While voters in Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia passed measures in favor of legalizing pot, Florida rejected the use of medical marijuana. The various campaigns and their outcomes offer valuable insights into the politics of pot, now that 17.5 million Americans live in states that permit retail marijuana.
Philip Wallach and John Hudak, who are experts in governance studies, summarize the key takeaways from Tuesday's election results:
Legalization is not just for liberals: Previous ballot measures legalizing marijuana occurred in blue states, and that trend continued last night with the votes in Oregon and DC. But Alaska shows that marijuana initiatives can also succeed in conservative states — especially those with a libertarian inclination. "It is an issue that even red state voters — in a very Republican year — were willing to embrace. Who knows: maybe even the Republican-controlled Congress will decide the (increasingly illusory) status quo in federal law is due for reform."
You have to pay to play: Ballot initiatives are expensive. For starters, getting them on the ballot requires an intense campaign of lobbying and collecting signatures. And then, during the elections, the advocacy money spent by the opposing sides of the issue can rival the amount spent in a race between two candidates:
In Alaska, supporters of Ballot Measure 2 (legalization supporters) outspent opponents by huge sums, and that spending paid off for the movement….. In Florida, pro-legalization funding was met with a flood of opposition funding from well-known political donors like Sheldon Adelson, who donated $5.5 million to the anti-reform group Drug Free Florida. In the battle over medical marijuana, that additional opposition spending may have ultimately made a difference—as the initiative fell a few points short of the required 60% threshold.
Politicians are responding to how the grassroots grow: As younger voters replace older voters, public opinion and demographics continue to favor legalization, creating the political space for elected officials to move ahead with further reforms. A bi-partisan coalition in Congress, including members of the Tea Party, already supported legislation that prevents federal agents from stopping the implementation of state medical marijuana laws:
We should expect more lawmakers to become willing to stake out positions supportive of states' recreational legalization efforts as well. Those who have already done so—such as Sen. Rand Paul, and Reps. Beto O'Rourke, Jared Polis, and Dana Rohrabacher—do not seem to have suffered any electoral repercussions. In some cases politicians drive public opinion; in the case of marijuana legalization, changing public opinion will change the minds and rhetoric of politicians. With the momentum legalization gained from the state referenda, this process might play out sooner rather than later.