3 states to hold referendums on weed legalization for recreational and medical use
Even in the Trump era, America’s green rush continues apace.
Three states — Michigan, Utah and Oklahoma — will hold referendums in 2018 on the legalization of marijuana for recreational and medical use, continuing a nationwide trend of acceptance of the drug.
Over the past decade, American support for marijuana legalization has steadily increased. Recent polling shows that the percentage of U.S. adults who support its legalization is now nearly twice what it was in 2000.
In a January poll, the Pew Research Center found that roughly six in 10 Americans (61 percent) think cannabis should be legalized for recreational use by adults. Nearly two decades ago, only 31 percent of Americans supported making recreational weed legal. With this change of perspective came a series of changes to state laws. Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use in 2012; seven states and Washington, D.C., followed their lead. In addition, marijuana has also been legally approved for medicinal use in 29 states, and it’s been decriminalized (though not legalized) in 13.
RELATED: Marijuana legalization laws by state
Earlier this year, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole memo — which effectively allowed states to determine their own cannabis laws — and directed all U.S. attorneys to enforce the marijuana laws enacted by Congress. But after pushback from Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., President Trump promised that he would stay true to his position on the campaign trail that marijuana should be a states’ rights issue and that the federal government would not interfere with Colorado’s marijuana industry. Gardner recently told Yahoo News that he’s working with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., on a bipartisan bill to reconcile the contradictions between state and federal law.
Support for legalization increases with each new generation. Though only 38 percent of participants from the Silent Generation (born between 1925 and 1945) favored legalization, growing majorities from each subsequent generational cohort surveyed did: 56 percent of baby boomers, 66 percent of Gen Xers and 70 percent of millennials.
Nevertheless, 2018 ballot initiatives for legalization are not fated for success. Most Republicans still oppose legalization (55 percent), and this is especially true among the party’s senior citizens (67 percent). Here’s where weed will be on the ballot this year.
The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol submitted more than 365,000 signatures to the state Elections Bureau in November 2017 to get a question about legal recreational marijuana on the November 2018 ballot.
If the initiative passes, it will be legal for all adults age 21 and older to possess and consume the drug. It would also enable businesses to get licenses to cultivate and sell marijuana, legalize industrial hemp, establish marijuana testing and safety regulations, let local governments determine whether they want to let cannabis businesses in their community and impose a 10 percent excise tax on marijuana sold by retailers (in addition to the state’s 6 percent sales tax).
Of the additional tax revenue, 35 percent would go to roads, 35 percent to K-12 public schools, 15 percent to municipalities that allow marijuana businesses and 15 percent to counties that allow marijuana businesses.
The measure would not change the state’s laws regarding public consumption, driving under the influence or testing job applicants for marijuana use.
Josh Hovey, a spokesperson for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, thinks it’s a balanced approach that creates a licensing structure that follows some of the best practices from around the country. He argued that marijuana prohibition in Michigan and across the country failed and wasted law enforcement resources, leading to the unnecessary arrests of 20,000 people per year in Michigan.
“We’re proposing a strongly regulated system that would allow for personal freedom to possess and consume limited amounts of marijuana,” Hovey told Yahoo News. “We think the time has come. We feel we’re in a very strong position to get this done and create a really robust system for the state.”
Based on taxes generated in other states, as well as Michigan’s population (9.1 million) and medical marijuana market, Hovey estimates recreational marijuana could generate $100 million to $200 million every year in taxes that could go toward roads, schools and local governments, which he said are severely underfunded.
“While we don’t think this will solve all the state’s problems related to those funding issues, we think we can do a whole lot of good,” he said.
Although the state certified the ballot initiative, Michigan has a more complex process by which the legislature can enact a similar law before sending it to the voters. The Detroit News reports that some Republican legislators are considering legalizing marijuana before the November ballot because they fear the initiative would boost Democratic voter turnout. On April 19, Republican state Sen. Mike Shirkey said, “I think everybody in this chamber has thought about that strategy.” Sources recently told the Detroit Free Press that Michigan Republicans are working on a plan so that any preemptive legalization would be tied to a state income tax and make smaller amendments to the proposals.
The Utah Patients Coalition collected nearly 200,000 signatures from registered Utah voters to get a question about medical marijuana on the November ballot. The ballot initiative would establish a medical marijuana program so that patients battling cancer and other life-threatening conditions won’t need to break the law to alleviate their suffering.
The proposal would protect seriously ill patients from arrest and prosecution if they use medical marijuana according to their doctors’ recommendations, allow medical marijuana card holders to purchase up to two ounces of cannabis or 10 grams of cannabidiol or tetrahydrocannabinol over a 14-day period, and establish restrictions on where and how licensed marijuana dispensaries could operate.
D.J. Schanz, director of the Utah Patients Coalition, said this is perhaps the most conservatively written medical cannabis legislation in the country. There would be a strict list of conditions that would qualify a person for the program.
“I can’t read the tea leaves but feel there’s a great amount of public support for this. We look forward to debating the merits of this bill and the merits of no longer criminalizing patients in the public square in the upcoming months,” Schanz told Yahoo News.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came out publicly against the proposal, but polls show that a majority of Utahns — including a majority of Mormons — actually support it. The Mormon Church is among the state’s largest employers and Mormons are the state’s largest religious demographic.
“We feel that Utahns are independent thinkers, and are able to think outside what the government affairs and public relations departments of the church say,” Schanz said. “The church is on the wrong side of history on this. These medical decisions are best left between a doctor and a patient.”
Previous attempts to legalize medical marijuana in Utah have been unsuccessful. In 2016, the Medical Cannabis Act, which would have legalized cannabis for nine specific medical conditions, including AIDS chronic pain and PTSD, passed the state Senate but was defeated in the House.
