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Up in smoke: 9 states have legal marijuana initiatives on the November ballot

Popular vote could legalize marijuana in nine more states


Marijuana products, including pre-rolled cigarettes and buds are displayed at a medical marijuana dispensary in California.

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Every four years, Americans go to the polls to cast their vote for President of the United States. And every four years, those same citizens are faced with a dizzying array of statewide and local ballot measures. The politicians save their big, game-changing questions to put before the electorate for the Presidential cycle in hopes that voter turnout will be greater than the intervening “off year” elections.

Among the hotly debated ballot issues across the country this year are proposed laws in nine states that would make marijuana legal for either recreational or medical use. Voters in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada will consider allowing recreational marijuana use. In Florida, Arkansas and North Dakota voters will decide whether to legalize medical marijuana for purposes. In Montana, people will face a question on easing restrictions on an existing medical marijuana law already on the books.

Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia currently have laws allowing marijuana for either medical or recreational use. With nine states potentially moving forward toward legal pot, this election season is as close to a national referendum on the debate as we’ve seen thus far in the ongoing trend toward legalization. What will be the impact of further movement toward coast-to-coast legal marijuana?

The Colorado experience
States across the country considering the legalization question should consider looking at what has taken place in Colorado — where recreational use of marijuana has been legal since January 2014 — before making their final decision.

Whether or not the Colorado experience has been a success depends entirely on who you ask. According to a November 2015 poll by Quinnipiac, 53 percent of voters say it has been good for the state, while 39 percent say it has been bad for the state.

Nate Bradley is a former police officer who now serves as Executive Director of the California Cannabis Industry Association. Bradley told Police1 that legalization has created 18,000 new jobs and generated more than $100 million dollars in new tax revenue.

“That’s 100 million that didn’t go in hands of criminal organizations — instead it was distributed to public education, behavioral health, law enforcement and youth prevention,” Bradley said.

However, not everyone agrees with this rosy outlook.

According to a September 2015 report by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Traffic Area, marijuana-related traffic deaths increased by 154 percent between 2006 and 2014 and drug-related suspensions and/or expulsions from school increased 40 percent from school years 2008/2009 to 2013/2014.

Further, Colorado emergency room hospital visits that were “likely related” to marijuana increased by 77 percent from 2011 to 2014. Importantly, many of those visits were kids. A study conducted by JAMA Pediatrics indicated that the number of Colorado children who have been reported to a poison control center or examined at a hospital for unintentional marijuana exposure annually has spiked since 2014.

According to the HIDTA study, Colorado youth now rank number one in the nation for marijuana use and 74 percent higher than the national average, and Colorado college-age group now rank number one in the nation for marijuana use and 62 percent higher than the national average.

Bradley told Police1 that states should consider prohibiting products that are specifically attractive to children, but that all-out prohibition has been a failure.

“Cannabis has been illegal for almost 100 years and it’s currently being sold directly to our kids in their high schools right now,” he said.

Police1 Contributor Keith Graves — a drug recognition expert who trains law enforcement officers about drug abuse recognition — says that despite legalization, the black market marijuana trade continues to thrive. Although the black market marijuana may be a crime, the officers have given up pursuing any of it because no one — the public or the justice system — takes it seriously. Graves has spoken with a number of officers that are working drug enforcement in the Rocky Mountain state, and that legalization has taken a toll on them.

“I was in the Denver airport returning from a class I had just taught just after marijuana had been legalized in that state. I saw a grizzled veteran with Denver PD manning a post and I struck up a conversation with him. I asked him what he thought about marijuana being legalized in his state and how it affected him. He looked very disappointed and told me, ‘I’ve spent the last 25 years working my butt off keeping dealers off of the street. Now it feels like it was all done for naught. All of that work I put in has been wasted’.”

In fact, most officers have told Graves that marijuana-related incidents keep them busy — busier than when it was illegal.

