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Marijuana ballot initiatives: billionaire's tool or direct democracy?

A slew of states are considering marijuana legalization or decriminalization via ballot initiative. Are ballot initiatives a more democratic way to make policy?

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Anthony Viator carries a bin filled with marijuana buds harvested from the farm of grower Laura Costa, near Garberville, Calif., Oct. 12.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

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Legislation easing legal restrictions on marijuana usage will be put to a “yes” or “no” vote in ballot initiatives in nine states on Nov. 8, with five of those states deciding whether to legalize its cultivation and consumption for recreational purposes.

Legalization stands a good chance of passing in at least four states, with polls showing a majority of voters approving it in California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada, which would join Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Washington, D.C., where the plant is already legal.

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It could make this November a month with major implications for national policy, as public opinion seems to have reached a tipping point – in an October Pew Center survey, 57 percent of US adults said they believed the plant should be legalized, with only 37 percent saying the opposite. With federal legislators largely unwilling to stick out their necks on an issue seen as minor, legalization proponents are increasingly drawing up ballot measures to put their cause directly to voters.

The tactic itself has turn-of-the-century roots in the Progressive movement, whose reformers managed to create the option in some states as a way to bypass corrupt and unresponsive elected officials and channel the popular will. And with much of the public feeling pessimistic about the government’s responsiveness to the popular will, it’s perhaps no mystery why some see ballot measures as a ray of hope.

For critics of the process, though, the drawbacks are legion. For starters, the way questions are actually phrased for voters can be confusing, misleading, or maddeningly specific, and may appeal to voters’ partisan sense rather than the wisdom of the laws at hand.

“[Y]ou must read the text. Not just the short ballot summary — the actual law,” wrote Michael Levinson, a Facebook employee and blogger, in an October post. “Because most ballot measures are abhorrently written. Many propose overly specific solutions or are overloaded with unrelated or unnecessary provisions.”

Meanwhile, special interest groups – including, perhaps most significantly, business interests – exercise even greater control over the measures than in the traditional legislative process, drawing up the proposals, collecting the signatures, and financing the campaigns.

In California, where voters will cast a ballot on a whopping 17 different propositions on Election Day, the campaign in support of marijuana legalization has raised more than $15 million, according to the Orange County Register. Half of it comes from Sean Parker, the Silicon Valley billionaire and former Facebook president. Another big chunk comes from George Soros’s Drug Policy Action, and a PAC funded by Peter Lewis, the late chief executive officer of Progressive Insurance.

“Legal marijuana is no longer a pipe dream: it's an investment,” Jack Pitney, professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, told the Los Angeles Times. “Public opinion has shifted strongly in favor of legalization, and the smart money is following the people.”

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The opposition's funding, while comparatively meager, comes mostly from two sources: a nonprofit affiliated with D.C.-based anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, and Julie Schaeur, a retired art professor from the East Coast who manages a family trust, writes the Register.

Out-of-state interests often drive funding for both sides. Mr. Lewis, a resident of Ohio who died in 2013, was instrumental in pushing decriminalization in states across the country, contributing 98 percent of campaign money for a 2012 measure in Massachusetts. And opposition to this year’s initiative in that state is being fueled by $1 million from Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino mogul who is a native of Dorchester, reported WBUR.

Daniel Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Florida who studies ballot initiatives, tells The Christian Science Monitor that big-money and corporate interests have taken leading roles in initiatives since states began to implement them.

The correlation between a campaign’s levels of financing and the passage of a given measure is not terribly strong, he says, partly because measures that reach the ballot often have a fair degree of support.

“Most financiers – be they special interest, interest groups, private citizens, or political parties – all of them are strategic actors. None of them are interested in throwing away their money,” he tells the Monitor.

“I’ve certainly written critically about ballot measures, but I think they have some value with respect to sending a signal to elected officials who often disregard median public opinion,” he says. “They’re a very good proxy of median voter attitudes.”

“It doesn’t mean they’re any more representative of the will of the people than representative democracy, but it’s a different way of channeling the concerns of registered voters who turn out.”

[Editor's note: This article has been corrected to clarify that the current ballot initiatives focus on legalization issues rather than decriminalization and to clarify sources of funding for opposition to an initiative in California.]

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