Oklahoma voters will weigh in on Question 788, which seeks to establish a medical marijuana program on their midterm election ballot on June 26.
If it’s successful, anyone with a medical marijuana license would be able to legally consume marijuana and possess six mature marijuana plants, six seedling plants, one ounce of concentrated marijuana, 72 ounces of edible marijuana and up to eight ounces of marijuana at home.
Frank Grove, the chair of Vote Yes on 788 PAC and the president of the Drug Policy Reform Network of Oklahoma, said it looks like the measure will pass, and even the opposition has estimated it would cost $10 million to defeat it.
“We remain confident that it will pass,” Grove told Yahoo News. “We’ve been working on this issue a long time. In the past five years, things have really picked up here in Oklahoma. This was the third initiative petition we engaged in. It took a major grassroots effort across the state.”
According to Grove, Question 788 was unique because it has no corporate backing and all of the donors who support it are “regular Oklahomans putting their own money forward.”
Republican Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin announced in January that Oklahomans would decide Question 788 during the primary election in June rather than the general election in November.
“Backers of this proposal to legalize medical marijuana followed procedures and gathered the more than 66,000 required signatures to submit the issue to a vote of the people,” Fallin said at the time. “I’m fulfilling my duty as governor to decide when that election will occur this year.”
Grove noted there’s usually a 5 to 10 percent increase in voter turnout when there’s a marijuana question on the ballot. He said Fallin likely picked June because she doesn’t want more liberals drawn to the polls during the general election.
“I believe that what they’re considering is that there’s going to be a big voter backlash here in Oklahoma,” Grove continued. “There’s a lot of discontent due to the other policies the leadership has enacted. Really, it’s a matter of protecting their own position at the polls.”
Grove thinks Oklahoma’s decision on Question 788 will be significant nationally because it’s one of the few states with the initiative-petition process. Other states, like Texas, he said, are looking to Oklahoma to see what it might face in the future.
“I believe If Oklahoma and Texas end prohibition federally, it can no longer hold. So Oklahoma could very well be the tipping point for the national opinion on medical marijuana,” he said.
Under federal law, marijuana is still one of the most strictly prohibited drugs in the country. The Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration classify it as a Schedule I substance — the same category as heroin. The Controlled Substances Act defines a Schedule I drug as not being safe for use under medical supervision, not having an accepted use in medical treatment and having a high potential for abuse.
There’s a catch-22 here: This federal classification makes it hard to conduct the extensive clinical trials needed to demonstrate its medical value to the government’s standards to have it reclassified.
Support and opposition
Morgan Fox, a spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit dedicated to marijuana policy reform, said these initiatives are important because they could result in thousands of fewer arrests annually for “a substance that is safer than alcohol and shown to have numerous medical benefits.”
“Their success will not only provide adults with a less harmful alternative and provide relief for seriously ill patients, but also help increase the political momentum that has been building up over the last few years and provide even more examples of how implementation and regulation can work,” Fox told Yahoo News.
He also said this election presents the opportunity to see how marijuana policy initiatives can impact state and local races. “Mainstream establishment politicians are starting to pay closer attention to this, which is a clear sign that the issue is being taken seriously and that support for marijuana policy reform is broad and strong,” Fox said.
A survey published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2013 found that 76 percent of doctors would approve the use of medical marijuana.
Political action committees, such as Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana (CALM), think the “normalization, expanded use and increased availability of marijuana” will be detrimental to public health and safety. CALM insists that the Federal Controlled Substances Act should be enforced over state laws — barring the cultivation, processing and transportation of the plant. On its website, the group “calls upon the state legislature, county governments and local municipalities to work within current federal law and to join with federal agencies to stop the spread of marijuana distribution and use. We encourage all citizens to join in this effort.”
While CALM takes a traditional anti-pot approach, the nonprofit Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) opposes marijuana legalization while acknowledging that the “war on drugs” has been ineffective and that limited resources should not go toward incarcerating nonviolent drug users. SAM is the primary donor to Healthy and Productive Michigan, a registered committee opposing the Michigan ballot initiative.
Kevin Sabet, the president of SAM, fears that commercialization of marijuana will create another Big Tobacco-type industry that puts private profit over public health.
“The marijuana industry has an incentive to put these on the ballot because if they pass, they make money. The opposition doesn’t have a financial incentive other than thinking this is the right thing to do,” Sabet told Yahoo News.
Sabet said marijuana arrests can have dire consequences for somebody who is trying to get a job, an education, housing, health care and so on. SAM supports decriminalizing pot, expunging previous marijuana convictions and not giving nonviolent pot smokers criminal records — but not legalization and commercialization.
Sabet compared today’s marijuana industry to the tobacco industry a century ago. He said the pot industry funds its own doctors, legislators and multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns.
“The marijuana industry is all about making money, like any industry is, and to make money in this industry you have to say your product is safe, that you’re never going to target kids — and you have to lie, because the only way to make money is to get heavy users,” he said.
When asked why SAM doesn’t support prohibiting alcohol, Sabet said there’s a cultural distinction between alcohol and marijuana, for better or worse. He said alcohol has been used by a majority of the West since ancient Greece, while marijuana has been used by a minority of the population. Nevertheless, he sees the harm of legalized alcohol and tobacco as a warning sign. “We don’t want another legal drug,” he said.
“Our legal drugs, including alcohol, are more harmful than all illegal drugs combined, from a public health perspective. They kill 10 times as many people as the opioid epidemic. Think about that,” Sabet said. “It’s not because tobacco is more harmful than heroin. It’s because so many more people use tobacco and alcohol because it’s been normalized and promoted by an industry.”
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