The legal weed business is already up and running in Colorado, and Washington is expected to have its pot market operational by June.
Will more states legalize the drug in 2014?
A midterm election year isn’t the optimal time to pass a marijuana law — a presidential election would be better, since they tend to attract younger voters who are more likely to back legal weed. But activists are banking on momentum within the movement to advance their cause.
Here’s a quick look at the states where activists are working to take the drug mainstream this year:
The Big Win: Oregon
Both Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana by ballot initiative in November 2012, but a simultaneous initiative in Oregon failed.
However, the push in Oregon that year was never on equal footing with the other two legalization efforts. In October 2012, the activists campaigning for legal pot in Oregon had raised a total of $32,000 compared with $4 million in Washington and $830,000 in Colorado.*
The measure itself was also overly broad. The 2012 Oregon Cannabis Tax Act allowed an unlimited amount of personal possession and cultivation, while Colorado and Washington both spelled out clear limits.
Legalization backers are trying to correct those flaws this time around. Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), a national pro-legalization group, told Fusion that he’s “modestly confident about the funding” at the moment.
A new ballot initiative also presents a more regulated program, restricting personal cultivation to 24 plants and possession to 24 ounces.
The Gimme: Alaska
OK, Colorado, Washington, Oregon — we get it. But Alaska?
Turns out Alaska has a long reputation for openness toward cannabis.
First, medical marijuana is already legal there. In addition, an Alaska court ruled in 1975 that the state constitution protects citizen’s rights to possess small amounts of marijuana at home. A 2006 anti-marijuana law countered that ruling, but there haven’t been enough prosecutions for state courts to revisit the issue.
The dominant political culture in Alaska makes a difference, as well, according to Mason Tvert, communications director for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).
“It’s also a state with a libertarian streak and people there are not interested in the government coming into their homes and telling them that they’re not allowed to use a substance less harmful than alcohol,” he said.
Activists say they’ve collected enough signatures to get a legalization initiative on the ballot in 2014.
And unlike other states, Alaska’s ballot initiatives occur during primary elections, not during that general election.
Why does that matter? The difference in primary voter turnout between a midterm election year and a presidential election isn’t as dramatic as in a general election, so that makes 2014 worth the effort, according to Tvert.
The Longshot: California
California was the first state to approve medical marijuana back in 1996, and it’s also home to a place called San Francisco.
So why is legal weed in 2014 a long shot there?
The main reason: it’s a big state with a huge media market. That means any kind of legalization campaign will be an expensive undertaking. And since the odds of passing a measure will be better in a 2016, a presidential election year, that makes a push for legalization now a gamble.
The Drug Policy Alliance is exploring the possibility of a campaign this year but “it’s totally up in the air right now,” according Ethan Nadelmann. The group may come to a decision about its strategy in the next five to six weeks, he said.
MPP’s Tvert thinks it’s best to look ahead.
“We really believe that 2016 is the best opportunity to pass these laws,” he said. “We’ve seen that the more people that vote, the more people that will vote to end prohibition.”
The Wildcard: State Legislatures
Both Washington and Colorado passed their legalization measures through ballot initiatives, where residents voted on the measure directly. But there’s no reason state legislatures couldn’t pass their own laws to make pot legal.
Keep an eye on New England for activity along those lines. Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Massachusetts all have medical marijuana, and could be candidates for all-out legalization.
The Takeaway: This year isn’t the ideal time to pass a state-level marijuana legalization bill, but the popular momentum makes efforts in several states worthwhile.
*Note: The fundraising statistics cited for Oregon, Washington and Colorado in October 2012 were reported by KVAL, a CBS affiliate in Oregon. The Denver Post reported that the total spending in Colorado, through November, reached approximately $3 million. MPP's Mason Tvert, who managed funds for the Colorado campaign, said the total spent on the initiative was closer to $2 million, since some loans were unused and returned.
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.