Voters in nine US states will consider legalizing marijuana for medicinal or recreational use

Grassroots efforts to spread weed are paying off.
Grassroots efforts to spread weed are paying off.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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The Green Party’s candidate for US president will be on the ballot in 45 states today; green will be on the ballot in nine.

Voters in Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota will decide if they want medical marijuana legal in their states. In Montana, there’s a ballot initiative to redress state legislature action in 2011 that undermined a 2004 bill to legalize medical marijuana. If all four ballot questions pass, it would bring the number of states allowing the legal use of medical marijuana to 26 total.

More striking—and with the potential for far greater political and economic impact nationwide—is that in five other states, voters get to decide if they want to make weed a legal recreational drug. Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Maine, and Nevada all have ballot initiatives that would put marijuana in a position sort of like alcohol today: If you’re over 21, you can purchase, own, and smoke it (or eat it, or vape, or whatever), as long as you do so on private property.

The people behind the ballot initiatives in these five states are all using the same sales pitch to sell their cause: Legalizing weed will be a boon to the state treasury. Maine: “Tax dollars for schools & police”; Massachusetts: “Tax and regulate”; Nevada: “Jobs, jobs, jobs.”

It’s easy to imagine the way the advocates for these proposals reacted to the latest economic numbers coming out of Colorado, one of the five states and districts (along with Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington DC) to have already legalized recreational pot use. On Oct. 28, the Marijuana Policy Group published a comprehensive report crediting legal weed with having created 18,005 full-time jobs and adding about $2.4 billion to the state’s economy in 2015. Excise and sales taxes alone brought in $121.5 million; much of the remaining increase in revenue was driven, essentially, by weed tourism.

There’s no way to predict the windfall that legal pot would create in Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Maine, or Nevada, but voters in those states would probably be happy to take even a sliver of that. Prop 205 in Arizona comes with a 15% sales tax; a fiscal analysis that accompanies the proposition predicts $82 million in marijuana sales taxes in 2020. A similar analysis for Maine, where the marijuana sales tax would be 10%, projects about $11 million in taxes collected. Nevada’s tax would be 15%; in Massachusetts it would be 3.75%.

The California weed economy

California is a strange beast. Medical marijuana in the state accounted for $2.7 billion in sales alone in 2015. But that doesn’t account at all for other ways the growing industry positively impacted the state’s economy, or that seemingly everyone in the so-called Emerald Triangle of northern California is employed by or otherwise connected to the pot business.

The new law, proposed as Prop 64, would make an effort to take advantage of the vast marijuana infrastructure already in place in the Golden State. Besides a 15% tax on retail sales of marijuana, the state would also tax cultivation at rates of $9.25 per ounce of flowers and $2.75 per ounce of leaves. The resulting fiscal analysis is a bit fuzzy, but the absolute financial impact will still probably be in the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of added tax revenue every year.

And if that’s not enough to convince you, there’s this, buried in some of these ballot measures: that legalizing recreational marijuana use would keep thousands of non-violent people out of jail. Felony arrests for marijuana have been dropping in California, from 16,585 in 2010 to 8,866 in 2016, according to the state department of justice. In large part, that’s due to a bill signed into law in 2010 that decriminalized the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana. (A felony in California is possession with intent to sell.)

Despite the benefits of decriminalization, major issues still exist at the intersection of law enforcement and marijuana use. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, black Californians are five times as likely as white Californians to be arrested on a marijuana felony. If Prop 64 passes, it would, advocates say, advance prison reform and reduce the mass incarceration of people of color.

So, what is the prognosis for the ballot measures in each of the five states where recreational pot might become legal?

Arizona, Proposition 205

A Data Orbital poll conducted in the first week of November found 48% of respondents supported legalization, 47% opposed, and 4% were undecided. A larger OH Predictive Insights poll from late September showed 43% in favor, with 47% opposed and 10% undecided.

California, Proposition 64

Most polls from October on show strong support: in a USC Dornsife/LA Times poll of 1,500, 58% of respondents would vote Yes on 64, while only 37% would vote no; 5% were undecided. Other California polls show similar numbers.

Massachusetts, Question 4

The most recent poll, out of Western New England University, showed 62% in favor of legalizing recreational pot, with just 33% against, and 4% undecided. An October poll run by Suffolk University and the Boston Globe was a little less sure, with 55% for, 40% against, and 5% undecided.

Maine, Question 1

A University of New Hampshire survey taken towards the end of October asked 761 Maine residents how they planned to vote, and 50% said they’d support legalization, compared to 41% against and 9% undecided.

Nevada, Question 2

A late October KTNV-TV 13 Action News/Rasmussen Poll showed 53% supported legalization, while 41% opposed, and 6% remained undecided; a Bendixen & Amandi International poll around the same time showed 47% for, 43% against, and 11% undecided.