2016 Will Be a Watershed Year for Marijuana Legalization

It’s been a year of preparation for those in the legalization movement. It’s a non-election year, with only one statewide measure on the ballot this November — Issue 3 in Ohio — which may answer the question of whether the lure of legalization will bring a surge of young voters to the polls in sufficient numbers to approve full legalization in an off-year election.

A victory in Ohio will challenge conventional wisdom that holds voter initiatives should never be scheduled in odd-numbered years; a defeat will reinforce the need to focus on even-numbered years.

2015 has also been a year of implementation of the legalization initiatives approved by the voters in Oregon and Alaska in 2014. Retail marijuana sales are scheduled to begin on October 1 this year in Oregon (the legislature enacted legislation permitting the existing medical marijuana dispensaries to begin selling to recreational users a year earlier than would have been the case under the terms of the voter initiative); while Alaska is still developing their regulations, hoping to have its retail stores up and running early in 2016.

2016 Should Be A Breakout Year

But the real focus for the legalization movement is 2016, a presidential-election year (when legalization initiatives generally do best) with full legalization initiatives expected to qualify for the ballot in several states, including Arizona, California, Maine. Massachusetts, Michigan, and Nevada. In addition, a coalition calling itself Show-Me Cannabis is mounting a serious effort in Missouri, although that seems less certain to qualify for the ballot; and voter initiative efforts have been announced in a handful of other states, including Wyoming (since withdrawn), Montana and Mississippi, that appear premature politically.

We have the real possibility of more than doubling the number of states with full legalization during 2016, which should boost the legalization movement into the political stratosphere and drive a stake through the heart of prohibition, once and for all. If we win four or five or even six more states next year, the game is over and we will have won. But none of that is certain, and each of these proposed initiatives faces serious challenges.


One fact of life for legalization proponents today is the likelihood that many of these efforts will be facing opposition from other legalization activists, who frequently favor less regulations and control, and in some states (Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Michigan) offer competing legalization initiatives that, were they to qualify for the ballot, would likely split the pro-legalization vote and assure legalization would lose at the polls. It remains to be seen if any of the competing initiatives will find the funding or political support to qualify for the ballot, and recent experience suggests they may not.

When marijuana legalization was just a theory of where we wanted to go, there were only two sides to the debate: those who favored prohibition and those who favored legalization. But as legalization became a real possibility, it became clear that not everyone agrees on what they mean by legalization. Should it be a system similar to the one for alcohol; should it be the “tomato model”, with no controls or limits; or something in-between. Are we willing to compromise in order to end prohibition, or do we wish to hold out for that elusive perfect system?

It is these different definitions of what legalization should look like that now divides the pro-legalization supporters into different camps, and finds us frequently opposing each other, at least during the early stages of policy change. We should accept this reality and strive to give everyone a fair chance to have their views heard and considered, while working to build a consensus coalition around a version of legalization that has the support of a majority of the voters, and can attract adequate funding to run a successful campaign. Otherwise we are just making a political statement about what we might like in a perfect world, without actually impacting public policy. And the arrests will continue.

California, the Big Prize

California, which is the most politically significant state in play for 2016, actually has at least six competing legalization initiatives that have been filed with the state, creating a confusing and potentially destructive political environment. Thankfully a Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy, headed by Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, after holding public hearings around the state, released in July a helpful policy analysis outlining the policy options available for regulating marijuana, and appears to be finding a middle-ground around which the majority of legalization advocates in CA can coalesce.

But it is California, after all, a nation-state with nearly 39 million people, so no one should expect all stakeholders will reach common agreement, and we know going in that there will be vocal opposition from some legalization supporters who favor less regulation, or no regulation at all. The goal, of course, is to bring as many stakeholders as possible together, and to try to ignore those who insist that legalization must be done their way, or not at all.

