 53% anti, and 57% vs. 39% anti. The final tally may rest on how many smokers vote: Marijuana use among Alaskans 26 and older is more than twice the national rate, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

In a close race for control of the senate in this year’s election, a lot of attention has been paid to the race in Alaska between the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Mark Begich, and his Republican challenger Dan Sullivan. On Saturday, The New York Times had Begich losing to Sullivan, 33% to 67%, respectively. Begich has refused to take a side on his state’s pot measure.

Washington, DC: We Have a Winner

Of all the major legalization ballot initiatives, Washington, DC’s has the best chance of passing. Polls have consistently shown that voters favor Initiative 71 by a two-to-one ratio.

DC has been in a legal gray area ever since the district decriminalized marijuana earlier this year—bringing it down to a ticketable violation. If Initiative 71 passes, there will be no more tickets for pot possession, nor could police confiscate weed found on a person over 21 years of age carrying less than two ounces. But like in Alaska, the initiative does nothing to address the actual sale of marijuana, so even if it passes, dispensaries won’t be popping up in the nation’s capital for a while.

Polls have consistently shown that voters favor Initiative 71 by a two-to-one ratio.

“The DC ballot initiative process doesn’t allow voters to determine or set any taxation, so they aren’t allowed to address that issue through elections,” says Morgan Fox of the Marijuana Policy Project. “Whether or not the initiative passes, the district council is going to be addressing the need for regulated marijuana sales and licensing in the coming months, and will institute a system that will somewhat mimic Colorado’s.”

Legalization of marijuana will have a dramatic effect in DC on what advocates perceive as the racist application of anti-drug laws nationwide. DC not only has the nations’ highest-per-capita pot arrest rate but 91% of these arrests are of African Americans.

Pot and the Next President: Campaign 2016

Although the midterm elections are less than a day away, the pro-legalization ballot initiatives in Florida, Oregon and Alaska remain too close to call. Turnout will clearly be the deciding factor.

Victories could spark a domino effect for similar initiatives in other states. “At the moment itʼs looking like there will likely be ballot initiatives in 2016 to regulate and tax marijuana like alcohol in Nevada, Massachusetts, Arizona, California, Maine and possibly Montana,” says Fox. “And we might see other states pop up depending on how things move forward.”

Advocates like Fox are looking to hit the ground even harder, which is likely to bring the cause even more attention, support and financial backing—and raise the issue’s profile in the presidential campaigns, which begin to gear up the day after the midterms.

State and national Democratic Party leaders will be looking at the results of the 2014 votes as a test of the assumption that a ballot initiative legalizing marijuana or MMJ will increase voter turnout among voters likely to vote for Democratic candidates. What they find may inform their tactics in the 2016 elections, particularly whether or not to embrace legalization in order to energize pro-pot voters—a risk that the party has been almost entirely opposed to.

The Democratic Party leaders will be looking at the results tomorrow to inform their tactics in the 2016 elections about whether or not to embrace legalization—a risk that the party has been almost entirely opposed to.

Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, has already give signs of a shift. While running for president in 2008, Clinton said she was opposed to decriminalizing marijuana, and showed tepid support for medical marijuana. During a CNN interview earlier this year, however, she softened her approach to pot, not only showing more enthusiastic approval for MMJ but saying on the subject of Colorado and Washington stateʼs legalization, “States are the laboratory for democracy, and I want to wait and see” how it turns out.

The failure of any of the 2014 marijuana ballot measures could hinder the progress being made toward full federal legalization. In addition, there are always hidden land-mines in turning a once-criminal enterprise into a government regulated industry, as Colorado has seen in the negative attention to legalization as a result of edible marijuana products making it into the hands of children and the mentally unstable.

“There could always be some bad implementation, or some other public mistake, and that could make people think twice about voting yes in their own state,” Fox says. “But people are really starting to realize that prohibition of marijuana has been a failure, and theyʼre actively looking for alternative policies.”

For good or ill, a chapter in the history of marijuana reform will be written tomorrow. And no one is watching the issue more closely than the politicians, who must decide which side of this issue they want to be on in 2016.

Josiah M. Hesse is a Denver-based journalist who covers marijuana, politics, entertainment and pop culture. His work has appeared in Westword, Colorado Public Radio, Out Front Colorado and Vice magazine. His previous piece for Substance.com was about why America’s poorest toddlers are being overprescribed ADHD-related stimulants.