Since 1972 when California Proposition 19 failed at the polls with only 33.5% of voters approving, states have considered ballot measures aimed at legalizing marijuana. There are currently two states, Colorado and Washington, that have legalized recreational use of marijuana through ballot measures. Colorado voters passed Amendment 64 on November 6, 2012 with 55% approving. On the same day, Washington voters passed Initiative 502 with 55.7% approving.
A parallel movement to promote the medical use of marijuana has seen some success in the 1990s and 2000s. But the movement to decriminalize marijuana use, or at least reduce stiff penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana, did not notch its first wins until the two 2012 ballot measures.
In difficult economic times, many states looking for new sources of revenue may welcome a potential new product like marijuana that can be regulated and taxed. However, recreational marijuana remains a controversial and complex issue because of the moral implications of allowing use of a drug that remains illegal in federal statutes.
On August 29, 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder told the governors of Washington and Colorado that the federal government would allow states to create a regulatory structure to implement the legalization ballot measures. The announcement effectively opened a new pathway for other states that might consider future ballot measures legalizing marijuana as long as the measures include "strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems."
Successful ballot measures
On November 6, 2012, two marijuana legalization measures passed. Washington's Initiative 502 legalized production, possession, delivery and distribution of marijuana in small amounts to people 21 and older. Marijuana farms and food processors will be licensed by the Washington State Liquor Control Board.
The law also makes it illegal for drivers to have more than 5 nanograms of THC (the active ingredient of marijuana) per milliliter of blood in their systems.
Colorado's Amendment 64 legalized the use and possession of one ounce or less of marijuana for adults over 21. The measure was essentially the same as a measure on the 2006 ballot, Amendment 44, that failed with 59% of voters voting against. Colorado voters will be asked to fund the implementation of Amendment 64 by approving Proposition AA on the November 5, 2013 ballot. The measure calls for a 15% excise tax and an additional 10% sales tax on all recreational marijuana sales. If Proposition AA is approved, the additional revenue will be used to fund the regulation and bureaucracy needed to monitor all marijuana sales.
Given the prevalence of large marijuana farms and its 1996 approval of medical marijuana, California seemed like a good candidate to be the first state to legalize recreational use. However, Proposition 19, or the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010, failed with 53.5% voting against. The measure would have allowed adults over 21 to possess, cultivate and transport marijuana for personal use. It also would have allowed local governments to regulate and tax all marijuana sales.
Before this failure at the ballot, the California State Legislature passed a law, SB 1449, that became effective January 1, 2011, which made possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a civil infraction rather than a criminal misdemeanor.
On November 6, 2012, Oregon's Measure 80 failed with 53.4% voting against. Had it passed, it would have allowed commercial marijuana cultivation and sale to adults over 21. Sales would have to occur through state-licensed stores. The measure also prohibited restrictions on hemp and distinguished hemp, which does not contain large amounts of THC, from marijuana.
Efforts for new ballot measures legalizing marijuana in 2013 and 2014 are under way in three states, including Arizona, California and Alaska.
On November 5, 2013, Colorado voters will vote on Proposition AA, also called Taxes on the Retail Sale of Marijuana. It is a legislatively-referred state statute approved as HB 1318 sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Singer (D-11). It calls for a 15% excise tax and 10% sales tax (in addition to the regular state sales tax of 2.9%) on all commercial marijuana sales. Since the measure will fund the implementation of 2012's successful Amendment 64, the outcome of Proposition AA's vote will largely determine whether marijuana can be legalized in the near future.
Public opinion varies widely by state and county, but nationwide the number of people saying in surveys that marijuana should be legalized has been steadily increasing since the late 1990s. In a 2011 Gallup poll, 50% of Americans said that marijuana should be legalized, compared to 25% in 1996.
Public figures coming out in support of medical or recreational marijuana may have an impact on public opinion in the future. For example, in an August 8, 2013 article on CNN, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a well-known television personality, apologized for his previous opposition to medical marijuana use and has reversed his position.