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Message-Id: <>
Date: Tue, 30 Aug 94 11:20:04 EDT
Subject: FYI:  recent NORML article on initiatives

"Take the Initiative?"
by Chuck Thomas, Publications Editor
August issue of ONGOING BRIEFING
A monthly publication by the National Organization for the Reform of
Marijuana Laws (NORML)
1001 Connecticut Ave., NW
Suite 1010
Washington, D.C. 20036

Throughout the past year, activists in Arizona, California, Colorado,
Michigan, and Washington strived to collect enough signatures to get
marijuana law-reform initiative questions placed on their states' 1994
election ballots. Each of these endeavors failed to produce the required
number of signatures by its July deadline; on average, less than one-third of
the required number of signatures was obtained. Organizers in these states
have since lamented that the project exhausted their financial and human
resources. Clearly, it is time to seriously consider the advantages and
disadvantages of this particular reform mechanism.

An initiative is "an arrangement whereby any person or group of persons may
draft a proposed law x and, after satisfying certain requirements of numbers
and form, have it referred directly to the voters for final approval or reject
ion." Twenty-two states allow voters to legislate directly through ballot
initiatives.  [1]  See map, p. 2. Activists must first garner a certain
number of signatures-usually about 5% of the voter turnout in the most recent
election-for an initiative question to be placed on the ballot.

For decades, marijuana law-reform activists have found ballot initiatives an
appealing concept. The battle for reform is often quite frustrating.
Understandably, many activists do not want to spend years lobbying, building
coalitions, and gradually chipping away at prohibition if they perceive that
they can simply get an initiative on the ballot and achieve total
legalization in one fell swoop.

Four other commonly touted advantages of the ballot initiative process

 - An initiative enables the legislation to be passed exactly as drafted,
with no compromises, revisions, deletions, or amendments;

 - It provides a common goal for activists to work toward, thereby raising
hope and building the movement;

 - The act of collecting signatures and promoting its passage-as well as the
inclusion of the text of the initiative on the ballot itself-is an effective
way to educate the public; and

 - Even a failed attempt can send a strong message to the legislature.

Indeed, these are all possible advantages of launching an initiative.
However, it is extremely important to explore all options before choosing a
course of action. Reform can also be achieved through the state legislatures
and Congress, state and federal courts, and executive agencies. A discussion
of the pros and cons of each of these routes is beyond the scope of this
article; however, the merits of ballot initiatives should be viewed in the
context of the other strategies.

Before embarking on an initiative campaign, it is wise to thoroughly examine
each potential benefit of taking this approach:

- Are initiatives a viable shortcut to reform? Initiatives enable voters to
make laws directly, rather than through the votes of their elected
representatives. If "the people" want to legalize marijuana and the state
legislature refuses to comply, an initiative might be the most efficient
path. Unfortunately, the vast majority of voters do not want to legalize

Some people might find this shocking. "Almost everyone I know wants marijuana
to be legalized," they argue. Scientific surveys show otherwise. According to
the National Opinion Research Center, only 18% of its sample of American
adults answered "should" to the question "Do you think the use of marijuana
should be made legal or not?". Even in 1978, only 30% said "should."  [2]

How can this be? Most people associate with those who share the same general
values and beliefs; consequently, the percentage of one's friends who support
reform does not reflect the true percentage of anti-prohibition voters.
Scientific surveys are not perfect, but they do provide a more accurate
estimate than radio and magazine call-in polls. Many activists experience a
false sense of hope as call-in poll results typically reveal overwhelming
support for reform. For example, the July 31 Parade magazine reported the
results of a 900-line call-in survey through which more than 75% of the
respondents expressed that marijuana "should be as legal as alcoholic beverage

Although call-in surveys overestimate the number of supporters, they serve a 
useful function: They demonstrate how many people feel strongly enough about
the issue to take the time and spend the money to voice their opinions. It
can thus be argued that voters who base their choice of candidates solely on
the marijuana issue are more likely to favor reform than not. This
"single-issue voter" phenomenon can have a remarkable amount of pull in an

Unfortunately, the fact that a solid minority of citizens feel very strongly
about an issue has little bearing upon an initiative outcome. Everyone who
opposes reform-including the multitude of voters without very strong feelings
on the matter-has the option to vote "No" on a ballot initiative without
impacting the choice for other issues and candidates. 

