The 4 Most Likely States To Legalize Cannabis In 2016

Photo: Tatiana Bulyonkova - Flickr Creative Commons


by Jeremy Daw

on January 7, 2015

This piece first appeared in The Leaf Online. 

Almost as soon as the landslide votes ending the prohibition of adult use of cannabis in two states and the District of Columbia were cast, reform groups across the country began the long paperwork process of getting their legalization initiatives on the 2016 ballot for their respective states. Heartened by the solid victories of every legalization initiative to reach the ballot (a progressive medical measure garnered an impressive 58% of the vote in Florida, falling just short of the 60% needed for passing a constitutional amendment), movement allies around the country are naturally wondering whether their state will be next.

For many Americans, the odds are looking pretty good. Here are the top four states most likely to enact legalization by 2016:

1. California

California voters arguably got the whole legalization train started back in 1996 with the passage of the historic Proposition 215, which introduced the concept of medical marijuana to the majority of the American mainstream. Since the Golden State’s pioneering example, nearly half of all US states have followed suit in passing some form of medical cannabis legislation — although only a few have been as liberal with their medical policies as Prop 215, which has allowed practically any resident to obtain cannabis through the state’s dispensary system.

It may seem odd, therefore, that the first state to adopt major cannabis reform has had such difficulty passing an adult use bill into law. In both 2012 and 2014 the ever-fractious movement devolved into balkanization, with multiple camps believing they had the best initiative but none of them garnering enough signatures to make the ballot. Some came close, but success is elusive in a state famous for its expensive elections — a characteristic well known to Dale Gierenger, director of California NORML. “We will need thousands of volunteers and a couple of million bucks to get on the ballot,” Gierenger said.

But even despite these historic difficulties, prospects for the state arguably best known for its cannabis counterculture are looking strong for 2016, if for no other reason than the sudden active interest of some very big players in the state. The Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform (CCPR) has been steadily building support through an on-the-ground consensus process for the past three years and already boasts some powerful coalition partners like California NORML, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and Americans for Safe Access (ASA). The well-connected MPP, in particular, has already formed a fundraising committeefor the 2016 ballot.

Yet more significant still, in terms of election prospects, could be collaborations with groups not necessarily associated with drug policy reform — like the United Food and Commercial Workers union and the state NAACP. With the promise of good-paying jobs which can’t be outsourced overseas, the support of the powerful unions could prove critical in changing the debate among working families; and with the runaway success of a legalization initiative in Washington, DC dominated by a racial justice narrative, the support of the NAACP could prove critical in convincing voters in California — like those in DC — that cannabis legalization is an important step toward ending the undeniably racist drug war.

Still, success is not assured in a state which generally requires a massive investment just to get an initiative before voters. Oaksterdam University founder Richard Lee pledged over a million dollars to Proposition 19 in 2010, managing to get a legalization bill before voters that November; but then watched his investment go down the drain when no one else stepped up to fund the expensive process of countering political attacks from law enforcement groups and others. The measure failed by seven points.

Gierenger underlines the vital importance of money to his state’s initiative process, noting that at the recent MJ Business Conference in Sacramento, “[DPA Executive Director] Ethan Nadelmann and [MPP Executive Director] Rob Kampia took the industry to task for not adequately supporting the Oregon, Alaska and DC initiatives, forcing them to be financed by outside philanthropists.”

It appears unlikely that California could be carried by such outside philanthropists, especially since many foundations now prefer to focus on the (equally important) issue of reducing criminal penalties. George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, for example, made news earlier this year when it announced a $50 million grant to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to support drug policy reform.

For a brief moment, the legalization movement waited with bated breath — after all, the Washington chapter of the ACLU led the successful Initiative 502 campaign there — but the ACLU has since clarified that the grant money will not be used to fund legalization initiatives but rather the kind of sentencing-focused reform exemplified by California’s successful Proposition 47, which downgrades penalties for possession of a wide variety of drugs (as well as other nonviolent crimes) and has already begun the process of releasing at least 4,700 prisoners from an infamously overcrowded penitentiary system. The ACLU, which spent $3.5 million in support of the effort, plans to use the $50 million grant toward similar initiatives in other states.

