The will of the voters

Colorado and Washington have put legal marijuana on the map
Tuesday, November 13, 2012

yes-ballot2012Now that the voters in Colorado and Washington have approved marijuana legalization initiatives, attention has turned quickly to questions surrounding implementation—and in particular to speculation over how the federal government might react. This is entirely understandable, since it is no secret that the newly approved state initiatives conflict with federal law.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper made the point colorfully on election night: “Federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug,” he reminded, “so don’t break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly.” (For what it’s worth, “Cheetos” parent company PepsiCo and “Goldfish” parent company Campbell’s Soup are actually defying the post-election market swoon.) Whether state and federal authorities can find ways to cooperate rather than clash will go far to determine the fates of Colorado’s Amendment 64 and Washington’s Initiative 502.

But the symbolic significance of the passage of the marijuana legalization proposals is already obvious, both in the United States and in Latin America. Domestically, the victories underscore how state and local decisions are driving the marijuana policy debate in the face of ongoing inertia—not to say paralysis—at the federal level. Public opinion has shifted considerably in recent years, and the voters are now well ahead of most elected officials, especially national politicians. In the absence of federal leadership, voters at the state level are taking the lead themselves.

In Latin America, the states’ votes to legalize marijuana come at a moment when widespread dismay with the decades-old “war on drugs” has coalesced into calls from governments and civil society for a fundamental reconsideration of drug policy. For many Latin Americans, the legal marijuana votes highlight the disconnect between an unmistakable trend toward more liberal U.S. marijuana policies on the one hand, and the strict prohibitionist line that still dominates U.S. federal and foreign policy on the other.

A top aide to Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s president-elect, put it bluntly: “Obviously, we can’t handle a product that is illegal in Mexico, trying to stop its transfer to the United States, when in the United States, at least in part of the United States, it now has a different status.” Farther south, as Uruguay’s parliament debates legislation that would legalize marijuana in that country, last week’s voting in the United States—home to the modern “drug war”—shows that the door to real reform is open, and won’t easily be closed.

In a joint declaration yesterday, the leaders of Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and Costa Rica made clear that the Colorado and Washington votes in favor of marijuana legalization would be prompting a reconsideration of their own countries’ policies. Now that jurisdictions within a country that is a member of the Organization of American States (OAS) have approved of legal marijuana, it would be unfathomable if the OAS drug policy report due in 2013 should fail to present marijuana legalization as one of the possible options open to governments.

On election night, Colorado’s Governor Hickenlooper (who opposed Amendment 64) also made clear that “The voters have spoken and we have to respect their will.” In Washington state, outgoing Governor Christine Gregoire also made clear that her job “is to do what the people of the state of Washington have said they want done.” In both votes, a simple majority was the threshold for victory. In fact, Amendment 64 and I-502 both won by wide margins. A closer look at the voting results underscores how far public opinion has moved regarding marijuana policy, and how diverse support for legal marijuana can be.

In Colorado, with nearly all votes counted, Amendment 64 won by nearly ten percentage points, 54.9 to 45.1 percent. Even more impressively, Colorado’s marijuana legalization bid won in more counties and garnered more votes (1,307,728) than did President Obama (1,252,679), not to mention Mitt Romney (1,135,403). Amendment 64 lagged behind Obama in some of the large counties that the president carried easily, such as Boulder and Denver. But the legalization proposal won in seven counties where Obama trailed Romney. In those seven counties, Amendment 64 won by an average margin of nearly 5 points, while Obama lost to Romney by an average of nearly 14 points. Clearly, support for legalizing marijuana in Colorado was not simply a question of “blue” vs. “red” voters.

In Washington, with more than 90 percent of ballots counted, I-502 also won handily, by 11 points—55.5 to 44.5 percent. The initiative pulled in almost as many votes (1,560,687) as did Obama (1,588,309), who prevailed in the state easily over Romney (1,183,614). Similar to the case in Colorado, I-502 did not quite keep pace with support for Obama in some of the state’s largest (and western) counties, including King County. But I-502 won in six counties where Obama trailed Romney. In those six counties, which include Spokane, I-502 won by an average margin of nearly 4 points, while Obama lost to Romney by an average of more than 8 points. Conversely, Obama won in two other counties (Clark and Cowlitz) where I-502 was defeated.

In Washington as in Colorado, marijuana legalization’s appeal spanned the ideological spectrum and partisan divides, and even defied typical geographical voting patterns.

The strong support for the initiatives comes as a reminder of the fundamental democratic notion that as public attitudes and preferences evolve over time, laws—even drug laws—that were shaped under different circumstances will eventually need to be adjusted to suit new realities.

The implementation and impacts of Amendment 64 and I-502 will ultimately depend on the complicated interplay of politics and legal stakes entailed in contemporary federalism. But it’s a safe bet that now that that Colorado and Washington have put legal marijuana on the map, fresh initiatives to legalize marijuana will be on the ballot in other states in the years ahead, and that federal marijuana law itself will eventually be revised to keep up with the times.