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The 2016 Marijuana Votes You Haven’t Heard About

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Lots of headlines are being generated by this week’s announcement that marijuana law reform advocates in California have collected enough signatures to qualify a legalization initiative for November’s ballot.

Many news outlets have taken note of similar measures that have already qualified in Maine and Nevada, and well-funded efforts to do the same in Arizona and Massachusetts.

And much attention has been paid to medical cannabis ballot campaigns in presidential swing states Florida and Ohio.

But there are a number of other important marijuana initiatives that seem poised to qualify for state ballots this year that have largely gone under the radar.

Here’s what you need to know:

Michigan

Without support from major national organizations like the Drug Policy Alliance or the Marijuana Policy Project, which have track records of qualifying and passing state cannabis reform ballot initiatives, grassroots activists in Michigan have already collected more than 280,00 signatures in support of putting a full legalization measure before voters this November.

Operating under the banner of MI Legalize, the advocates are proposing to legalize marijuana possession and home cultivation for adults over 21 years of age and set up a system of taxed and regulated cannabis sales. There would be no personal possession limit, and the measure would allow the transfer of up to two and a half ounces between persons, without compensation. Michiganders would also be allowed to grow up to 12 cannabis plants at home, not including clones and seedlings.

The measure would also allow a marijuana industry to flourish, generating new tax revenues for the state. There would be a 10 percent excise tax on legal sales, with 40 percent of that going to public schools, another 40 percent to the state Department of Transportation for road maintenance and 20 to the local communities the business operate in. The initiative doesn’t set a limit on the number of cannabis businesses and emphasizes local control in licensing.

Advocates need to collect 252,523 valid signatures from registered voters by June 1. But because people sometimes fill out initiative petitions incorrectly, the group has set a goal of collecting 350,000 total signatures by the deadline. After the petitions are turned in, the Board of State Canvassers must verify the signatures and determine whether or not the measure will appear on the November ballot at least two months before Election Day, November 8.

The statewide push follows a series of local voter-approved ballot measures which have removed criminal penalties for low-level marijuana possession under city ordinances or directed police to make cannabis arrests their lowest priority.

There has never before been a statewide vote on full legalization of marijuana in Michigan, but voters there approved a medical cannabis initiative in 2008 by a strong margin of 63 percent to 37 percent.

A poll conducted in March found that 53% of likely Michigan voters support legalizing marijuana.

Nicholas Zettell, deputy campaign director for MI Legalize, told Marijuana.com in an interview that the fact that the effort has largely gone under the radar of the national media and without the support of major drug policy reform groups hasn’t helped.

“Initially it had hurt in the sense that people didn’t give us the time of day when they found out we didn’t have an initial honeypot of financial backers or large reputable sources backing us at the national level,” he said. But “over time we managed to collect signatures, earn our own media attention and excite the general public to volunteer in a myriad of different ways. I think that has definitely helped us in overcoming the adversity of not having the national groups supporting us.”

The measure has since earned an endorsement from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and Zettell said he’s hopeful that if the measure qualifies for the ballot, major funders will step up to help ensure victory on Election Day.

“We would accept any help we can get, and we understand that we are one of 50 states and every state is deserving of legalization and repeal of prohibition on marijuana,” he said. “But there is for us as citizens, for some of us patients and others as activists or businesspeople, a serious sense of urgency here in Michigan. Our medical marijuana law has been wildly successful but it’s been read very narrowly by the courts and imposed upon by law enforcement and the criminal justice system quite a bit, to our dismay.”

Zettell said he is “entirely confident” he and his colleagues will end up getting enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, but would still like more support from national groups and funders.

“We are still raising money and we managed to raise $ 925,000, according to our last campaign finance report,” he said. “We need to breach $ 1 million to totally see this through the finish line.”

Arkansas

Advocates are hard at work to qualify a medical cannabis initiative for the Arkansas ballot this November and are well on their way toward collecting the 67,887 valid signatures from registered voters they need to make it happen.

Arkansans for Compassionate Care has about 82,000 raw signatures on hand right now, and has set a goal of collecting 120,000 before the July 8 deadline. The campaign has been checking signatures against the voter file as they come in and has been seeing validity rates at 70 percent or higher.

The measure lays out 56 medical conditions for which doctors can recommend medical cannabis. Qualifying patients would be allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana. Forty-nine nonprofit dispensaries would be authorized and regulated by the state Department of Health and would be vertically integrated, meaning they would both grow and sell marijuana. The measure also contains a hardship clause allowing patients who live more than 20 miles from a dispensary to grow up to five flowering and five nonflowering cannabis plants at home. Individual caregivers would be able to supply marijuana to up to five patients. The law would also contain a reciprocity clause recognizing medical marijuana recommendations from other states.

Arkansas voters narrowly rejected a medical cannabis measure in 2012 by a margin of 51 percent to 49 percent. In 2006, voters in Eureka Springs approved a measure making marijuana enforcement the lowest law enforcement priority for the local police department. Fayetteville voters passed a similar initiative in 2008.

