Pot proponents see momentum

Pot proponents see momentum
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Voters in nine states will get to decide whether to liberalize laws involving marijuana this year in a rush of ballot measures that pro-pot activists see as a critical tipping point in the fight over legalization.

Five states — Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada — will decide whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Four other states — Arkansas, Florida, Montana and Missouri — will decide whether to allow doctors to prescribe marijuana for medicinal use.

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Collectively, the ballot measures mean more voters will be weighing in on marijuana issues than in any other year in American history. At the same time, the marijuana industry finds itself on something of a winning streak after voters in several states recently loosened restrictions on the drug.

In the last four years, four states — Washington, Colorado, Alaska and Oregon — and the District of Columbia have passed ballot measures legalizing marijuana for recreational use by adults over the age of 21. A similar measure has only failed once, in Ohio in 2015, though pro-pot activists are quick to distance themselves from a campaign they did not fully support.

Twenty-one other states allow marijuana for medicinal use. Twelve of those states have legalized medical marijuana since 2010.

The ballot measures passed in recent years, proponents and opponents say, have provided both sides with valuable lessons and new tools they will use to sway voters this year. 

“What we have now on our side is actual experience in states like Colorado and Washington,” said Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, based in Denver. “Now voters can actually see how these programs are working in these states. Before, there were prophecies of doom and gloom.”

In interviews, proponents said they will focus on a few specific messages to persuade voters. In California and Arizona, they have told voters that legalizing marijuana will take power away from Mexican drug cartels. Campaigns in all five states will highlight support from law enforcement personnel who will say legalization frees up money to prevent violent crimes. And each of the five states is characterizing marijuana as similar to alcohol; they refer to bans on marijuana as “prohibition.”

They will also say taxing legal marijuana could provide their respective states with a font of new revenue. In California alone, the state Department of Finance has said legal marijuana sales could amount to $1 billion in taxes annually. Massachusetts revenue forecasters expect $300 million in the first full year of business, up to 20 percent of which could end up in state coffers.

Those estimates could be low: Revenue generated by marijuana sales in Colorado and Washington proved far higher than government analysts expected over the first several years in which pot sales were legal.

Opponents of expanding legal marijuana say the experiences of pioneering states tell a different story. They point to Wall Street hedge funds and big-name investors who see the race to capitalize on legalization as the next big opportunity to make gobs of money.

“We’re worried about the creation of the next Big Tobacco,” said Kevin Sabet, director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida and an opponent of legalized marijuana. “It’s about money. It’s about Silicon Valley and Wall Street millionaires making a lot of money.”

Both sides are stockpiling cash. In California, seven groups supporting Proposition 64 have raised more than $8 million, according to the most recent filings with the Secretary of State’s office. The measure legalizing marijuana for medical use in Florida has attracted $3.8 million in contributions, most of it from wealthy trial lawyer John Morgan.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), a group founded by Sabet, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) and conservative columnist David Frum, has raised more than $2 million to oppose legalization measures in Arizona, California, Nevada, Massachusetts and Maine. The family that founded the Publix supermarket chain in Florida has donated $800,000 to the campaign against medical marijuana there.

In an interview, Sabet acknowledged the opposition had been outspent by organizers in recent years, but he said the tide was turning.

“This is David and Goliath,” Sabet said. “I think this is very winnable, and I think our donors do, too.”

Opponents are waiting for, and supporters fear, a massive investment from someone like Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnate who has funded conservative causes and Republican candidates. Adelson put more than $5 million into a committee in Florida in 2014 that successfully fought against legalizing marijuana for medical use. None of the $2 million SAM has raised so far has come from Adelson, Sabet said.

With so many measures on the ballot, many pro-pot activists believe a series of wins will make marijuana legalization seem like a fait accompli. But there are others who worry that, with so much at stake in November, losses could set the movement back.

“There’s a real question about whether the movement can really raise enough money to support the [get-out-the-vote] efforts and the ad campaigns to ensure victory,” said Tom Angell, the founder of Marijuana Majority. “If we do see a significant number of losses, or a big loss in an important state like California, that could seriously interrupt our momentum.”

Though marijuana legalization is increasingly entering mainstream political consciousness, it remains a touchy subject for elected officials fearful of getting too far ahead of their constituents. No state legislature has actually passed a law to legalize marijuana for recreational use, though Vermont came close this year.

Most major political leaders still oppose legalization. In California, Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinGOP rep to introduce constitutional amendment to limit Supreme Court seats to 9 Senate Dems petition Saudi king to release dissidents, US citizen Court-packing becomes new litmus test on left MORE (D) opposes Proposition 64. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has opposed legalization in the past, though he has not explicitly weighed in on this year’s initiative. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) is against legalization in his state, as is Maine Attorney General Janet Mills (D).

But after years of pro-pot activists being pilloried as hippies and druggies, even opponents of legalized marijuana say supporters have made gains by changing their image.

“They’ve gotten rid of the ponytails and the hemp T-shirts, and they’ve got Ivy League degrees,” Sabet said.