Before getting involved with a ballot initiative, it is crucial to accurately
determine the percentage of voters in the state who already agree. If a
near-majority already agree, then an initiative is worthy of further
consideration. If not, it should be avoided-or at least postponed until other
methods have been exhausted.

The initiative process is designed to enact laws that the people really do
want. The legislature, on the other hand, is supposed to do what is best for
the constituents, even if a majority of the voters do not realize it at the
time. Marijuana Prohibition is wrong. It is costly, destructive, and
unworkable. Every comprehensive, objective commission report of the past 100
years has already come to this conclusion. Which task seems easier:
convincing a majority of the state's legislators (usually fewer than 100
people) or a majority of the voters (100,000s or millions of people)?

The question is not hypothetical. Between 1973 and 1978, ten state
legislatures and one state Supreme Court decriminalized marijuana, reducing
the maximum penalty to a small fine (no prison sentence, no criminal record).
Despite dozens of attempts over the past few decades, not one state has
reduced its marijuana penalties as a result of a ballot initiative. Most
attempts failed to make the ballot, and those that did were soundly defeated.
For example, the 1972 California Marijuana Initiative received only 33% of
the vote; the 1986 Oregon Marijuana Initiative received just 27%. The only
statewide marijuana-related ballot initiative that ever passed was the 1990
Alaska initiative which re-criminalized simple possession!

Poor initiative outcomes are not peculiar to the marijuana issue: Analyses
have found that voters typically favor "conservative" social measures.  [1]
 Driven by fear and limited by ignorance, most voters are far more likely to
favor maintaining the status quo than taking the bold step of legalizing

- Do initiatives enable the legislation to pass exactly as drafted? Yes, in
15 of the 22 states that allow initiatives. See map, this page. This feature
would be a bonus if a majority of the voters in a particular state really
wanted full repeal of Marijuana Prohibition. But because most people oppose
full legalization, they will vote "No" on the overall proposal even though
they might support certain reform provisions.

An initiative that asks for too much is not likely to win many votes. The
more sweeping the proposed reform, the more likely the voters are to find
something in it that they do not like. Some initiatives actually include a
call for amnesty and restitution for prior offenders. Even people who believe
that it should no longer be a crime to possess or cultivate marijuana would
probably not vote in favor of distributing billions of dollars to former
marijuana law convicts.

Unlike the legislature, voters do not have the option to compromise or water
down the proposal; they simply vote "No." Indeed, only about one-third of all
state initiatives that managed to get on the ballot from 1898 to 1976 have
passed.  [1]

- Do initiatives raise hope and build the movement? In some cases and to some
degree. In order to be successful, however, substantial support should
already be in place. An initiative is a legislative tool, not a pep rally.
Just as one must dig a foundation before erecting a building, a strong
movement must already exist or the question will fail to even get on the

When dozens of committed activists spend months collecting signatures, only
to wind up tens of thousands of signatures short and thousands of dollars in
debt, the results are predictable-burnout, disillusionment, and

Alternatively, a steadily growing wave of hope can be developed through the
process of achieving small victories and building upon the momentum. A small,
local victory can garner sufficient media coverage to increase involvement
and build an effective organization.