Gierenger urges all California activists and industry to join the movement here.

2. Maine

In the largest metropolitan area of the Pine Tree State, cannabis is already legal, at least symbolically: the city of Portland voted to legalize small quantities of cannabis by a landslide in a special election last year, and this year the city of South Portland followed suit — making possession of cannabis putatively legal for adults in the 1st and 4th most populous cities in the state, respectively.

But police departments in both states have indicated that they will continue to force state law — which still regards cannabis possession as criminal — despite the will of the people whose taxes write their paychecks. That is why the Marijuana Policy Project is making a major push at the state level for 2016.

According to David Boyer, MPP’s political director for the state of Maine, the local coalition is in the process of drafting the initiative. While he could not provide the Leaf with “hard details,” he was able to predict that the end result “will be closer to Colorado’s version than Washington’s,” especially in the case of home cultivation rights, which were provided for by Colorado’s Amendment 64 but have been aggressively phased out by Washington state’s Liquor Control Board under its legalization measure, Initiative 502.

As for any hopes that police groups stubbornly clinging to traditional policy should come to the table to work out a deal, Boyer remains pessimistic. “Law enforcement has been against legalization here in Maine,” he says, “and most likely will continue to oppose it.”

 3. Nevada

The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Nevada campaign appears to be on quite a roll, having anecdotally turned in nearly double the required number of signatures required to present a legalization initiative to the state legislature, which could vote to approve adult use legalization as early as Spring 2015. Such a vote, however, is unlikely, as the tax component of the group’s initiative triggers a constitutional requirement of a 2/3 vote in that chamber for the initiative to pass.

But the state constitution also provides that rejection in the legislature would automatically move the issue to the November ballot, where its prospects are looking solid. Support for legalization has proven high in the handful of densely-populated metropolitan areas — especially Las Vegas — which dominate the electorate and will thus prove decisive in the vote’s outcome. In Clark County alone — home to the iconic casino city and 3/4 of the state’s population — the campaign collected over 145,000 signatures, well beyond the 101,667 validated signatures required by law.

Such strong support should come as little wonder from a city like Vegas, which already relies on an economy principally powered by tourist dollars and a libertarian reputation for permissive enforcement of victimless “crimes” like gambling and sex work. Residents, perhaps jealous of all the “cannatourism” dollars currently raked in by cities like Denver, could expect a massive economic windfall from adding casual cannabis tourism to the list of activities which, after happening in Vegas, stay there.

4. Missouri

Although the final state profiled in this series is a bit of a sleeper jurisdiction, the Leaf is choosing Missouri to round out its list of likely legalization states for 2016.

Show Me Cannabis, a scrappy grassroots campaign which has building consensus for the past three years throughout the Midwestern state, is already poised to pull off major reform at the 2016 ballot. “We’ve been playing a long game,” according to the group’s director of research Aaron Malin. “We’re a grassroots campaign, and the strategy is to win one town hall meeting at a time.”

That strategy has proven a long road, as the campaign has already covered the majority of the state in its long drive to build up support for legalization. “Since we started holding town hall meetings in 2011,” Malin says, “we’ve covered virtually every city in the state with a population over 20,000.”

So far the response has been strong but there is still much ground to cover: a poll conducted in February 2014, for example, found Show Me Cannabis’ tax and regulate proposal trailing by six points. Malin acknowledged that the group may have to pare its initiative back to a medical-only bill, but maintains a positive outlook for the next 20 months. “Turnout is the biggest factor,” he says. “But we have to poll with a 2016 model and see where we stand.”

Given recent dramatic shifts in public opinion toward cannabis reform, it appears likely that Missouri will become the first Midwestern state to tax and regulate cannabis — or at the least, become a bastion of safe access in the Great Plains. One way or another, change is coming to the Show Me State.