For 70 years the Federal Government of the United States has been unyielding in its stance against cannabis. But the governments of individual states have been pushing back. In 13 states possessing small amounts of cannabis is merely a fineable offense, and in Alaska it is even legal to possess up to one ounce, as long as you keep it inside your home. And this November, on the same day as the Presidential election, three states could vote to legalise cannabis: Oregon, Colorado and Washington.
If the electorates of these states vote for the proposals, it will be legal for everyone aged 21 or over to consume and possess small amounts of cannabis, and the farming and sale of it will be regulated.
One of the biggest factors behind the drive for legalisation is money – state governments are in dire need of more tax revenue so that they can continue providing public services in these tough economic times. It has been estimated that Colorado could benefit from an extra $50 million per year in state revenue from taxing the sale of marijuana, Oregon from an extra $140 million per year and Washington from an enormous $400 million per year.
Oregon is already famous for being the first state to decriminalise cannabis back in 1973, and a recent poll in Colorado showed that 47% of voters support the proposal, compared to 38% who are against it. But the state most likely to legalise cannabis is Washington. There pro-legalisation groups have proved to be organised, and have done remarkably well in fundraising. As of the 2nd of October, ‘New Approach Washington’ had raised $4 million, at least $875,000 of which came from billionaire Peter Lewis. A pithy television advert, paid for by donations and aimed at people who don’t use cannabis, has already boosted support for the cause.
The campaign against the proposal in Washington, ‘No on I-502’, has raised less than $6,000 (as of the 1st of October). This group of medical marijuana patients and retailers in fact supports legalisation, but believes that the provisions in the proposal about driving under the influence of cannabis are far too harsh, considering that there is little scientific evidence that driving ability is impaired by having small amounts of THC in the body. They argue that people wanting reform should wait until a better, more liberal proposal is put before them.
The anti campaign in Colorado is more organised and more conservative. When Ken Buck became its leader, the move was welcomed by the pro campaign because of Buck’s unpopularity with women – when standing for Senator, he said that people should vote for him because “I do not wear high heels”. 95% of the campaign’s funding comes from Mel Sembler, a businessman who founded Straight, a drug rehabilitation programme whose employees have been accused of kidnapping, child abuse, torture and rape. The involvement of these personalities, although a little unsettling, should give the pro-legalisation campaign plenty of ammunition.
But even if these proposals are passed, legalisation is far from certain. During a campaign to legalise cannabis in California in 2010, a memo written by the Attorney General Eric Holder was leaked: “We will vigorously enforce the [Controlled Substances Act] against those individuals and organizations that possess, manufacture or distribute marijuana for recreational use, even if such activities are permitted under state law”. In other words, the Federal Government was prepared to ignore the wishes of the citizens of California. The campaign failed, so the Feds didn’t feel the need to step in. But it shows that, if Washington, Colorado and Oregon support legalisation in November, the hard work may only just be beginning.