Ballot Initiatives for Marijuana Legalization Track Public Opinion

By Hannah Whiteker

Fans of direct democracy should be excited about the increased use of state ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana use. Direct democracy  allows citizens to enact and change laws, instead of electing representatives to make important decisions for them. One of the ways that the United States utilizes direct democracy is through state ballot initiatives. If a group of voters wants to get an initiative on the ballot to pass a law in their state (there is no initiative process for federal elections), the group must first get enough voters to sign a petition supporting the initiative. The number of signatures required varies by state. If the group satisfies the signature requirement, the initiative is put on the ballot for the next statewide election to be voted on by the people.

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This process may sound all well and good, but it can get complicated when the voters pass ballot initiatives and create laws with unintended consequences. Take for example Proposition 13, the “People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation” that Californians passed in 1978. This new law put a cap on tax rates of real property so that they could only be taxed up to 1% of their values. This initiative must have sounded swell to all property owners in the state, passing with over 60% of the vote. However, Proposition 13 caused problems unforeseen to voters at the ballot box. It turns out that property taxes were one of the main sources of revenue for the state government, so capping them made increased funding for public education, police, fire services or public libraries much more difficult. Also, the cap created a disincentive for homeowners to sell their homes and caused a shortage of affordable housing.

The argument against direct democracy is that it is not effective because it creates laws like Proposition 13 with unforeseen negative outcomes. Representational democracy may seem more favorable because it allows the voters to choose qualified representatives that study the bills, debate their merits, and listen to testimony from experts before creating law.

However, politics often make representatives hesitant to change the laws on the books, even when the public favors a change. The representatives’ reluctance is most likely because an individual politician has the best interests of her constituents in mind, but is also a self-interested actor that does not want to be voted out of office. Also, politicians are pressured to vote along with their parties, even when those votes don’t coincide with the views of their specific constituents.

So when elected officials will not pass a bill that has the voters’ support due to fear of losing reelection, direct democracy may become the more logical theory of government. If the goal of government is to provide the services and protections that the voters desire, a ballot initiative voted on by the voters is the only way to achieve that goal in these situations.

Marijuana legalization is one of the current political issue that has growing voter support, but remains a hotbed issue amongst politicians. In the last twenty years there has been an increase in initiatives able to get the required number of signatures on the ballot in state elections. An increase in initiatives on state ballots reflects the trend of growing popular support for legalization. However, elected officials’ inactions on the issue of legalization do not reflect this change in their constituencies. Where four states (Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington) have successfully legalized marijuana through ballot initiatives, no state legislature has ever passed a bill for legalization. Even more striking is the fact that out all fifty governors and one hundred U.S. senators, by October 2014, only one had publicly come out in favor of legalization. In Colorado and Washington, after initiatives had already passed to legalize marijuana use, both of the states’ governors refrained from coming out in favor of legalization and expressed even doubt about the future of the laws.

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Today, politicians see the successes of legalization in the four states that achieved it through ballot initiatives, and are slowly voicing their revamped opinions on the matter. These changes may even result in Vermont’s state legislature becoming the first state legislature to approve legalization in 2016. This year there have been several senators and house members at the federal level that came out in favor of legalization, and even one presidential candidate: Bernie Sanders.

These changes in politicians’ opinions have been slow and are not yet close to catching up with public opinion. In the meantime, voters are still using the direct democracy route to achieve their goals. Even in November 2015, Ohio’s voters struck down a legalization initiative in part because many marijuana advocates were against it.


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