“All of the officers, across the board, comment about the increase in DUIs, DUI collisions, DUI-related medical issues and robberies and burglaries,” Graves said. “RMHIDTA has done a great job documenting the increase in all of these crimes and they put out a report on the impact of legalization in Colorado each year. But, to hear it from the cops in the field makes all of that so real.”

In an article for Newsweek, Colorado resident Marjorie Haun observed that there have been several adverse effects of that state’s move to legalize recreational pot. Huan wrote:

The wave of enthusiasm following the passage of Amendment 64 has given way to a drip, drip, drip of unintended consequences. Law enforcement issues, such as marijuana-intoxicated driving and the illegal movement of vast amounts of cannabis product into other states, are the tip of the iceberg.

Social and law enforcement issues resulting from the Colorado interstate pot pipeline prompted Nebraska and Oklahoma to file lawsuits against the state, citing the fact that marijuana commerce violates federal law and increases the burdens of law enforcement in other states.

Other symptoms of Colorado’s pot culture include increased use among teens, resulting in educational problems in middle schools and high schools, a spike in “edibles”-related emergency room visits, consumption by children and pets resulting in illness and death and regulatory confusion surrounding public consumption and enforcement.

Even Bradley concedes that Colorado has had its challenges with legalization. “Colorado has had a lot a lot of lessons on edible regulations and how they should be packaged and controlled. It had to rewrite the regulations surrounding them numerous times,” he said.

However, Bradley still maintains that legalization is the way to go. “Why should we keep on with the status quo? Cannabis prohibition has only resulted in our kids having easier access to [it] and the unregulated market has also made it stronger and more potent over the last 40 years of the drug war. It also sucks up scare law enforcement resources. The reality is that every dollar spent paying law enforcement officers cut down marijuana plants is a dollar not being spent to go after child molesters and rapists.”

Watching the Golden State
It has been said that, as goes California, so goes the nation. In the Golden State, marijuana is already legal for medical use, but Proposition 64 would legalize the purchase of recreational marijuana — with a 15 percent state excise tax on retail sales — for people 21 years of age and older. If the so-called “Adult Use of Marijuana Act” passes as expected, the entire Pacific Coast of the Continental United States (including Alaska, but not including Hawaii) will have fully legalized the drug.

Graves, who lives and works in California, says that passage of Prop 64 is too close to call, even a week before Election Day.

“They tried to pass it a few years ago and it failed. I think a lot of people in California have had years to looks at how ‘medical’ marijuana has negatively impacted our state. Either way, it is very close and we won’t know until Election Day how it plays out. If it does pass, I know that our cops will become busier than they have been,” Graves said.

Bradley said that all nine propositions remain in question. “I don’t think they’re a sure shot, like many other people think they do. There are so many additional factors this year that it’s going to difficult to get a clear picture,” he said.

While keeping an eye on the other eight states with legalization proposals on the ballot, it’s fairly certain that if California passes Prop 64, it will likely be the tipping point in favor of widespread recreational use of marijuana, so pay close attention to that measure.

Pressing questions moving forward
Legalized marijuana is estimated to be a $5 billion industry in the U.S. already, and momentum continues for that booming business to grow even more robust — this despite the fact that the Federal Controlled Substances Act identifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance.

It’s a little surprising that this conflict between the states and the federal statutes have not yet landed in the Supreme Court. Looking into the future, I would predict this to be an inevitability (again reinforcing the importance of the decision at the top of this year’s ticket).

When I wrote on this topic in January 2014, I raised three sets of questions which merit our consideration again in November 2016.

1. When pot is legal, what will all the pot dealers do instead of dealing pot? Will they enroll in college and start a new career or shift their criminal enterprise to pushing another drug?
2. At some point someone high on marijuana will kill or maim an innocent person on the highway. In fact, it’s already happened in Colorado. What can be done to ensure safety on the streets?
3. Will legalization lead to abuse (cigarettes and alcohol — both legal and heavily regulated — are probably the most-abused substances in the country) by a large enough segment of the population to have an adverse effect on our collective cognitive capability? What about our productivity?

Sound off with your thoughts on those questions — and the topic of legalization in general — in the comments area below.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.