Marijuana Legalization: States to Change Face of War on Drugs?

Voters in three Western states – Colorado, Oregon, and Washington – will decide today whether to legalize the recreational use of marijuana by adults 21 and over, while also establishing a state regulatory and taxation framework similar to those used for tobacco and alcohol.  Passage of these measures would set up a showdown with the federal government, because the drug would still be illegal under federal law.

Supporters of the measures are stressing a variety of reasons in favor of legalization, including the additional revenue raised through taxation, the need to free up law enforcement to handle more serious crimes, and the perceived failure of the war on drugs.  Unlike in many previous years when law enforcement was uniformly opposed to such measures, a number of prominent law enforcement officials have supported these initiatives, arguing that legalization would bring the marijuana industry above ground and eliminate much of the violence and corruption that characterizes the marijuana market.  

Polls show tight races in Washington and Colorado, with support for the measure hovering at or above 50 percent in both cases.  Oregon’s measure, which would impose fewer restrictions, appears less likely to pass.

  • Colorado: Amendment 64 would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and to cultivate up to six cannabis plants.  Public use of the drug would not be permitted. The state would be required to issue regulations by July 1, 2013 regarding the licensing of “marijuana establishments” that would sell the drug.  The state legislature would be directed to establish an excise tax for the drug, with the first $40 million of the revenue raised dedicated to public school construction.  Under the measure, local governments would have the authority to ban commercial marijuana sales, and employers would still be able to ban marijuana use by workers.   
  • OregonMeasure 80 – the Cannabis Tax Act – would allow adults 21 and older to purchase marijuana at state-licensed stores.  It would also allow Oregon farmers to grow hemp to be sold to the state’s hemp food, biofuel, and textile companies.  Ninety percent of the tax revenue, estimated at more than $140 million annually, would go to the state’s general fund, seven percent to drug treatment programs, and the remainder to promoting the state’s hemp and bio-fuel industries.  The measure establishes a new body – the Oregon Cannabis Commission – to oversee the legalization process, including drafting regulations and issuing licenses.
  • Washington: Initiative 502 would legalize the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for adults 21 and older. It would establish a licensing framework for growers and retailers.  It imposes a 25% sales tax, with 40% of the revenues dedicated to state general and local budgets, and the remainder dedicated to substance abuse prevention, research, education and health care.  It also establishes a new per se marijuana driving-under-the-influence standard (5 nanograms of THC), and restricts advertising for the drug. Public use or display of marijuana would be prohibited, and no marijuana facilities could be located near schools, day cares, parks or libraries. 

Three additional states are voting on medical marijuana initiatives:

  • ArkansasMeasure 5, the Medical Marijuana Act of 2012, would allow authorized patients to possess up to 2.5 ounce of cannabis for various qualifying medical conditions, including cancer, Crohn’s disease, and post-traumatic stress disorder.  The measure allows state regulators to establish non-profit facilities to produce and dispense the drug to approved patients.  Individuals who live further than 5 miles from a state-authorized dispensary would be permitted to grow up to six flowering plants for their own consumption.   If passed, Arkansas would be the first southern state to allow the use of medical marijuana. 
  • Massachusetts: Question 3 would allow qualifying patients to possess and use up to a 60-day supply of cannabis. It would require the state to establish and regulate up to 35 facilities to produce and dispense the drug. If individuals are unable to access a dispensary, they could grow limited amounts of cannabis.
  • Montana:  Voters are deciding whether or not to repeal the newly enacted restrictions to the state’s 2004 voter-approved medical marijuana law.  As a referendum on a current law, a no-vote on Initiative Referendum 124 is a vote against the new restrictions.