High on the agenda: marijuana a key issue in 2014 US Midterm elections

High on the agenda: marijuana a key issue in 2014 US Midterm elections
By Thomas Seymat
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On November 4, several US states will vote on whether to follow the trail blazed by Colorado and Washington and relax their marijuana policies.

Here is a breakdown of what the voters face in the polls:

  • Alaska

If Alaskan voters vote 'yes' to Ballot Measure 2 on November 4, it would make the possession of marijuana legal for adults 21 years of age or older,​" and regulate the system of marijuana cultivation (making it legal to possess one ounce of marijuana and up to six plants per adult) and sales, including of marijuana accessories. The measure will establish a tax of $50 per ounce on sales or transfers from a marijuana cultivation facility to a store or edible manufacturer. Smoking marijuana in public will still be a fineable offense, existing laws related to driving under the influence will not changed and employers will still be able to restrict their employees' use.

Opinion polls on the measure are unconclusive and undecided voters are likely to hold the key to the results in their hands.

  • Washington, DC

Voters in the District of Columbia will vote on Initiative 71. If it were to pass, it would make lawful "for a person 21 years of age or older to possess up to two ounces of marijuana for personal use​, grow no more than six cannabis plants with 3 or fewer being mature, flowering plants, within the person’s principal residence, and use or sell drug paraphernalia for the use, growing, or processing of marijuana or cannabis." It would also allow the transfer without payment (but not sell) of up to one ounce of marijuana to another person 21 years of age or older. Due to DC's particuliar status and lack of statehood, a 'yes' vote would "not legalize, regulate, or tax sales, because voter initiatives in DC can't have a direct impact on the local budget.

According to Vox, "DC's marijuana legalization initiative is perhaps the most likely to pass in the country, with the 'yes' vote making a consistently strong showing in the polls." Marijuana is currently decriminalised in DC.

  • Florida

The Sunshine state already has legislation allowing the use of marijuana for medical purposes, under very restrictive conditions. This election's Amendment 2 would greatly facilitate this type of treatment, legalising the issuing of "medical marijuana to a person diagnosed with a 'debilitating medical condition'". The measure defines a "debilitating medical condition" as cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, hepatitis C, HIV, AIDS, ALS, Crohn's disease, Parkinson's disease "or other conditions for which a physician believes that the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient." Because the measure is a constitutional amendment, Florida law requires that it get 60 percent of the vote".

Opinions polls suggest Florida voters' support of medical marijuana ranges in the high 60s. If Floridians pass this amendment, they will join 23 US states and DC to have legalised medical marijuana. US territory Guam will also vote on medical marijuana on November 4.​

  • Oregon

While the state was the the first to decriminalise cannabis in 1973 and legalised medical marijuana in 1998, a 2012 ballot initiative for full legalisation failed, with 53.25​% of votes against it. This year, a Yes vote on Measure 91, named "Oregon Legalized Marijuana Initiative," would allow possession, manufacture, sale of marijuana by/to adults, including four marijuana plants and eight ounces of usable marijuana per household. Marijuana will be be subjected to state licensing, regulation and taxation. For instance, marijuana flowers will betaxed 35 dollars per ounce at the point of sale. Total tax revenue will be distributed to education, health and law enforcement services.

A politically polarised state, with very liberal cities (Portland, Eugene) along the I-5 and a deeply conservative inland, Oregon is divided on the issue despite widespread usage. "Let's be honest: Recreational marijuana is all but legal in Oregon now and has been for years" local newspaper The Oregonian wrote in the editorial endorsing Measure 91. Nevertheless, the race is too close to call, and cannabis news website The Cannabist predicts that, based on recent polls, "if young people show up and vote, the legalisation of cannabis is more likely to happen."

Old fears going up in smoke

If these votes stand to help the marijuana legalisation movement gain nationwide momentum, it is also because long-standing public fears about cannabis are going up in smoke.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted in mid-October showed 52% of US citizens are in favour of marijuana, while 45% want it to be illegal. According to the same survey, the trend crossed for the first time ever earlier this year. To put things in perspective, a 1969 Gallup survey showed a mere 12% of the US population supported legalisation when a whooping 84% wanted it illegal.

The general downward trend accelerated in recent years, as “support rose 11 points between 2010 and 2013” Pew Research analyst Seth Mothel wrote .

“Separately, 76% in [the Pew Research Center] February survey said people convicted of minor possession should not serve time in jail.” Also telling is the fact that 69% of Americans believe alcohol is more harmful to a person’s health than marijuana, according to Pew.

However, while the Pew survey says almost half (47%) of Americans say they have tried marijuana, the majority of the public is not yet fully comfortable with it. Indeed, 63% of Americans say they would be bothered if people did their smoking in public.

Nevertheless, the 2014 midterm votes on marijuana could be a watershed moment for marijuana legalisation, paving the way for more state initiatives in 2016, as attitudes change and the legalisation idea goes mainstream. For John Hudak and Philip A. Wallach, two fellows at the Brookings Institute, a policy think tank: “regardless of what voters in Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia decide on November 4th, we can expect the legalisation movement to expand and for 2016 to be the most crucial year for cannabis in the United States.”

And the tax revenue jackpot, which according to some studies, could top 3 billions dollars per year if marijuana was legal in all 50 states, could be be another motivating factor for many cash-strapped states.

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