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When to Put Pot on the Ballot: 2014 or 2016?

Now that marijuana legalization initiatives have been approved in Colorado and Washington State, the big question for the marijuana reform movement is what should be the next move. Mainly, should there be a push to put similar legalization initiatives on the ballot in targeted states in 2014 or is it better to wait until the 2016 election?

It is an important strategic decision. Each initiative campaign requires a significant time and financial commitment. The close failure of an initiative can also run the risk of causing issue fatigue among voter,s forcing the community to wait several cycles before trying again. Without directly choosing a side, I want to present what seem to be the best arguments for each.

2014 – Moving as quickly as possible

  • The moral imperative – If you believe marijuana prohibition is bad policy that is needlessly hurting people then it can be argued that you have a duty to try to end it as soon as possible. You should not let bad policies persist a moment longer than absolutely necessary. There are a few states that might be able to narrowly approve a legalization measure in 2014.
  • Strike while the iron is hot – Support for legalization has grown steadily for the past two decades and it’s assumed support will continue to grow in the near future, but that might not be the case. It is possible that some new development in 2015, like say a strong federal response against Colorado and Washington State, could temporarily reverse this trend. If an initiative looks like it stands a decent chance of winning in 2014 it might make sense to seize the moment on the off chance that the support could drop before 2016.
  • Maintaining the momentum – People are currently excited about the recent victories but four years is a long time. If an initiative won in 2014 it could help keep the issue prominent.

2016 – Waiting for the best chance of success

  • A more favorable electorate – 2016 will be a presidential year election. Traditionally, presidential elections see much higher turnouts from young voters who tend be the strongest supporters of legalization. Post-election polling indicates that if California’s 2010 Proposition 19 had been on the ballot during a Presidential election it would have done roughly two percentage points better. That could easily make the difference between a narrow win and a narrow loss.
  • Support will likely keep growing – Polling shows support for legalization has been growing steadily for decades and it will likely continue to grow. Waiting just two extra years could make winning an initiative campaign noticeably easier.
  • More time to build support – Part of why Amendment 64 did so well in Colorado is that activists in the state had spend years laying the groundwork. The extra time could be used to better prepare for the campaign.
  • A premature loss could destroy the national narrative – The recent victories have created the national perception that legalization has momentum, but if the next set of initiative campaigns happened prematurely and failed, that could ruin this narrative. This narrative perception is very important because less than half the states allow initiatives and eventually the issue will need to be dealt with at the federal level. For legalization to spread to non-initiative states legislators need to feel there is a broad wave of support for change.
  • Potential for a friendly presidential nominee – With support for legalization growing there is a good chance at least some of the presidential hopefuls in 2o16 might try to curry favor with young people on the issue. People might be more inclined to vote for a legalization initiative if at least one of the presidential candidates promised not to use the federal law enforcement to interfere.

A the moment there seems to be some coalescing around the strategy of waiting until 2016. At the recent NORML conference in California there was mostly agreement among activists that 2016 was the best time for a legalization initiative. In addition, MPP is currently planning to focus most of its state-wide initiative efforts on getting ready for 2016. It is still roughly a year before any decision will need to be made so of course everything is subject to change based on new developments.

Photo by marijuana2007b under Creative Commons license.

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Jon Walker

Jon Walker

Jonathan Walker grew up in New Jersey. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 2006. He is an expert on politics, health care and drug policy. He is also the author of After Legalization and Cobalt Slave, and a Futurist writer at