TIME 2014 Election

The Marijuana Legalization Votes That Will Matter in 2014

First Legal Marijuana Sales in Colorado
Seth McConnell—Denver Post/Getty Images Strains of marijuana at Denver Kush Club in Denver on Jan. 1, 2014.

Referendums across the country set the stage for an even bigger fight in 2016

Election Day this year will be big on pot.

The battle over legalizing recreational marijuana in California—the big enchilada that may tilt legalization not only in the U.S. but other countries—is already being set for 2016. But while many reformers’ eyes are focused on the next presidential election, this year’s votes on marijuana initiatives have the power to shape that fight.

Here are the races to watch in November.

Alaska: Legalization with tax and regulation

A 1975 Alaska Supreme Court ruling found that the right to privacy in the state included the right to grow and possess a small amount of marijuana at home. Though opponents have still fought over whether possessing marijuana is legal—sometimes in court—reformers are hoping that a long history of quasi-legalization and a noted libertarian streak will lead Alaskans to vote yes on Ballot Measure 2: It would concretely legalize retail pot, giving the the state the power to tax and regulate like in Colorado and Washington state.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the pro-marijuana reform group NORML, called this measure a “wobbler,” with support long hovering around 50%. That sentiment is echoed by Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project, which spearheaded legalization in Colorado and has contributed heavily to the campaign in Alaska. “A lot of it will depend on the campaign getting its message out,” Tvert said. The message got a boost this month when a local on-anchor quit her job live on TV to support the legalization effort.

Oregon: Legalization with tax and regulation

Oregon almost went along with Colorado and Washington on their experimental journey in 2012, when residents narrowly rejected a pot legalization measure 56% to 44%. This year, more activists—and more organized ones at that—have been on the scene, working with groups like the deep-pocketed Drug Policy Alliance. Still, the prospects for Measure 91 are far from a lock; a recent poll found that while 44% of likely voters support legalization, 40% oppose it.

Like Alaska, the Beaver State has a long history when it comes to marijuana, having become the first state to decriminalize it in 1973. St. Pierre said Oregon’s proximity to Washington state, where creating a legal market has so far gone pretty smoothly, will help push people to vote “yes.” He said Oregon is the “most viable in terms of moving the national needle,” keeping up the momentum for drug-law reform that Washington and Colorado started. “Oregon will likely help lead the way for more states to follow,” said Anthony Johnson, who launched the campaign for Measure 91.

Washington, D.C.: “Soft legalization”

Those are the words of St. Pierre, describing a measure that falls short of creating a full-on regulated, taxable pot market. Initiative 71 would, however, allow people to possess up to 2 oz. of marijuana and cultivate up to six plants at home without fear of criminal or civil penalty—at least in theory. If the initiative does pass, there remains a hazy line between the reaches of the local and federal governments in the District, and Congress could choose to intervene, passing laws that supersede the actions of D.C. officials.

The initiative will very likely pass: Locals support it by nearly a 2-to-1 margin. The big question is whether Congress will continue to stand down, as it did while D.C. legalized medical marijuana and decriminalized marijuana. Allowing pot plants to flourish in backyard gardens down the road from the White House could force a more serious conversation about the conflict between federal drug laws that still view marijuana as an illegal substance and newer laws that do not.

Florida: Medical marijuana

At a time when states are legalizing pot for recreational purposes, it might not seem that significant whether Florida joins the growing list of about two-dozen states that allow medical marijuana. But St. Pierre said that nothing marijuana-related is taken lightly when it comes to political bellwether states like this one. So far, polling on support for Amendment 2 has been all over the place. And the political frenzy over the initiative has drawn huge spenders like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who shelled out at least $98 million in the 2012 elections.

Amendment 2 has a steep hill to climb, requiring a 60% supermajority to pass; neither Colorado nor Washington got past the 55% range. “Florida is a national battleground,” St. Pierre said, noting how uncommon it is for people to be dropping $2.5 million checks to oppose such measures or $3.7 million checks to support them. “We’ve never seen a green rush like we’re seeing in Florida.”

Looking ahead to 2016

There are also a handful of municipalities that are going to vote on “soft legalization” measures of sorts, including the Maine towns of Lewiston and South Portland. Portland, Maine’s biggest city, passed a similar measure in 2013, giving authorities the ability not to punish pot-possessors with civil or criminal penalties.

Maine is one of the states the Marijuana Policy Project will be working hard to push the way of Colorado and Washington come 2016, and even symbolic local wins could boost that effort. “Ultimately our plan is to bring a tax-and-regulate initiative statewide in 2016, so these campaigns are a way to get the message out,” said David Boyer, MPP’s Maine political director.

In addition to California, Tvert said his group is already hard at work in Nevada, collecting petition signatures. And he said campaigns will be ramping up in Arizona and Massachusetts soon. Generally, marijuana initiatives do better when there is larger voter turnout, and voter turnout is typically bigger in presidential election years.

“This is the penultimate year for marijuana law reform,” St. Pierre said of 2014. “California is totally on reformers’ menu. … No one else moves if they don’t move.”

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