Some medical marijuana bills have been introduced in the state legislature but none have ever been voted out of committee. Arkansas is one of only 10 states in the U.S. that do not yet have a law allowing for the use of non-psychoactive cannabis preparations that are rich in cannabidiol by certain patients.

Ryan Denham, deputy director for the campaign, told Marijuana.com in an interview that more than 1,000 volunteers across the state are collecting signatures, and that many of them are medical cannabis patients themselves.

Denham, who also served as campaign director for the 2012 effort, said he is “very confident” the measure will qualify for the ballot. “We are much further along than we were in 2012,” he said.

Despite the lack of national press attention, the campaign has received funding from major groups like the Drug Policy Alliance, the Marijuana Policy Project and New Approach PAC. Denham said that support would be enough to finish up the signature drive but that more would be needed to ensure victory at the ballot box.

“We’ll need to organize a strong fundraising campaign leading up to November to organize a solid get-out-the-vote effort and media campaign,” he said.

An August 2015 poll found that 84 percent of registered voters in the state support medical marijuana.

The lack of national attention hasn’t hurt the effort, Denham said. “It would help get the word out more, but we’ve been saturated with local media attention here. Most voters are well aware that there is medical cannabis initiative underway.”

Many voters remember voting on the 2012 measure, he added. “I don’t think lack of national attention has hurt us too much.”

Denham called Arkansas “a tipping point for cannabis reform.”

Pointing out that the state borders seven others, and includes multiple media markets, he said, “If we pass medical cannabis here it really sets an example for the rest of the south that its time for their state legislators and their voters to enact other comprehensive medical cannabis programs.”

Missouri

Advocates in Missouri are working to collect the 157,788 valid signatures they need from registered voters to qualify a medical cannabis measure for the November ballot. They’ve set a goal of collecting at least 250,000 signatures altogether, and so far have about that much in hand.

The campaign, New Approach Missouri, says it is on track to net about 275,000 total signatures and plans to turn in their petitions this Sunday, May 8, which is the deadline.

The measure would allow doctors to recommend medical marijuana to patients, who would then be able to possess and use marijuana and grow up to six cannabis plants at home. There is no strict list of medical conditions that qualify, so physicians could recommend cannabis to any patient they think it will help. The initiative will also create a system of regulated dispensaries around the state where patients could legally purchase marijuana. There would be a four percent retail tax on sales, which would go toward supporting the implementation of the program and fund healthcare and other services for military veterans.

It is expected that the Secretary of State will announce whether the measure has enough signatures to qualify for the ballot sometime in July.

Missouri activists have gotten some funding from the Drug Policy Alliance, but the Marijuana Policy Project has not yet contributed.

Amber Langston, deputy director of Show-Me Cannabis, a group helping to lead the campaign, told Marijuana.com in an interview that advocates consulted with the national groups every step of the way, including on the measure’s language. She said they purposely used petition and polling firms that major funders would trust, and that she is hopeful that if the measure does qualify for the ballot, national advocates will step in to help ensure victory.

“They want to see us succeed,” Langston said. “We laid groundwork and consulted them beforehand, and that has given them some confidence” in the effort.

Missouri voters has never before considered a statewide marijuana initiative. Local voters in Columbia did pass two cannabis reform measures in 2004. In 2010, voters in Cottleville narrowly defeated two nonbinding advisory questions on medical marijuana. In 2013 the St. Louis Board of Aldermen voted to lower local marijuana penalties.

State lawmakers have considered a number of comprehensive medical cannabis bills in recent years, but none have come close to being enacted. In 2014 the state legislature did pass a bill allowing people suffering from severe seizure disorders to use non-psychoactive cannabis preparations that are rich in cannabidiol, but it isn’t clear how many patients have been able to benefit from the restrictive regulations. This year the legislature came close to putting a referendum on the state’s August primary ballot to allow medical marijuana for end of life care, but it was narrowly voted down in the House.

Langston said that the fact that this year’s ballot initiative effort has largely gone under the national radar has had pros and cons. On the one hand, it has “given people confidence we are a homegrown initiative,” she said. But it has also “made it more difficult to raise money to get it accomplished and that’s been frustrating.”

A poll conducted by Missouri Scout last October found 70 percent support for the measure.

Langston said she is “very confident” the measure will qualify for the ballot and be approves by voters. “We’re gonna do it this time.”

Other States

It is also possible that voters in two other states could see nonbinding referenda on marijuana legalization this November. The legislatures in both Rhode Island and Vermont are considering bills this year to end cannabis prohibition, but some lawmakers have floated the idea of instead sending nonbinding measures to the ballots to let voters weigh in before legalization is enacted.

Additionally, advocates in Montana are working on a ballot measure to reverse significant reforms that lawmakers and courts have made to the state’s existing voter-approved medical marijuana law.

All told, voters in as many as 13 states could end up seeing important marijuana law reform measures on their ballots this November. That’s far more than any previous election cycle.

Photo Courtesy of bondgrunge.

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