2016 Will Be a Watershed Year for Marijuana Legalization

  • by Keith Stroup, NORML Legal Counsel September 21, 2015

    It’s been a year of preparation for those in the legalization movement. It’s a non-election year, with only one statewide measure on the ballot this November — Issue 3 in Ohio — which may answer the question of whether the lure of legalization will bring a surge of young voters to the polls in sufficient numbers to approve full legalization in an off-year election.

    A victory in Ohio will challenge conventional wisdom that holds voter initiatives should never be scheduled in odd-numbered years; a defeat will reinforce the need to focus on even-numbered years.

    2015 has also been a year of implementation of the legalization initiatives approved by the voters in Oregon and Alaska in 2014. Retail marijuana sales are scheduled to begin on October 1 this year in Oregon (the legislature enacted legislation permitting the existing medical marijuana dispensaries to begin selling to recreational users a year earlier than would have been the case under the terms of the voter initiative); while Alaska is still developing their regulations, hoping to have its retail stores up and running early in 2016.

    2016 Should Be A Breakout Year

    But the real focus for the legalization movement is 2016, a presidential-election year (when legalization initiatives generally do best) with full legalization initiatives expected to qualify for the ballot in several states, including Arizona, California, Maine. Massachusetts, Michigan, and Nevada. In addition, a coalition calling itself Show-Me Cannabis is mounting a serious effort in Missouri, although that seems less certain to qualify for the ballot; and voter initiative efforts have been announced in a handful of other states, including Wyoming (since withdrawn), Montana and Mississippi, that appear premature politically.

    We have the real possibility of more than doubling the number of states with full legalization during 2016, which should boost the legalization movement into the political stratosphere and drive a stake through the heart of prohibition, once and for all. If we win four or five or even six more states next year, the game is over and we will have won. But none of that is certain, and each of these proposed initiatives faces serious challenges.


    One fact of life for legalization proponents today is the likelihood that many of these efforts will be facing opposition from other legalization activists, who frequently favor less regulations and control, and in some states (Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Michigan) offer competing legalization initiatives that, were they to qualify for the ballot, would likely split the pro-legalization vote and assure legalization would lose at the polls. It remains to be seen if any of the competing initiatives will find the funding or political support to qualify for the ballot, and recent experience suggests they may not.

    When marijuana legalization was just a theory of where we wanted to go, there were only two sides to the debate: those who favored prohibition and those who favored legalization. But as legalization became a real possibility, it became clear that not everyone agrees on what they mean by legalization. Should it be a system similar to the one for alcohol; should it be the “tomato model”, with no controls or limits; or something in-between. Are we willing to compromise in order to end prohibition, or do we wish to hold out for that elusive perfect system?

    It is these different definitions of what legalization should look like that now divides the pro-legalization supporters into different camps, and finds us frequently opposing each other, at least during the early stages of policy change. We should accept this reality and strive to give everyone a fair chance to have their views heard and considered, while working to build a consensus coalition around a version of legalization that has the support of a majority of the voters, and can attract adequate funding to run a successful campaign. Otherwise we are just making a political statement about what we might like in a perfect world, without actually impacting public policy. And the arrests will continue.

    California, the Big Prize

    California, which is the most politically significant state in play for 2016, actually has at least six competing legalization initiatives that have been filed with the state, creating a confusing and potentially destructive political environment. Thankfully a Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy, headed by Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, after holding public hearings around the state, released in July a helpful policy analysis outlining the policy options available for regulating marijuana, and appears to be finding a middle-ground around which the majority of legalization advocates in CA can coalesce.

    But it is California, after all, a nation-state with nearly 39 million people, so no one should expect all stakeholders will reach common agreement, and we know going in that there will be vocal opposition from some legalization supporters who favor less regulation, or no regulation at all. The goal, of course, is to bring as many stakeholders as possible together, and to try to ignore those who insist that legalization must be done their way, or not at all.

    The California legislature appears to have set the table for full legalization in 2016 by finally (20 years after medical marijuana was first legalized in CA) enacting legislation to license and regulate commercial growers and retail sellers of medical marijuana, ending the confusing, unregulated medical marijuana system that had developed in the state. At last they will have rules governing the business of medical marijuana – providing a more legitimate basis for a legal recreational system to come next.

    Laboratories of Democracy

    Marijuana legalization is a nation-wide movement (more accurately world-wide), with each succeeding state building on the experience of those states that came earlier, and, because of differing regional attitudes about marijuana and marijuana smoking, no two state legalization systems will be the same.

    That’s a good thing, as it permits the states to serve as “laboratories of democracy,” as former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once described our system of permitting the various states to test novel social and economic experiments, without directly affecting the entire country. Over time we will see what works best, and what does not, and we can arrive at a national marijuana policy that accommodates regional cultural differences, and that works for smokers and non-smokers alike.

    2016 is our best hope for a dramatic political leap forward that will settle the legalization question for good.


    This column first appeared on Marijuana.com.


    28 responses to “2016 Will Be a Watershed Year for Marijuana Legalization”

    1. Miles says:

      Most Virginia politicians believe in prison time for marijuana users… They seem unwilling to bend on this or to allow us, the people of Virginia, to be able to vote on a legalization measure of any kind.

      If only we had the option to vote for anything other than what the current policies are I’m sure it would pass. The penalties are very harsh and unjust and because we are a “commonwealth”, even if we got the signature of 98% of Virginians on a legalization petition, they (the one’s in power here) would ignore it.

      Living in Virginia is so Un-American it is pathetic! Here, it is more like a dictatorship that has power shared among several dictators. The people have little to no power to change anything.

