POLITICS
11/03/2014 08:04 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2014

Voters In These States Could Deal Major Blows To The Drug War

On Tuesday, voters in several states have the chance to deal significant blows to the United States' decades-long failure of a drug war. State and local measures on the ballot could legalize recreational or medical marijuana, decriminalize possession of the plant and serve to shorten the time nonviolent drug offenders spend behind bars.

The fate of these measures is not certain. While the legalization of recreational marijuana is riding a wave of national popularity, Americans' pattern of not turning out in midterm elections could work against reformers' hopes.

"All of these races could be very close, especially since it’s a midterm election and turnout tends to be smaller, older and more conservative," said Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. Tvert's group is backing a number of the marijuana reforms up for a vote Tuesday,

Here's a look at some of the higher-profile measures that could change the course of the drug war:

ALASKA: Voters in Alaska will be deciding on Measure 2, which would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and grow up to six plants for personal use (with no more than three being mature). It would establish a regulated retail marijuana market, similar to those in Colorado and Washington, which both legalized recreational cannabis in 2012. It would also permit the manufacture, sale and possession of marijuana paraphernalia, including devices for smoking or storing the plant.

Of all the marijuana measures on the ballot Tuesday, the fate of Alaska's seems the most difficult to forecast. Two polls released on the same day last month showed mixed reaction among voters, with one finding 53 percent opposed to legalization and the other showing 57 percent in favor.

Legal retail sales of cannabis could raise $72.5 million in tax revenue for the state within just the first five years -- $7 million in the first year, and $23 million by 2020 -- according to a recent report from the Marijuana Policy Group.

This is the third attempt to legalize recreational marijuana in Alaska, with voters rejecting measures in 2000 and 2004. The state is one of 23 that have already legalized medical marijuana.

OREGON: Measure 91 would permit the creation of a legally regulated recreational marijuana marketplace. Adults could possess up to eight ounces of marijuana at home and up to one ounce in public. Taxes on legal marijuana sales would fund schools, law enforcement, and drug prevention and education programs. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission would regulate and monitor the industry.

According to the latest polling, Oregon voters appear ready to say yes, if by a narrow margin.

Oregon could then reap $17 million to $40 million annually in marijuana taxes, the state financial estimate committee has projected. Personal finance website NerdWallet offers an ever higher estimate: $50 million to $100 million in annual tax revenue.

"The campaign looks strong," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a supporter of the ballot initiative. "There is actually probably more energy and engagement around this issue than anything else on the Oregon ballot, with the possible exception of the GMO [genetically modified organisms] initiative."

"We had a rally for Senator Merkley about a week ago, and the biggest cheer of the entire event was a shout-out I gave to Measure 91," Blumenauer added.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) made headlines recently when he came out in favor of marijuana legalization in Oregon during an interview with Talking Points Memo, making him the first U.S. senator to back legal cannabis.

WASHINGTON, D.C.: If Initiative 71 passes in the nation's capital, as it appears poised to do, adults there could legally possess up to two ounces of cannabis as well as cultivate up to six marijuana plants at home for personal use.

While the sale and use of drug paraphernalia would also become legal, marijuana sales would still be prohibited because current law bars D.C. voters from approving cannabis sales via ballot initiative. The D.C. Council, however, is considering a separate bill that would allow for the regulation and taxation of marijuana sales in the city.

FLORIDA: Voters could make Florida the first state in the South to legalize cannabis for medicinal purposes. Amendment 2 would allow doctors to prescribe marijuana for "debilitating medical conditions," which the bill defines as cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, hepatitis C, HIV, AIDS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, 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."

As recently as May, support for medical marijuana was strong in Florida, reaching almost 90 percent in a Quinnipiac poll. But that support has steadily declined since, reaching a low of 48 percent in October.

Amendment 2 has faced a well-financed opposition campaign primarily funded by Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino mogul and GOP mega-donor. Adelson put in $5 million, accounting for roughly 85 percent of the total funding of the campaign, according to The Washington Post.

An additional hurdle: Florida law requires a supermajority of support -- 60 percent or higher -- for the measure to become law. Given current polling, it could be a disappointing night for the state's medical marijuana patients.

MAINE: Voters in two of Maine's largest cities -- Lewiston and South Portland -- are considering ballot measures that would remove all legal penalties for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by adults. Maine's largest city, Portland, already legalized recreational marijuana last year.

These efforts are likely just the beginning for legal cannabis in the state. The backer of the local initiatives, Marijuana Policy Project, has announced that it intends to push a statewide ballot initiative in 2016 that would "regulate marijuana like alcohol."

NEW MEXICO: Voters in New Mexico's Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties will weigh in on the decriminalization of marijuana. Nonbinding questions on the ballot are aimed at gauging support for such a move.

The county questions follow the Santa Fe City Council's decision in August to decriminalize possession of marijuana and marijuana-related paraphernalia. The city's penalty was reduced to a $25 civil infraction.

CALIFORNIA: Proposition 47 would reduce the classification of most "nonserious and nonviolent property and drug crimes" from a felony to a misdemeanor. In practice, that means crimes like shoplifting small amounts of property, writing bad checks and most drug possession felonies would become misdemeanors. Many offenders serving time in county jails would be released immediately, and up to 10,000 state prisoners would be eligible to have their sentences reduced.

The measure would strike a major blow against mass incarceration, downgrading an estimated 40,000 felonies a year in California.

NEW JERSEY: Voters will decide Public Question No. 1, a bail reform measure that could reduce the pretrial incarceration of those accused of low-level drug violations. Poorer defendants who can't afford bail, but who are not considered a threat to the community, could be freed while awaiting trial through an alternative release system.

Judges could still deny pretrial release to individuals who pose a clear danger to the community, to repeat offenders and to those who are a probable flight risk.

A recent report from Luminosity and the Drug Policy Alliance found that almost 75 percent of the nearly 15,000 individuals in New Jersey's jails are awaiting trial rather than serving out a sentence, and almost half of them remain incarcerated simply because they cannot afford bail. The Drug Policy Alliance backs Public Question No. 1.

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