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By Erin Hiatt

November 8, 2016 could be the day that forever changes the trajectory of legalized marijuana in the United States and even perhaps drug policy throughout the world. Spanning California to Maine, five states have marijuana legalization on their ballots while three others will be voting on medical marijuana initiatives. True to the states-rights way, the ballot language varies and provides for different systems of regulation. What they do have in common is that an adult-use, legal market only applies to those 21-years and older.


In Arizona, The Arizona Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act follows fairly closely the trail blazed by Colorado and is sponsored by the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), an organization whose mission is to regulate marijuana like alcohol. Upon legalization, you may possess and consume cannabis and grow up to six plants. The initiative calls for a 15 percent tax on all marijuana sales that would be dedicated to education and healthcare. Arizona has had medical marijuana for six years and medical dispensaries, as part of this initiative, would be able to make the move to retail. There are several groups, including Arizonans for Mindful Regulation (a competing but defeated legalization initiative), the Arizona Republican Party, and the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry opposing the initiative, but many expect that it will pass.


The Maine Legalize Marijuana Initiative, or Question 1, would designate marijuana as an “agricultural product” and would lay the plant under the purview of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry. Question 1 differs from other states in key ways. Like Amsterdam and Spain, Question 1 would allow for marijuana social clubs where adults may buy and consume on site. It also borrows from Washington DC’s “grow and give” model, where you may grow up to six flowering plants and keep the bounty. Question 1 has the endorsement of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and famous travel writer and marijuana enthusiast Rick Steves, who pledged to match donations to the initiative up to $50,000. Anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) and local marijuana growers are opposed to Question 1, both of them fearing a takeover of the market by moneyed interests.


Rick Steves, true to his traveling self, makes yet another appearance in Massachusetts, joining forces with the ACLU of Massachusetts to rally behind the Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act, aka Question 4. Should it pass, it would be legal to have one ounce of marijuana on your person and up to 10 ounces in your home. It also allows for a home grow of six plants and to give up to an ounce to another adult without payment. The law would create the Cannabis Control Commission that would oversee the regulations and ancillary services that go hand-in-hand with a legal market. The taxes collected from marijuana sales would go into the Marijuana Regulation Fund set-up to pay for the bill’s administration. Question 4 also provides some protections for marijuana-using adults who have minor children at home, ensuring that unless there is “clear and convincing” evidence of marijuana abuse that children will remain with their families.


Question 2 in Nevada would allow for retail purchases and for those living more than 25 miles away from a licensed establishment permission to grow up to six plants, provided that the grow is enclosed and locked tight. The proposed 15 percent excise tax would be directed to the Department of Taxation, who would oversee all aspects of the program. Any funds in excess of those costs would go to the general fund and be designated to benefit public education. Helmed by MPP, Question 2 has wide support from local lawmakers who see it as a potential boon to the tourist industry, upon which Las Vegas in particular depends. Given its likelihood to pass, you can bet there will be more and more things happening and staying in Vegas.


The legalization vote that everyone, especially law enforcement and policymakers will be keeping their eye on is California. If voters mark the “yes” box on the California Marijuana Legalization Initiative, or the “Adult Use of Marijuana Act” (AUMA), the untamed, unregulated medical marijuana market that CA has had for the past 20-years will get broken-in at last. California is the sixth largest economy in the world, so the performance of an adult-use market there may be a harbinger of marijuana’s economic impact in other states and countries. Should voters pass the AUMA, legal marijuana will be available to more people than all four current legal states combined. Heavy hitters like former Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, and the California Medical Association are backing this initiative. Drug policy reform organizations have been working with lawmakers and others to painstakingly craft an initiative that addresses the myriad aspects of drug policy reform. Of the $1 billion in projected revenue, money is allocated to medical marijuana and legalization research, DUI protocols, and financial support for the communities, largely minority, who have suffered the most from punitive drug policies. They’ve also considered small growers, including a ban on large-scale manufacture for the first five years of the program, and have allocated funds to clean-up environmental damages wrought by illegal grows. Under the AUMA, marketing to minors would be banned and rules would be laid down from the onset regarding packaging, advertising, marketing, and labeling. A 15 percent retail tax would be assessed, with some exemption for medical marijuana. The AUMA also includes hemp and paves the way for those with marijuana convictions to be resentenced and their records cleared. Among those who have voiced opposition are the California Growers Association for fear they will be gobbled up by an adult-use market. Legalization plans for CA have been in the works for a very long time and some drug policy insiders believe that this is a “make or break” moment for a legal marijuana industry. Many are predicting that the AUMA will get the “yes” box checked, but when marijuana legalization was last on the ballot in 2010, voters in the Golden State said “no, thanks.”

Medical initiatives

If all the adult-use ballot initiatives become law that will bring the tally of fully legal states to nine, ten when you add the District of Columbia. There are three states voting on medical marijuana initiatives and if they pass, the number of medical states would jump to 28. Here are the states voting on medical marijuana this fall.


In Arkansas, the Medical Marijuana Act, if passed, would be by far the most extensive medical marijuana program in the south. It would allow for home grows under specific conditions, create payment systems for low-income patients, and cover an incredibly broad range of conditions. All caregivers and cannabis care centers potentially operating under the proposed law would have to function as a nonprofit. A second medical marijuana initiative has also qualified for the November ballot that would allow for-profit dispensaries, but local advocates worry that both initiatives on the ballot will doom medical marijuana in Arkansas altogether. 

North Dakota

North Dakota last attempted a medical marijuana initiative in 2012, but petition efforts were invalidated when it was discovered that some University of North Dakota football players, paid to circulate the petition, forged signatures. But advocates are back this year with the North Dakota Compassionate Care Act. The measure would create a system to treat debilitating conditions and all aspects of the system would be overseen by the Department of Health and operate as nonprofit.


Florida last voted on medical marijuana in 2014 when it narrowly missed the mark, but it’s back this election cycle wiser from its previous defeat. The initiative is written for the treatment of specific diseases like cancer, epilepsy, and Crohn’s Disease, and it also would allow for doctor discretion to recommend medical marijuana for a patient with an unapproved condition. This time around the initiative makes it clear “that doctors would not be immune from malpractice claims for negligent prescribing of marijuana” and will put a cap on the number of patients a caregiver can treat.

The United States is already at the halfway mark for marijuana legalization with 25 medical states, four of which have adult-use markets. Regardless of the outcomes on the 2016 ballots, the number 25 isn’t likely to go backwards. Here lies the moment of reckoning for lawmakers to reexamine both local and federal drug policies, because legal cannabis is here to stay.