The California legislature appears to have set the table for full legalization in 2016 by finally (20 years after medical marijuana was first legalized in CA) enacting legislation to license and regulate commercial growers and retail sellers of medical marijuana, ending the confusing, unregulated medical marijuana system that had developed in the state. At last they will have rules governing the business of medical marijuana – providing a more legitimate basis for a legal recreational system to come next.

Laboratories of Democracy

Marijuana legalization is a nation-wide movement (more accurately world-wide), with each succeeding state building on the experience of those states that came earlier, and, because of differing regional attitudes about marijuana and marijuana smoking, no two state legalization systems will be the same.

That’s a good thing, as it permits the states to serve as “laboratories of democracy,” as former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once described our system of permitting the various states to test novel social and economic experiments, without directly affecting the entire country. Over time we will see what works best, and what does not, and we can arrive at a national marijuana policy that accommodates regional cultural differences, and that works for smokers and non-smokers alike.

2016 is our best hope for a dramatic political leap forward that will settle the legalization question for good.


This column first appeared on Marijuana.com.


28 thoughts

  1. Most Virginia politicians believe in prison time for marijuana users… They seem unwilling to bend on this or to allow us, the people of Virginia, to be able to vote on a legalization measure of any kind.

    If only we had the option to vote for anything other than what the current policies are I’m sure it would pass. The penalties are very harsh and unjust and because we are a “commonwealth”, even if we got the signature of 98% of Virginians on a legalization petition, they (the one’s in power here) would ignore it.

    Living in Virginia is so Un-American it is pathetic! Here, it is more like a dictatorship that has power shared among several dictators. The people have little to no power to change anything.

    That is why, as soon as we can afford it, my family will be moving somewhere we can get a real taste of the American dream of freedom and liberty.

    It is really ironic that Virginia has a motto: Virginia is for Lovers. Wow – unless you love the herb; in which case you better love your prison cell…

  2. Florida, although rather late in the game is collecting signatures for recreational use, although I don’t see it collecting enough signatures before February, at least we have a shot in the Sunshine State, since our lazy legislation didn’t do squat with medical this year.

  3. A new approach Idaho is hoping to gather enough signatures to make the 2016 ballot. I hear that they are doing well with it in Boise. The initiative seeks to legalize medical marijuana, decriminalize, 3 ounces or less, and has a provision for growing industrial hemp.

  4. INITIATIVES are great vs. legislature. Believe me the politicians will have a say once it is passed. The bad part is resistance to the will of the people by our elected officials. I wish law makers were sent to prison for implementing punishment on citizens on laws passed on proven false scientific facts(LIES). These fools have gone out of their way to hide the truth. Refusal to allow research for years so they can claim ignorance to knowing whether this plant has value. Like they say now we need time to do research on this newly discovered plant that was present in every pharmacy in the country in the early 1900’s”. If only they took 70 years to approve drugs for BIG PHARMA which would mean waiting 70 years to get campaign money. Pay attention and VOTE! THE BUMS OUT!

  5. Well said Keith; the definition of “legalization” has been forked into many roads, and yet the inevitability of it by any definition is a bright green flash of dawn upon the horizon… And the hubris in those states without voter initiatives is watching the sun set into the dark dusk from which prohibition will always be remembered for the American tragedy that it has been.

  6. This article in the Cannabist contends that candidates are pushing for votes from Colorado’s electorate.


    Money talks. The latest marijuana revenue reports in Colorado are shifting the national debate. I just wish SOMEone would get in the game and talk about the public schools this money built, the lives it has saved or even the fireman it hired.

