US ballots: victories and defeats

America’s November elections saw high-profile drug-law reform initiatives fail in several states, although some ballots did pass on the civic and local level.
Initiatives which failed included Nevada’s ballot on legalizing marijuana, Ohio’s “treatment not jail” ballot, and Arizona’s ballot on marijuana decriminalization and other drug policy changes. An attempted “treatment not jail” initiative failed to get on the ballot in Michigan, and a similar initiative in Florida was delayed in court until 2004. A proposed constitutional amendment in South Dakota failed ? it would have allowed juries to acquit defendants if the jury felt the law was unfair.

Victories at the civic level included a successful San Francisco vote ordering the city to explore growing its own medical marijuana supply. Several local recommendations to decriminalize marijuana also passed across Massachusetts. Voters in Washington, DC, approved a measure to require treatment instead of jail with a 78% majority, but Congress runs the district and will likely nullify the law. In Seattle, the City Council agreed to put an initiative making pot possession a low police priority onto next year’s ballot.

Propaganda campaign

All of the state initiative measures were heavily financed by three wealthy philanthropists ? George Soros, John Sperling and Peter Lewis ? as part of an ongoing effort to find alternatives to the federal war on drugs. During the past six years, the three have financed successful efforts to pass 17 of 19 state-level initiatives easing drug laws. Most of these measures dealt solely with medical marijuana.

The Nevada measure was the most audacious, with ballot Question 9 asking voters to approve possession of up to three ounces, and to require the state to regulate the cultivation, taxation and sale of marijuana to adult Nevadans (CC#40, Nevada’s pro-pot initiative). The initiative was defeated 61% to 39%.

“We knew Question 9 would be an uphill battle,” said Robert Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, which sponsored the measure. “Never before has an initiative campaign had to go up against the full weight of the federal government. Drug czar John Walters and Drug Enforcement Administration chief Asa Hutchinson both personally campaigned against Question 9, and the drug czar’s office mounted a massive anti-marijuana ad blitz just as the campaign was moving into high gear. Yet we still received a record-setting vote, despite the federal government’s blizzard of fear-mongering and lies.”

US drug czar John Walters joined with many state law enforcement, judicial and political leaders in denouncing all the state initiatives. Walters claimed that marijuana is a gateway drug which leads to traffic accidents, domestic violence and hard drug abuse by youths. A series of federally-funded anti-marijuana ads also hit America’s prime-time airwaves in early September, linking marijuana to violence, rape and murder.

Local successes

Although Walters managed to sway enough voters to defeat efforts at the state level, his heavy-handed tactics produced a backlash in San Francisco. In a gesture of defiance toward the federal drug war, San?Francisco voters approved an historic measure directing their city government to explore growing and distributing medical marijuana for patients in need.

“Proposition S” was placed on the ballot by City Supervisors in the wake of repeated federal raids against medical marijuana clubs operating legally under state law, and with the support of local officials. It doesn’t force the city government to grow pot, but does give them a mandate to move forward and directly oppose the federal government. If City officials start growing medical pot for distribution through local clubs it could lead to a dramatic showdown between federal agents and the civic government.

In Massachusetts, marijuana initiatives were organized by the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, and covered a broad range of questions including marijuana decriminalization, medicinal use and hemp cultivation. Most of these local non-binding resolutions passed, building on a similar success in the 2000 elections when 18 cities and towns passed similar measures.

Looking forward

The unsuccessful initiative attempts in Michigan, Ohio and Florida were organized by a group called the Campaign for New Drug Policies, which will be continuing in their efforts. “The campaign isn’t going away,” spokesman Dave Fratello told the media. “We have good reason to continue what we began.”

They will likely have a measure on the 2004 Florida ballot, and will be working again in Michigan, where their initiative was thrown off the ballot because of a technical error in the wording.?

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws said they will also be looking for suitable initiative targets in 2004. “We’re looking at Wisconsin, Vermont and maybe Massachusetts,” said spokesman Allen St Pierre. “We’ve seen from polling and focus groups that Wisconsin as a whole is amenable to changing the marijuana laws.”

Despite the failure of any state initiatives to pass in 2002, there is reason for optimism. The Nevada ballot received the highest votes ever given to legalization initiatives. With four out of 10 Nevadan voters willing to have pot sold in liquor stores, it seems reasonable that a more modest initiative could attract enough additional support to be passed in the future.

Although initiative backers overshot public opinion in 2002, there is no question that drug-law reformers still have momentum on their side. With tenacity, intelligence and careful planning there is no reason why we can’t see more victories at the ballot box in 2004.

? Campaign for New Drug Policies: web
? Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition: tel 781-944-2266; email [email protected]; web
? Marijuana Policy Project: tel 202-462-5747; email [email protected]; web