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Drug Policy on the Ballot

Drug Policy on the Ballot

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NCSL Contacts

  • For information on ballot measures:
  • Jennie Drage Bowser, NCSL's Denver Office, 303-364-7700
  • For information on state drug laws:
  • Karmen Hanson, NCSL's Denver Office, 303-364-7700

Marijuana leafUpdated Nov.7, 2012, 4:45am MST

While public votes on legalizing marijuana go back as far as 1972 (when California voters rejected an initiative), the issue didn't become common until the late 1990s. Since 1996, 11 states and the District of Columbia have voted on medical marijuana, and it has been approved in all cases except South Dakota, where voters have rejected medical marijuana twice.


Drug Policy on the 2012 Ballot

It has been a big night for marijuana on the ballot. Two states -- Colorado and Washington -- approved the recreational use of marijuana for anyone aged 21 or older. No state's voters have taken that step before.

A total of  six states voted on drug policy this November. All six proposals landed on the ballot via a citizen petition process. In three states -- Arkansas, Massachusetts and Montana -- voters were asked to weigh in on the legalization of medical marijuana. Arkansas voters said "no;" if the results had gone the other way, they would have been the first southern state to adopt a medical marijuana law. Massachusetts voters approved medical marijuana. In Montana, voters rubber-stamped the legislature's move to restrict a 2004 initiative legalizing marijuana. The bill voters approved on Nov. 6 keeps medical marijuana legal, but offers more regulation than the original initiative did.

In the other three states, this year's drug policy questions re much broader in nature. In Colorado, Oregon and Washington, voters were asked to legalize the recreational use of marijuana for adults over the age of 21, and to allow the state to regulate and tax it in much the same manner that alcohol is regulated. Colorado voters have approved their question, while Oregon voters have rejected theirs. Ballots will continue to trickle in over the coming week in Washington, but as of early morning on November 7, Initiative 502 is passing with a solid majority.

There are some unique provisions in each of these proposals. The Colorado  proposal does not impose a specific tax, but instead directs the state legislature to determine the tax. Colorado's Taxpayers Bill of Rights requires that the tax will then have to be approved by voters before it can take effect. Also, Colorado's constitution prohibits a measure from binding the vote of any legislator, so even though Amendment 64 directs the legislature to establish a tax, it cannot require them to do so. It is therefore possible that even though Colorado voters have approved the use and sale of marijuana, they may never impose a tax upon it. If a tax is imposed, Amendment 64 stipulates that the first $40 million raised each year would go toward the construction of public schools. The issue now rests in the hands of the Colorado General Assembly, which will convene in January.

Measure 80 in Oregon would have directed the state to set up a commission that would the people who grow, process and package marijuana, and also license stores to sell marijuana for medical purposes. Medical marijuana is already legal in Oregon, but unlike many of the other states with medical marijuana laws, Oregon law does not allow for direct sale of marijuana through dispensaries. Proposals to permit this have been on the ballot twice in recent history, but were rejected both times. Marijuana for recreational purposes would be sold through state-licensed stores at prices set by the commission. The state does not offer an estimate of how much revenue would be raised by the tax that is incorporated into the price set by the commission, while the measure's supporters estimate annual revenue to be $140 million. Ninety percent of that would go into the state's general fund.

Initiative 502 in Washington includes a provision requiring marijuana producers and process to submit samples of their marijuana to an independent lab for testing, and will ould require the destruction of any samples that do not satisfy state standards. Washington will impose a 25% tax on various types of marijuana sales, with the majority of the revenue going to various health and substance abuse programs. The state estimates that revenue could be as high as $1.9 billion over five years once a program is fully in place.

States With Drug Policy Proposals on 2012 Ballot

Key Ballot Measures

Medical Marijuana

19 states and the District of Columbia presently have laws legalizing the medical use of marijuana for certain people. It has been approved via the citizen initiative process in 11 states, and became law via the legislative process in the other eight states and the District of Columbia.

History of Medical Marijuana on the Ballot

  • 1996: California voters approved Proposition 215
  • 1998: Alaska voters approved Measure 8; District of Columbia voters approved Initiative 59 (although Congress blocked it from taking effect); Oregon voters approved Measure 67; and Washington voters approved Initiative 692
  • 1999: Maine voters approved Question 2
  • 2000: Colorado voters approved Amendment 20; and Nevada voters approved Question 9
  • 2004: Montana voters approved Initiative 148 (in 2011, the legislature repealed I-148 and replaced it with a more restrictive law)
  • 2006: South Dakota voters rejected Initiated Measure 4
  • 2008: Michigan voters approved Proposal 08-1
  • 2010: Arizona voters approved Proposition 203; South Dakota voters rejected Initiated Measure 13
  • 2012: Massachusetts voters approved medical marijuana, while Arkansas voters rejected it. In Montana,voters approved the legislature's move to further regulate an existing medical marijuana program.

In addition, legislatures in the District of Columbia and eight states have approved medical marijuana programs (Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont)


Legalizing and Decriminalizing the Recreational Use of Marijuana

History of Legalization Efforts on the Ballot

  • Alaska:  rejected in 2000 (Measure 5) and 2004 (Measure 2)
  • California:  rejected in 1972 (Prop. 19) and 2010 (also Prop. 19)
  • Colorado:  rejected in 2006 (Amendment 44); approved in 2012
  • Nevada:  rejected in 2002 (Question 9) and 2006 (Question 7)
  • Oregon:  rejected in 1986 (Measure 5); and in 2012 (Measure 80)
  • Washington: approved in 2012 (Initiative 502)

In 2008, Massachusetts voters agreed to decriminalize marijuana without fully legalizing it -- possession of one ounce or less of marijuana is now a civil offense, rather than a criminal offense. North Dakota voters rejected a similar proposal in 2002, as did Oregon voters in 1998. California voters agreed in 2000 that the possession, use or transport (but not sale or manufacture) of controlled substances should be punishable by probation and treatment rather than incarceration.


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