      That is why, as soon as we can afford it, my family will be moving somewhere we can get a real taste of the American dream of freedom and liberty.

      It is really ironic that Virginia has a motto: Virginia is for Lovers. Wow – unless you love the herb; in which case you better love your prison cell…

    2. Ruben Jesus Hernandez says:

      CA can set a 99 plants golden standard of cannabis freedom in 2016 with the California Cannabis Hemp Initiative.


    3. Me says:

      Florida, although rather late in the game is collecting signatures for recreational use, although I don’t see it collecting enough signatures before February, at least we have a shot in the Sunshine State, since our lazy legislation didn’t do squat with medical this year.

    4. Voice of the Resistance says:

      A new approach Idaho is hoping to gather enough signatures to make the 2016 ballot. I hear that they are doing well with it in Boise. The initiative seeks to legalize medical marijuana, decriminalize, 3 ounces or less, and has a provision for growing industrial hemp.

    5. RUT says:

      INITIATIVES are great vs. legislature. Believe me the politicians will have a say once it is passed. The bad part is resistance to the will of the people by our elected officials. I wish law makers were sent to prison for implementing punishment on citizens on laws passed on proven false scientific facts(LIES). These fools have gone out of their way to hide the truth. Refusal to allow research for years so they can claim ignorance to knowing whether this plant has value. Like they say now we need time to do research on this newly discovered plant that was present in every pharmacy in the country in the early 1900’s”. If only they took 70 years to approve drugs for BIG PHARMA which would mean waiting 70 years to get campaign money. Pay attention and VOTE! THE BUMS OUT!

    6. Julian says:

      Well said Keith; the definition of “legalization” has been forked into many roads, and yet the inevitability of it by any definition is a bright green flash of dawn upon the horizon… And the hubris in those states without voter initiatives is watching the sun set into the dark dusk from which prohibition will always be remembered for the American tragedy that it has been.

    7. Julian says:

      This article in the Cannabist contends that candidates are pushing for votes from Colorado’s electorate.


      Money talks. The latest marijuana revenue reports in Colorado are shifting the national debate. I just wish SOMEone would get in the game and talk about the public schools this money built, the lives it has saved or even the fireman it hired.

      During the recession in 2010 I was framing a 17,000 sq ft house for a couple of builders in Colorado down here in Texas. People forget there was no work in Colorado. Fires burned and there were not enough fireman. So these guys flew 15 hours a week to build down in my hills.
      One evening, one of the builders, the lumber salesman and I went to have a beer after work and the subject got around the client’s children who have autism. Then the builder confessed his own son suffered from autism and the meds had awful side effects. I set my beer down and paused before saying, “This might surprise you, but we live in an over-prescribed society…” To which he laughed sarcastically and said “Noooo…”
      I thought again before making my own confessions, and said, “You have to be careful with those prescription meds. I’m no expert on autism, but I know there are varying degrees, and a child with mild autusm does not need the full blown presciption of one who has full blown autism…”
      “Then what do you recommend?” The builder and father asked rather exasperated.
      “Marijuana,” I said finally. About that time, The lumber salesman’s eyes nearly popped out of his head.
      “There are studies being conducted right there in the University of Boulder. They are the only people I know of brave enough to study the subject in the US. Here’s a number. You could go visit them in person.”
      “Why is that? Everyone afraid of the DEA?”
      “The doctors and scientists are afraid of losing their license, “I replied, “As of recently, Israel and Iran of all places have been leading the research on medical marijuana.”
      And then I told him something that wiped the builder’s smile away, and he became deadly serious and concerned when I said,
      “For the last 45 years the Office of National Drug Control Policy has been using our tax dollars to deny the medical efficacy of marijuana.”
      Finally, there was a long enough pause in conversation for me to get a bite out of my hamburger.

      “…THAT has to stop.” The builder said with conviction.

      Our conversation about medical marijuana ended yet his had just begun. I don’t know if he spoke with the wealthy owners about marijuana and autism; I don’t know if he became an activist or looked up that number I gave him from the University of Colorado, but it was soon afterwards that Colorado legalized marijuana and made world history.

      After all, in the face of government sanctioned propaganda and deadly pharmacueticals and a struggling family with a child suffering from autism, at what lengths would anyone go to provide safe effective treatment from marijuana?

      Movements for reform and better government are like giant waves that start by a drop and a ripple… But someone has to start them…

    8. Scott says:

      If the effort in Ohio passes I will be very impressed and humbled. Still I have heavy doubts about it passing in OH.
      1st the off year isn’t attractive to voters who would likely vote in favor.
      2nd is that you have infighting among the pro-marijuana crowd. In that you have people opposing the amendment over language. Language that is already being reviewed and likely removed, doh. So you have pro-marijuana people voting against legalization. That alone tells me it will fail.

      Ohio will be a wake up call that it isn’t an easy shot. Likewise there needs to be better communication and cooperation if we hope to see this legalized. The bickering and competition has wasted time in Ohio.

      Again I hope to eat my words, I hope it passes. Not likely, but I damn hope it happens.

    9. Gutter butter says:

      2016 election sounds so far away but when you think about it, it’s only 58 weeks from now. ?

    10. TheOracle says:

      Well, in 2015 it’s critical that we reformers have a win on Ohio. I hope legalizers are pulling out all the stops to get out the vote. Stuck here in Pennsylvania, I can tell you that the mostly Republican House is letting any and all kinds of cannabis legislation rot, despite overwhelming public approval of medical cannabis.


      We need a win in this part of the country.

      It can energize Pennsylvanians to put a fire under their politicians’ asses.