    During the recession in 2010 I was framing a 17,000 sq ft house for a couple of builders in Colorado down here in Texas. People forget there was no work in Colorado. Fires burned and there were not enough fireman. So these guys flew 15 hours a week to build down in my hills.
    One evening, one of the builders, the lumber salesman and I went to have a beer after work and the subject got around the client’s children who have autism. Then the builder confessed his own son suffered from autism and the meds had awful side effects. I set my beer down and paused before saying, “This might surprise you, but we live in an over-prescribed society…” To which he laughed sarcastically and said “Noooo…”
    I thought again before making my own confessions, and said, “You have to be careful with those prescription meds. I’m no expert on autism, but I know there are varying degrees, and a child with mild autusm does not need the full blown presciption of one who has full blown autism…”
    “Then what do you recommend?” The builder and father asked rather exasperated.
    “Marijuana,” I said finally. About that time, The lumber salesman’s eyes nearly popped out of his head.
    “There are studies being conducted right there in the University of Boulder. They are the only people I know of brave enough to study the subject in the US. Here’s a number. You could go visit them in person.”
    “Why is that? Everyone afraid of the DEA?”
    “The doctors and scientists are afraid of losing their license, “I replied, “As of recently, Israel and Iran of all places have been leading the research on medical marijuana.”
    And then I told him something that wiped the builder’s smile away, and he became deadly serious and concerned when I said,
    “For the last 45 years the Office of National Drug Control Policy has been using our tax dollars to deny the medical efficacy of marijuana.”
    Finally, there was a long enough pause in conversation for me to get a bite out of my hamburger.

    “…THAT has to stop.” The builder said with conviction.

    Our conversation about medical marijuana ended yet his had just begun. I don’t know if he spoke with the wealthy owners about marijuana and autism; I don’t know if he became an activist or looked up that number I gave him from the University of Colorado, but it was soon afterwards that Colorado legalized marijuana and made world history.

    After all, in the face of government sanctioned propaganda and deadly pharmacueticals and a struggling family with a child suffering from autism, at what lengths would anyone go to provide safe effective treatment from marijuana?

    Movements for reform and better government are like giant waves that start by a drop and a ripple… But someone has to start them…

  7. If the effort in Ohio passes I will be very impressed and humbled. Still I have heavy doubts about it passing in OH.
    1st the off year isn’t attractive to voters who would likely vote in favor.
    2nd is that you have infighting among the pro-marijuana crowd. In that you have people opposing the amendment over language. Language that is already being reviewed and likely removed, doh. So you have pro-marijuana people voting against legalization. That alone tells me it will fail.

    Ohio will be a wake up call that it isn’t an easy shot. Likewise there needs to be better communication and cooperation if we hope to see this legalized. The bickering and competition has wasted time in Ohio.

    Again I hope to eat my words, I hope it passes. Not likely, but I damn hope it happens.

  8. Well, in 2015 it’s critical that we reformers have a win on Ohio. I hope legalizers are pulling out all the stops to get out the vote. Stuck here in Pennsylvania, I can tell you that the mostly Republican House is letting any and all kinds of cannabis legislation rot, despite overwhelming public approval of medical cannabis.


    We need a win in this part of the country.

    It can energize Pennsylvanians to put a fire under their politicians’ asses.

  9. the sad thing here and for other issues is that we elect and pay for these folks they are supposed to represent the people that have put them there to do just that very thing,yet they ignore the people,and do what they want,i just dont get it

  10. @ Miles,

    The situation in Va seems pretty intolerable.

    Regarding the latest news on decriminalization in Albq, the city commission once again voted 5-4 to decriminalize, like last year; I don’t know which Dem defected, or if in fact it was a straight party-line vote. The GOP Albq mayor, of course, has already mentioned that he will veto it.

    The NM State Fair just happened here, and I witnessed a young man (black) get busted for smoking a joint in his car in the parking lot–14 state cops got involved (!!) and he ended up getting his car impounded. That same night I saw a drunk get treated with kid gloves by three state cops, even tho he said things to them like “You need to get your heads out . . . ” etc.

    I used to think the Albq cops were the worst hard-asses in this city, but now think the state cops are even worse. Even tho Santa Fe decriminalized last year, some state cops are still busting people in that city, citing the state law as their justification.

