Marijuana Ballot Questions Win Big

  • November 06, 2013
  • By Maggie Clark

Support was high for marijuana ballot measures across the country yesterday. Voters in Colorado approved the world’s first taxes on the production and sale of marijuana. The money collected from a new 15 percent tax on wholesale marijuana and a 10 percent sales tax will go to marijuana regulation costs, school construction and public health initiatives. Colorado and Washington state last year legalized recreational use of pot.

“We are grateful voters approved funding that will allow for a strong regulatory environment, just like liquor is regulated,” Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper said in a statement. “We will do everything in our power to make sure kids don’t smoke pot and that we don’t have people driving who are high. This ballot measure gives Colorado the ability to regulate marijuana properly.”

At the city level, Portland, Maine became the first east coast city to approve marijuana legalization, allowing possession of up to 2.5 ounces of pot by adults 21 and older. The effort was largely financed by the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, a leading advocate for marijuana legalization in the states. Maine, along with Oregon and California, is a target for marijuana legalization either through the legislature or on the ballot in the project’s strategic plan. Possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana is only a civil violation in Maine, but advocates called the vote a key step as they gear up for a statewide legalization campaign for the 2016 session.

In Michigan, three cities, including the state capital, voted to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana on private property by anyone 21 years or older. Voters in Lansing, Jackson and Ferndale joined five other Michigan cities, including Detroit and Grand Rapids, which already decriminalize possession of small amounts of the drug.

The votes come less than a month after a Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Americans think marijuana should be legalized. Support for legalizing marijuana has been steadily growing since the mid-1990s, according to Gallup.

It’s unclear exactly what effect the individual city votes will have, since marijuana use is still illegal under federal law and most states' laws. In Maine, Attorney General Janet Mills characterized the vote as mostly symbolic. “While the people of Portland are free to express their views on marijuana or other topics of social importance, the marijuana ordinance of course does not override state or federal laws regulating the use, possession, furnishing and sale of marijuana,” said Mills in a statement. “In this regard, we view the referendum as somewhat advisory in nature.”

Attorney General Eric Holder recently directed U.S. attorneys not to pursue drug possession cases against individual users, while at the state level, approaches to marijuana arrests vary from city to city. More than 500,000 people were arrested last year for marijuana possession, according to the FBI’s uniform crime report.

In Michigan, the local changes won’t limit law enforcement’s ability to arrest marijuana users.

“Regardless of whether the proposed amendment is approved by the voters, marijuana will remain a controlled substance under state and federal law,” wrote Matthew Schneider, chief legal counsel to Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette. "City law enforcement will retain the authority to enforce criminal laws, without regard to any provision in the (city) charters."

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck told the Portland Press Herald that the ordinance would not affect how police enforce state marijuana laws. The mayor must issue an annual report on police enforcement of marijuana laws.