Marijuana legalization is far from inevitable

Since the 2012 election, national news coverage about marijuana has focused almost solely on the states of Colorado and Washington, creating the impression the country is moving toward legalization. But anti-marijuana forces actually won most of the contests in 2012 and in 2010, and lost only when outspent by large margins.

So if the Arizona Legislature refers Proposition 203 back to the voters, which Rep. John Kavanagh has proposed, we will not be out of step with the rest of the country. A look at recent votes shows why:

In the past two elections, voters in four states considered initiatives to legalize pot. This year, Washington and Colorado voted “yes,” while Oregon voted “no.” Two years ago, California voted “no.”

In those same two elections, another four states voted on medical marijuana. The initiative in Massachusetts passed with 63 percent of the vote, while Arizona’s squeaked by with 50.1 percent. In Arkansas and South Dakota, the ballot measures were defeated.

So when voters considered legalization and medical marijuana, each side won half the contests. But there were also ballot measures to allow marijuana dispensaries in states where medical use was already legal, and the marijuana lobby lost those every time.

In 2012, five California cities voted on initiatives that would have allowed dispensaries; all five voted it down. In 2010, Oregon voters rejected a similar initiative. These two liberal West Coast states where voters saw the real-world effect of medical marijuana up close are apparently having second thoughts. Reconsidering Prop. 203 would be an expression of the same concerns.

That’s how the voting went, but money really explains how tenuous the pro-marijuana victories are. In Colorado, the marijuana lobby spent $3.5 million while opponents of legalization brought in only $700,000. In Washington, it was even more lopsided. The marijuana lobby spent $6 million, while opponents had just $16,000. That’s 375 to 1. It’s not easy to get out your message against those odds.

Money also mattered in the two states that passed medical marijuana laws. In Arizona, opponents were outspent $800,000 to $25,000. In Massachusetts, it was $1 million against a mere $600.

This financial advantage makes a big difference. First, it can cost several hundred thousand dollars to get an initiative on the ballot. So if it passes, and the public later decides they were misled and so-called “medical” pot goes mostly to drug abuse, it can be prohibitively expensive to get the issue back to the voters.

Second, marijuana advocates depend on misleading the public to win elections. Opponents can defeat these initiatives only if they can expose the deception.

For example, to pass medical marijuana laws, the marijuana lobby runs ads designed to give the impression that the law is only for serious illnesses like cancer. That’s what happened in Arizona. And without money, opponents couldn’t tell voters that in most medical marijuana states, over 90 percent of the pot goes to people who claim pain, not serious illness.

The marijuana lobby told voters in Washington that regulating marijuana would keep it out of the hands of teenagers. However, states with medical marijuana laws have much higher rates of teenage marijuana use, even when it’s strictly regulated. Voters never heard that message.

In Arizona, the Marijuana Policy Project called its campaign “Stop Arresting Patients.”  They wanted us to picture grannies in prison, doing their knitting surrounded by tattooed gang-bangers. But the marijuana lobby was never able to name a single genuine patient in jail or prison on a simple possession charge. That’s because there aren’t any; no one is arresting genuine medical patients. The whole premise of their campaign was false, but opponents couldn’t get that message out.

Pro-marijuana initiatives have succeeded so far only because proponents can vastly outspend the opposition. And despite that advantage, they still lost most of the recent votes. In the California and Oregon legalization battles, pro-marijuana forces outspent opponents by more than 10 to one, and were still defeated. When opponents have the resources to fight back, they win.

So don’t assume that Americans are ready to legalize pot, or that Arizonans are happy with their medical marijuana law. If that were true, the marijuana lobby wouldn’t be spending millions trying to convince us.

— Carolyn Short is an attorney and chairperson of Keep AZ Drug Free, an organization that opposes legalization and medical marijuana laws.

Published: February 25, 2013 at 9:55 pm

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