    Susana Martinez set this state back a decade. I no longer am holding my breath waiting for Rec legalization to happen here.

  11. Some initiatives have a better chance in even numbered years, especially every 4 years in the Presidential election year because more people vote those years. We got 2016 coming up and then the next one will be 2020 – which is also a census year. Census years are every 10 years and high turnout is every 4 years, and that means that every 20 years is a high-turnout census year. We know that the vote during the census year determines the gerrymandering, so, that means every 20 years is the chance to have your side do the gerrymandering as the case may be. So, in 2010 the Republicans had the opportunity to gerrymander, and in 2020 the Democrats will have the opportunity to gerrymander, unless they wimp out.
    But all this is sometimes widely mis-understood, and the prohibitionists will come out from under the rocks and try to declare that they changed the momentum if they block the Ohio thing this year. Also, there is not a great incentive to explain this even and odd year stuff to people after a defeat, because factions focus on trying to blame each other for the defeat to get the upper hand.

  12. Let usa be usa. No divide and conquer. I have full faith in the responsible adults of america. Those who chose to smoke should be able to do so as they please, with the vast scads of non drug users not to interfere with intelligent kind appreciation of this short thing called life. God bless you all.

  13. I’m glad that all these states are coming on board with cannabis; however, I don’t see a push from NORML or any of the other organizations out there for states in the deep south. I live in Alabama, a deeply religious and blood red Republican state with a very draconian viewpoint on personal freedoms. At this time, I don’t see this state allowing even the slightest push for a ballot initiative let alone a petition for medical cannabis or legalization. It is my opinion that if the U.S. were allowed to be able to imbibe cannabis freely and without fear, that the steady state of anger and disrespect towards each other would abate. For now, I don’t see any chance of the use of being able to use cannabis or grow cannabis in my state in my lifetime, and I am 57 years old and a 100% disabled veteran. Keep up the good fight, though. One can only hope.

  14. zardoz582000 Yes, Alabama Republicans with their Republican judiciary system has to go. I see changes coming on fast, though. People are becoming more aware of the rest of the nation, thanks to the internet. All but the hard-core religious right are starting to feel embarrassed by their southern Republican peers. It’s getting harder and harder to justify their 1950’s mentality. It’s also becoming easier to “rock the vote” and even southern politicians are feeling the pressure of their constituent’s desire to inhabit the 21st century. That being said, I believe it’s imperative to let Alabama politicians know that a Republican judiciary system is so obviously biased that it cannot be tolerated by a 21st century populace. While I can tolerate AL. politicians, because they come and go, I will not tolerate an overwhelmingly Republican Alabama Supreme Court. What kind of Justice is that? That should be the first order of business for Alabamians. Diversity in the highest courts for true justice to prevail there.

  15. The limits on a peaceful persons freedom should be SELF IMPOSED, not EXTERNALLY imposed. Regulated and taxed are euphemisms for, “permission” from government.

    Free people don’t require permission to do things if the doing of the thing is not limiting another persons freedom.

  16. Miami-Dade, Key West, and the City of West Palm Beach have all now voted to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Plus, there are now multiple petitions that may get on the 2016 Florida ballot. The United For Care (unitedforcare.org) petition is almost certainly to be on the ballot and to pass in 2016. This would provide for much greater access to medical marijuana in Florida than the very narrow 2014 law approved by the Florida legislature (under which the first five dispensaries are supposed to be licensed by regulators shortly, but whose licenses will undoubtedly be challenged by losing competitors). Stephanie, the Florida Medical Marijuana Directory, buyflmarijuana.com

  17. Kansas legislative halls idolize the murderous John Brown while their elected officials turn a blind eye towards patient’s requests during legislative hearings lead by white haired people promoting intolerance and ignorance. Self medicating has taken away the monopoly of healthcare enslavement.

  18. @ Stephanie,

    Nice to see some positive shaking and moving in the South.

