WASHINGTON Voters in the U.S. capital and two West Coast states will decide in the Nov. 4 elections whether to legalize marijuana, pushing closer to the mainstream a notion that was once consigned to the political fringe.
Ballot initiatives in Oregon and Alaska would set up a network of regulated pot stores, similar to those already operating in Colorado and Washington state. A measure in the District of Columbia would allow possession but not retail sales.
If successful, the ballot initiatives could build momentum for legalization in other states and force candidates in the 2016 presidential election to take a stand on the issue.
Public opinion on marijuana has shifted sharply in the past several years, and polls indicate more Americans now support legalization than oppose it. Advocates say that, like gay marriage, legal pot is an idea that gains support once people see it in action.
"The more public dialogue that goes on about this issue, the more support there is," said Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project, which is supporting the legalization drive in Alaska.
Opponents say legalization will create an aggressive new industry that, like the tobacco business, will profit by marketing an addictive product to teens. Unlike gay marriage, legal pot will have harmful effects, many say.
"I don't know anybody who looks around and says, 'My life is better when everybody around me is stoned,'" said Kevin Sabet, a former White House drug-policy adviser who now heads up Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an anti-legalization group.
Few elected officials in the country support legalization and observers do not expect that to change any time soon.
"It seems that this is an area where the public is out in front of their elected officials," said Jake Weigler, an Oregon Democratic strategist not affiliated with the legalization effort.
So for the moment advocates are focused on ballot initiatives. Such referendums allow voters to shape policy directly at the state level: this year alone, ballots in various states include measures to raise the minimum wage, restrict abortion and ban certain types of bear hunting.
On the marijuana issue, voters in the District of Columbia back legalization by a two-to-one margin, according to recent polling, while a narrow majority supports legal pot in Oregon. Opinion polls in Alaska have been inconsistent.
Nationwide, roughly one in four Americans say they have used pot, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling. Some 47 percent support legalization and 35 percent oppose it.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but President Barack Obama has allowed Colorado and Washington to move forward with legalization. Federal prosecutors have been told to focus enforcement on areas such as interstate trafficking and selling to minors, rather than possession. The next president will have to decide whether to continue that approach or to insist that federal law trumps local concerns.
CHANGES OVER TWO DECADES
Marijuana has been edging toward legal status across the country since California became the first state to allow its use for medical purposes in 1996.
The medical use of marijuana, to ease ailments ranging from glaucoma to chronic pain, is now legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia. Florida may become the first state in the South to approve medical pot in November.
Some 18 states have also removed criminal penalties for possession of small amounts, as policymakers on the left and the right have questioned the social and fiscal costs of imprisoning nonviolent drug users. Nationwide, about 650,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2012, FBI statistics show.
Colorado and Washington opened the first state-licensed pot stores earlier this year, following legalization referendums in 2012.
Beau Kilmer, a drug policy expert at the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan think tank, said it is too soon to determine how those efforts are faring because there is not enough data to determine whether legalization has led to more crime, higher rates of underage use, or more people driving while high.
Colorado residents are split on legalization's merits. Some 51 percent of likely voters in the state support it and 41 percent oppose it, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling.
Opponents of legal marijuana are not like the anti-drug warriors of past decades. Many support decriminalization and medical use, if done carefully, but argue that other states should not be in such a hurry to follow Colorado and Washington all the way to legal pot shops.
"I don't want to speak for the next couple of years, but right now it's not the right choice," said Charles Fedullo, a spokesman for Big Marijuana Big Mistake, which opposes the legalization drive in Alaska.
Advocates have plenty of money to spend. In liberal-leaning Oregon, backers are spending $2 million on a prime-time TV ad campaign. Opponents, meanwhile, have raised a mere $168,000, largely from law-enforcement groups. In Alaska, a Republican-leaning state with a strong libertarian streak, backers have raised $867,000 while opponents have raised $97,000.
"This is a real David versus Goliath operation. We're the David," said Josh Marquis, an Oregon district attorney involved in the anti-legalization campaign.
(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by John Whitesides, Frances Kerry and Steve Orlofsky)