The principal objective of the progressive movement was eliminating corruption in government, and to accomplish that goal, proponents sought ways to take down the powerful and corrupt political bosses and to provide access by ordinary Americans to the political system – a concept called direct democracy, as contrasted to representative democracy.
It was during this period that the concept of direct primaries to nominate candidates for public office, direct election of U.S. senators, and universal suffrage for women gained traction. And, most important to our work, the procedures known as referendum and initiatives began to be adopted in several states.
In 1902, Oregon was the first state to adopt the option of initiative and referendum to change public policy, permitting citizens to directly introduce or approve proposed laws or constitutional amendments. This process was called an initiative if the change originated by action of citizens, without the involvement of the legislature, and as a referendum if it originated from the legislature but was referred to the voters to decide.
By 1920, a total of 22 states had adopted provisions modeled on the Oregon system. Today, a total of 24 states offer a voter initiative. In the rest of the states, the only avenue to change public policy is through the state legislature.
This brief history of direct democracy is relevant today because it is this access to direct political action by voters that has allowed marijuana legalization to move forward, years earlier than would have been politically possible through the action of state legislatures.
The four states and the District of Columbia that have approved full legalization for all adults, and the five states that will be voting on full legalization in November, all rely on voter initiatives. These progressive procedures have worked precisely as they were intended back in the Progressive Era: They have allowed citizens to go around the establishment to alter the status quo.
Voter initiatives are unpopular among most elected officials.
Altering the status quo has not taken place without some legal kicking and screaming by the elected officials in those states. It comes as no surprise that most elected officials do not appreciate the fact that public policies in their states can, when necessary, be changed without their consent.
As we approach the end of summer and the coming fall elections, we once again see examples of the extraordinary time and resources many establishment politicians and other anti-marijuana zealots are willing to invest to try to prevent citizens in their states from voting directly on marijuana policy.
The reason, of course, is obvious. According to recent national polls, a clear majority of the American public (between 55 and 61 percent) supports an end to marijuana prohibition. If given the opportunity to vote on the issue, they will vote to legalize marijuana.
Elected officials, who otherwise claim to represent the will of the voters in their states, and other self-appointed moral guardians, go to great lengths to try to stop the votes from happening.
Democracy is something they support so long as the public favors the same policies they favor. When the public gets out ahead of the establishment, democracy be damned; they will use any tools available, including procedural and constitutional challenges, to avoid allowing the voters to decide the issue.
Full legalization proposals.
We will have full legalization measures on the ballot in five states this fall: Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Arizona, and California. A sixth, Michigan, would have qualified but for last-minute legislation.
In several of the states with pending initiatives, establishment prohibitionists have gone to court in a desperate effort to get the courts to intervene to keep the measures off the ballot.
In Maine, Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap attempted to invalidate a significant number of the signatures gathered by the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Maine, arguing that the signature of a single notary did not match the one on file with the state. Fortunately, Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy overruled Dunlap’s decision. When the signatures were recounted, the measure, Question 1, qualified for the ballot.
In Massachusetts, once the Secretary of State had qualified the legalization initiative for the ballot, a group of prohibitionists calling themselves the Safe and Healthy Massachusetts Campaign sued to have the measure removed from the ballot, claiming it violated the constitutional limitation prohibiting an initiative from dealing with two unrelated topics. This challenge was subsequently dismissed by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, and the measure, Question 4, will now appear on the November ballot.
In Arizona, a group calling itself Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy — including two prominent country prosecutors and the Arizona Chamber of Commerce — filed suit to try to keep the legalization initiative off the ballot, after it had been qualified by the Secretary of State. The group claimed that the 100-word summary (a limit set by statute) did not accurately reflect everything contained in the 30-page proposal. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Jo Lynn Gentry rejected the argument and approved the measure, Proposition 205, for the ballot.
In California — the big enchilada for the 2016 elections and a state in which opponents to an initiative are permitted to include on the ballot their reasons for opposing the proposal — it was the proponents who went to court. The Yes on 64 advocates successfully challenged all six arguments that opponents had wanted to appear on the ballot, and Superior Court Judge Shelleyanne W.L. Chang found all six “false and misleading.” She ordered the opponents to modify their arguments, most of which falsely claimed the initiative would permit pro-marijuana ads to appear on radio and television and would appeal to children.
And in Michigan, where proponents, MI Legalize, had turned in a sufficient number of signatures (more than 350,000) to qualify a legalization measure for the ballot, the state legislature quickly rammed through a new law in June declaring signatures older than 180 days to be invalid, leaving proponents shy of the required number of signatures. Proponents have filed suit against the state, challenging the new limitations on constitutional grounds, but it appears the appeal will not be decided in time for the initiative to appear on the 2016 ballot, even if the appeal succeeds.
Of the five full-legalization initiatives that will appear on the ballot this fall, only the Nevada initiative, Question 2, was free from a court challenge. Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller certified the proposal for the ballot at the end of 2014. While there are certainly organized opponents, none elected to challenge the measure in court.
In the short term, proponents of legalization will continue to focus efforts in the states that offer the option of a voter initiative. So long as our elected officials, and the establishment interests they represent, continue to support the status quo of prohibition, it makes sense strategically to bypass the state legislature where possible.
But that is a strategy that must eventually evolve, as 26 states simply do not offer that option. For that half of the country, we will have to win the old-fashioned way: By building majority support among state legislators to pass the proposal through the legislature.
It’s a significant challenge for sure, but as we’ve demonstrated with the drive to legalize medical marijuana, after a few more states have adopted legalization by voter initiative, enacting legalization by statute will become more realistic.
For those who live in one of the 26 states without an initiative process, we must continue the painfully slow process of convincing individual legislators that prohibition of marijuana is a failed public policy and that full legalization makes sense.
Many already understand this but continue to fear being labeled “soft on drugs” should they acknowledge the obvious. It is frustrating to have to win over supporters one at a time, but each year it becomes easier as public support for legalization continues to increase, and elected officials ignore the wishes of their constituents at their own peril.
This column first ran on ATTN: