New York voters on Nov. 6 may not have the opportunity to approve or reject ballot items proposed by citizen action or the state legislature, but citizen lawmakers in six other states will vote up or down a variety of marijuana ballot initiatives that could, in the long run, have a major impact nationally and even here in New York.
Voters in two states, Massachusetts and Arkansas, will decide if marijuana can be used for medical purposes with the advice of a licensed doctor. If passed, Massachusetts will join nearby states - Connecticut, Vermont, Maine and Rhode Island - where the drug is already used to ease pain caused by cancer and other serious medical conditions.
In Arkansas, however, the stakes are much higher. The state could become the first in the South to break down the medical marijuana barrier. If voters in Arkansas say "Yes," other southern states could very well follow in the coming years.
The third state with a medical marijuana ballot initiative, Montana, is a bit different. The state legislature recently acted to remove parts of a 2004 citizen-approved medical marijuana law. The proposal on the ballot in November asks Montanans to repeal the legislature's action and reinstate the law as originally enacted in 2004.
New York voters should also keep an eye on potentially trend-setting ballots in Colorado, Oregon and Washington state, where marijuana is currently legal for medical purposes. Now, in all three states, propositions to legalize and regulate the use of marijuana for any purpose will be decided by the people. Passage in just one of these states will surely set off a major expansion of the marijuana policy debate nationally and in New York.
Not surprisingly, initiative supporters stress the potential benefits of legalizing the drug. In Colorado, Amendment 64 proposes a regulatory system for marijuana much like that for alcohol products and promises to reduce law enforcement cost and increase tax revenues.
Initiative Measure 502 in Washington state will not only legalize and tax marijuana sales; it will also prohibit driving under the influence of the drug.
The purpose of the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act of 2012, according to its supporters, is to protect children and youths and increase public safety by regulating the sale of cannabis.
Historically, the marijuana debate is following America's laboratory of democracy tradition. New public policy ideas are first tried in individual state "laboratories" before they are exported to other states or imposed nationally. The first state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana will certainly become a closely watched policy experiment.
State-level ballot initiatives also provide a much-needed means for the people to challenge one-size-fits-all federal policies such as the federal ban on medical marijuana. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now allow medical uses of marijuana - a direct rebuttal of federal laws that claim marijuana has no medicinal value.
By inviting the voters into the decision-making process, ballot initiatives become important public education events. Marijuana ballot initiatives, for example, mean voters have an opportunity to consider both sides of the issue and replace fear of the unknown with a more informed understanding of drug use. Once better informed, voters, not lawmakers in Washington or Albany, are ready to responsively make the rules by which they will live.
Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., lives in Colden and writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization. Write him at email@example.com.