Legal marijuana backers tout potential money for states

PHOENIX — Supporters of ballot measures that would legalize marijuana are pitching cannabis as a new revenue source that can fund schools, roads and even public safety, a new appeal aimed at winning over suburban voters who might still be hesitant about the accessibility of legal pot.

Voters in five states will decide seven marijuana-related ballot measures this year. Initiatives or propositions in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota would legalize marijuana for recreational use. Measures in Mississippi and South Dakota would legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Proponents of those measures say new legal sales — and the excise taxes that come with them — would fill revenue gaps at a time when state government budgets have been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s time to legalize adult use marijuana and generate millions for Arizona,” an advertisement supporting Proposition 207 here says. “$300 million in new revenue for public safety, for our community colleges, for mental health services and for roads in our rural communities.”

The new pitch to voters is a marked evolution from earlier years, when legalization proponents focused on the harm wrought on minority communities by the decades-long war on drugs.

In the past, the pro-legalization message “was a lot about how an arrest can ruin a life, and you can’t get credit, and you can’t get an apartment, and a young person can make a mistake and be messed up for life,” said Martin Hamburger, a Democratic strategist working on legalization campaigns this year in Montana, South Dakota and Mississippi.

“The messages that we’re using [now] in a lot of these places are about how people can access marijuana for health purposes and the revenue that’s available,” he said. 

To some supporters, an end to the harshest consequences of the war on drugs remains a powerful argument in favor of legalization.

“From a criminal justice perspective, the revenue that we should be worried about is the fact that we’re not going to be destroying a lot of young men’s lives for carrying a small amount of marijuana,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who backs his state’s Proposition 207. “I do think our marijuana laws are used by police to target young males of color, particularly Black men.”

Recreational use of marijuana is legal in 11 states and the District of Columbia. Vermont became the latest state to legalize recreational use, after Gov. Phil Scott (R) allowed a legalization bill to become law without his signature. At least some marijuana products are legal for medical use in another 36 states. Legislators or voters have decriminalized marijuana possession in 16 states. 

Opponents of legalization measures have focused their campaigns in most states on two chief objections: That legalization will lead to an increase in drugged driving, and that corporations that would eventually profit from legalization are funding the campaigns.

“Big Pot is going all out in funding these races this year after suffering defeats in state legislatures and in Congress this year,” said Kevin Sabet, a former official in the Office of Drug Control Policy who heads Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an anti-legalization group. “The overwhelming majority of funding for most of these measures have come from out of state.”

Voters appear poised to notch gains in at least two states: Two polls in Arizona, conducted by Monmouth University and Phoenix-based OH Predictive Insights, show Proposition 207 passing by 18 and 20-point margins. A poll conducted for a New Jersey law firm that backs legalization found Public Question 1 passing by a more than 2 to 1 margin.

Arizona is one of the few states where voters have defeated legalization ballot measures in the past. In 2016, voters rejected Proposition 205 by a slim 2.5-percentage point margin.

But this year, the business community that funded much of the 2016 opposition campaign is otherwise engaged. Most of their money has flowed into opposition to Proposition 208, a measure that would increase taxes on individuals making more than $250,000 a year. The current iteration of the legal marijuana measure also makes clear that edibles and other marijuana products that key swing voters object to will not be allowed.

“The no campaign is very anemic compared to what it was in 2016,” said Mike Noble, a Phoenix-based pollster. “Even among suburban women, it’s not nearly as negative as where it was in 2016.”

Public opinion on legalizing marijuana has changed dramatically over the last two decades. At the turn of the century, just 31 percent of Americans favored legalization, according to a Gallup poll. The last time Gallup asked the question, in October 2019, two-thirds of Americans said marijuana use should be legal.

“It’s not as scary as it once was,” Hamburger said. “Anybody who’s been watching the issue over the last six years would observe that the stigma, to whatever extent it existed, has been reduced.”

Some pro-legalization advocates have already turned to a new focus: For the first time this year, measures that would legalize or decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms will appear on the ballot, in both Oregon and Washington, D.C.

Scientists at the Food and Drug Administration, Johns Hopkins University, Harvard and others are studying the effects of psychedelic mushrooms as treatments for depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction. 

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