    @ Zardoz & TigerMoon, I’m pulling for ya!

  19. Kentucky should move forward, especially as Ohio could possibly go full legalization this year. Aside from opposing criminalization and illegality in principle, I think that the many impoverished communities in Kentucky would greatly benefit from full legalization, and could be the first “Southern” state to do so (not true south imo). This is badly needed revenue for the state, as well as a living for these communities. Existing KY law allows for up to 8 oz for a misdemeanor! I don’t know any other state that does that. It’s purely nonsensical to continue illegality in KY.

  20. I believe that most of us know the real reason that marijuana is illegal, but for those that don’t it is that the special interest group such as big Oil co’s and pharmaceutical that utilize fossil oil and are fighting to keep themselves rich and in power even at the expense of ruining our planet and taking away individual right. I cringe when I hear that the reason that marijuana is illegal it is to protect us from our selves; so by protecting us they arrest us and throw us in jail or prison and give us a criminal record which in turn makes it a Hugh hurtle to find a decent job to support ourselves and our families.Talk about hypocrisy, We need a real person in office that truly works for the people and not be bought like the typical politician. Read the phoenix project by Harry Braum and also the true history of marijuana. I would also like to see each candidate write an expose of what their agenda is and must adhere to it or be impeached for lying. I understand why politician dodge certain views, it’s to not commit political suicide, however it,s would be a breath of fresh air to see a politician stand on their platform and just do what the people had voted them in to do.

  21. After some thought, and after reading the replies to my first post, I’ve come to the conclusion that getting the message across to the Republican-based government here in the beautiful state of Alabama will require me to start a campaign and quit bitching about it. Does anyone have any input on how I can get started, especially with something like a ballot initiative, or petition? I would enjoy hearing about your ideas.

  22. @ Zardoz,

    You may want to consider joining NORML. I’ve been wanting to do that myself, but have been putting it off because of my job; that won’t be a problem for me in about a year from now.

    Have you tried calling your Reps or Senators? Often times, especially with heavily conservative Republicans that can be like beating your head against a wall, I know. As far as starting an independent campaign or movement, it has to start somewhere–maybe with a petition or setting up an information table at a university or something. Sometimes just getting the ball rolling can begin opening eyes.

    I myself have talked to family and friends where I live, trying to change opinions one mind at a time. It’s slow going, but at least it’s something. I do feel for you, though. Best of luck.

  23. Just a note about Michigan ballot initiatives: it’s not possible to split the vote. Each initiative gets an independent yes or no vote. If conflicting initiatives are passed, I have confidence that the legislature will somehow manage to implement an intersection of the most restrictive and inconvenient provisions of each, given their bungled implementation of medical cannabis, but that can be fixed in 2018 with more initiatives.

  24. I just don’t want more politicians telling me what I can’t do. It’s dumb. Plus, they gerrymander all the districts to server their own goals and whatever party, so voting is even less valuable. The worst part is that people have this blind affinity for America that I’ve never felt. I can never talk to these people who are far left or right and be like “you know the political strategy of our politicians is to divide and conquer, right?” Every time I turn on the tv, I find hatred for all things politician. I don’t trust our govt, they don’t trust us and it’s a shitty way to “live”. Weed is even legal in North Korea! Stupidity. Pure stupidity.

    On a non-weed related note, they also banned lead factories, meaning America no longer produces bullets. Sounds like a straightway to a police state. Only the ones in power have the guns? Watch out, there coming to take your dead Kennedy CDs away. Just wait.

  25. Treating MJ like alcohol in Florida is a bust. Alcohol disappears from a drivers blood in a day, while MJ stays for a month or so.

    The purpose of this bill seems to be to continue with MJ prohibition in Florida.


  26. It has more benifits and less concerns than,alcohol and u have your choice by other purchasing or not purchasing, why destroy others choices, it brings much needed revenue And medicinal help ,wakeup folks

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