LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - After a decades-long campaign to legalize marijuana hit a high mark in 2012 with victories in Washington state and Colorado, its energized and deep-pocketed backers are mapping out a strategy for the next round of ballot-box battles.
They have their sights set on ballot measures in 2014 or 2016 in states such as California and Oregon, which were among the first in the country to allow marijuana for medical use. Although those states more recently rejected broader legalization, drug-law reform groups remain undeterred.
“Legalization is more or less repeating the history of medical marijuana,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “If you want to know which states are most likely to legalize marijuana, then look at the states that were the first to legalize medical marijuana.”
The passage of the ballot measures in Colorado and Washington state in November allowed personal possession of the drug for people 21 and older. That same age group will be allowed to buy the drug at special marijuana stores under rules set to be finalized next year.
No other states have legalized marijuana, America’s most widely used illicit drug, for recreational use. The drug remains illegal under federal law. Connecticut and Massachusetts also approved medical marijuana in 2012.
The efforts in Washington and Colorado demonstrated significant funding might.
The Drug Policy Alliance spent more than $1.6 million as one of the main funders of the Washington state campaign. Peter Lewis, chairman of insurance company Progressive Corp, gave $2.5 million to the Washington campaign, and travel guide author Rick Steves chipped in another $350,000, according to records.
Ahead of the Colorado vote, the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, which has been active in campaigns around the country, gave about $1 million to the effort, state records show.
A big question mark hangs over whether the pro-legalization momentum could be slowed if the federal government takes an aggressive stance against the new laws.
The U.S. Department of Justice has been mostly silent on the issue. President Barack Obama said in a TV interview this month it did not make sense for the federal government to “focus on recreational drug users in a state that has already said that, under state law, that’s legal.”
In 1996, California became the first state to allow medical marijuana by a popular vote, and Oregon and Washington state were part of a second wave in 1998. But Oregon rejected a marijuana legalization ballot measure in November, while California voters did the same in 1972 and 2010.
The 2010 ballot measure in California failed to sway voters because it would have left regulation to a hodgepodge of local governments, instead of a uniform set of state rules, said Dale Gieringer, director of the California branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
This month, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom became one of America’s top state officials to call for reform of marijuana laws when he told the New York Times that laws against the drug “just don’t make sense anymore.”
Activists say they see demographic changes as giving them an advantage.
“We know that the younger generation is more supportive and the opposition really comes from the older generation. And as time goes on there’s more of the younger generation and less of the older generation,” Gieringer said.
“The second factor is we have these results in Colorado and Washington under our belt, so that sort of fertilizes the ground,” he added.
One key point marijuana advocates are thrashing out is whether to pursue any ballot initiative in 2014, or wait until the presidential election of 2016, when the turnout of their reliable base of youth voters will likely be higher.
Regardless of when a ballot initiative might come to California, the nation’s most populous state, groups opposing legalization vow to defeat it.
One of those is the California Police Chiefs Association.
“I have yet to hear a legalization proponent talk about how society will be enhanced, how the real social problems facing our country will be improved by legalizing yet another substance that compromises people’s five senses,” said John Lovell, government relations manager for the group.
A number of addiction specialists say that where marijuana is legalized, teenagers will come to believe the drug is harmless and more will use it.
Medical marijuana is already big business in California. The state Board of Equalization in its most recent analysis from 2009 estimated medical cannabis dispensaries ring up sales of $1.3 billion a year and pay sales taxes of $105 million.
Reporting By Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Edith Honan, David Brunnstrom and Steve Orlofsky