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Who Has More Power To Legalize Marijuana: The Politicians Or The People?

Governor Peter Shumlin's goal of making Vermont the first state to legalize recreational marijuana use through the state legislature was derailed this week when the House defeated a proposed Senate bill. So far, every jurisdiction that has legalized recreational marijuana use has done so through ballot questions - petitions that allow the public to revise state laws by casting votes on important issues.

But only 24 states and Washington D.C. have that option, which means that half the country has to try succeeding where Vermont failed. Or they could push to add the option of ballot initiatives to their state constitutions. To find out if the latter option is worthwhile, we contacted marijuana activists and advocates and asked what the pros and cons of ballot initiatives are.

Pro: Control of language

One of the most infuriating parts of what happened in Vermont occurred when one committee gutted the legalization measures from Vermont's bill. And that isn't uncommon in state politics.

"The thing about legislatures is that you have very little control over the language," Paul Armentano - Deputy Director of NORML - told Civilized. "You can almost bank on the fact that the language will be amended along the way, and the final language presented to the governor could be very different from what was introduced."

Not so with ballot initiatives. "Citizen-initiated language cannot be amended during a campaign," Armentano said. "Ballot initiatives, if passed, become law."

The language often changes because lawmakers have to find middle ground among many groups with divergent interests. Longtime activist Tom Angell told Civilized, "Since the legislative process allows so many players - including marijuana law reform opponents - to have a hand in crafting language, the final product might not be as close to what ardent reformers want as a movement-driven initiative would result in."

Con: Costs of ballot campaigns

Activists and advocates were unanimous in saying that cost was the number one drawback for ballot initiatives. "Ballot initiatives can be very expensive depending on the size of the state," Morgan Fox - Communication Manager of the Marijuana Policy Project - told Civilized.

Those costs include everything from hiring people to collect signatures to running ad campaigns (like the one below) to promote the issue in the state.

"[Ballot initiatives'] cost millions of dollars, whether they are on marijuana or another issue," said Armentano of NORML. "One needs to have significant amounts of money for a ballot initiative. The notion that you are going to have an all volunteer grassroots effort is not realistic. You must have professional campaigners" to gather enough signatures to put the question on the ballot and then to convince local voters to approve it.

Pro: Saving time

Ballot initiatives cost a lot more money but they also take much less time than going through the legislature.

"[Working with legislators] is a long process," Armentano of NORML told Civilized. "It can be a very frustrating process for advocates. Basically, one chamber - the house or senate - introduces a bill, passes it through committees and then approves it. Once passed in the one chamber, it goes in the other, which means it goes on to other committees, which have the power to table or amend it...before it gets moved along. If it gets amended, then it HAS to go back to the other chamber for another vote because BOTH chambers must agree on the language. After that, it goes to the governor for approval or veto."

And if that's not frustrating enough, Armentano added, "The bulk of legislation - including marijuana legislation - gets tabled" by a committee and never makes it to the governor's desk.

Pro: Working around backward politicians

Generally speaking, the public is more progressive on issues like marijuana reform than politicians. According to a poll released by Fortune magazine in April, 58 percent of Americans support legalizing recreational marijuana use. Yet many states are still run by prohibitionists like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has vowed to veto any non-medical marijuana legislation.

Meanwhile, 24 states have legalized medical marijuana, but the federal government still defines cannabis as a drug that has no medical benefits and is as dangerous as heroin.

State politicians aren't much more progressive. Bill Piper - Senior Director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance - told Civilized, "In my experience the voters are almost always ahead of policymakers on drug policy reform issues, which is why most reforms are passed through ballot measures first. And then, after policymakers see it is popular, they take it on. Medical marijuana is a good example. A lot of states had to pass it at the ballot box, and then state legislators saw the writing on the wall and began passing it themselves."

Longtime activist Tom Angell agrees: "Going directly to the voters is especially useful when lawmakers are unwilling to act on their own. And demonstrating strong voter support for marijuana law reform on the ballot can show politicians that this is a winning issue that they should embrace in the future instead of run away from."

So convincing legislatures to legalize recreational use might hinge on more states legalizing it through ballot measures.

Con: Lack of statewide buy-in

Ballot initiatives can get things done quicker and in a way that reflects the public's interests, but they aren't as inclusive as passing bills.

"With legislative measures, law enforcers are involved in public hearings and public consultation," Armentano of NORML told Civilized. "With ballot measures, they're not. The legislative process brings greater inclusion in a way that a ballot measure doesn't. There's no give and take with a ballot measure. The voters ultimately decide. No one has a seat at the table other than the group that is running that campaign."

Exclusivity can cause problems when a state tries to implement a successful legalization regime, Armentano noted: "California is a great case of that where 20 years after medical marijuana was legalized, communities of law enforcement still refuse to accept this as law. They're still not on board. [In contrast], the legislative process almost forces groups that otherwise wouldn't work together to work together and have a say in whatever outcome there is in the end."

Conclusion - which is better?

Even though the number of pros outweigh the cons on our list, activists and advocates don't consider either method better than the other. "So far, no states have legalized marijuana for adults through their legislatures, so it is not really possible to say definitively which is preferable," Fox of MPP told Civilized.

"Really it depends on the facts on the ground – what is politically possible, how much money is available, how strong and wide is the network of supporters, etc.," Piper of DPA added.

"Whatever keeps nonviolent marijuana users out of jail and keeps the streets safer, that's what I support," Raeford Davis of Law Enforcers Against Prohibition told Civilized. "I appreciate the voter-driven process because it allows people to participate more directly in the laws that affect them, but that doesn't mean that's the only process that works. Whatever gets the job done, do that."


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