There are many possibilities for a good first victory. One option is to fight
against an unfavorable bill. By monitoring legislative activity, compiling
the necessary data, testifying before the appropriate committees, and
organizing letter-writing campaigns and media blitzes, activists with limited
time and money can prevent new, harmful laws from being passed. Important in
and of itself, this approach also has the benefit of demonstrating-to the
legislature, media, and activists-that legislative victories can be attained.
From the start, it demonstrates that the legislators can no longer expect a
free ride on the backs of marijuana consumers. After sending that message
over and over again, sharpening its lobbying skills and political savvy, and
increasing the quantity and quality of its membership, an anti-prohibition
organization can then take the next step and use the legislative process to
reform or repeal present policies and laws. 

Another example of a more attainable victory is a local initiative, as 39
states allow (see map, this page), provided that (1) the locale is small
enough to enable the petitioners to collect enough signatures, (2) there is
already a strong enough local movement to get the job done, and (3) there is
absolute certainty that the voters would favor the measure.

Residents of the liberal college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, secured
decriminalization in their town through a ballot initiative in the early
1970s. Voters in San Francisco (1991) and Santa Cruz (1992) passed
non-binding resolutions recognizing marijuana's medicinal value with near-80%
pluralities. Each victory was an important step toward more significant
policy and legislative changes. However, even medicinal marijuana initiatives
are not foolproof. That activists in Denver were recently unable to collect
enough signatures to get a medicinal marijuana question on the local ballot
demonstrates that a strong movement must exist beforehand.

Strangely, many initiative proponents claim that initiatives are a good idea
because they "give people something to do." This is a prime example of the
problem with thinking tactically rather than strategically. Organizers should
instead consider, "What do we want to accomplish? What is the best path to
take? What needs to be accomplished? Who are the best people for the tasks at
hand?". Following this approach will ultimately lead to a fully orchestrated
endeavor, with all of the participants fully empowered to apply their best
skills and attributes exactly where they are needed.

- Are initiatives an effective way to educate the public? Public education is
a means, not an end. The primary purpose of an initiative-above and beyond
all else-is to enact legislation. Public education definitely is necessary,
but talking to people one by one on the street is highly inefficient. If the
goal is to educate the masses, the mass media should be utilized. Television,
radio, newspapers, magazines, and computer bulletin boards are even more
important for the initiative process than for most other methods of reform.
Too expensive? Too difficult to master? Consider this: In 78% of the
initiative campaigns studied from 1976 to 1982, the side that spent the most
money on advertising won the election.  [3]  Hence, if you don't have the
money to advertise, don't launch an initiative.

- Do initiatives-even failed attempts-send a strong message to the
legislature? Yes. If a solid body of support is demonstrated-for example, 45%
of the voters-the legislators might be more willing to consider positive legis
lative action. "If nearly half of the voters want full legalization, it
surely would not be political suicide to enact some form of
decriminalization," they might reason.

Unfortunately, failed initiative attempts-especially those that do not even
muster enough support to get on the ballot-send a different message to the
legislature: "Marijuana law reform is a dead issue." Prudent activists should
never haphazardly assume such a potentially disastrous risk.

A recent opinion piece in the Jackson Citizen Patriot-the only daily
newspaper in Jackson City, Michigan-best illustrates the damage caused by
failed initiative attempts: "Still, the effort [to place a marijuana question
on the ballot]  was a public service, for it demonstrates that there are,
among Michigan's 9.3 million residents, only a tenth of a percent who would
write a pot-smoking provision into the Constitution."

In a nutshell, organizations considering the option of working on an
initiative should consider the following questions:

 - Do we presently have a large (i.e., thousands of active members throughout
the state), strong, well-financed movement?

 - Have we achieved a string of increasingly significant victories?

 - Have we perfected our skills at communicating, fundraising, delegating,
debating, networking, advertising, garnering good media coverage, and
collecting and analyzing research?

 - Have we diligently directed our efforts legislatively-but gotten nowhere? 

 - Is it abundantly clear that our legislative failures had absolutely
nothing to do with our own organizational inadequacies?

 - Have we constructed a question on which a near-majority of voters would
definitely, positively vote "Yes"? Are we sure?

 - Will we be able to raise the $100,000s it will take to finance the
signature-gathering phase and the advertising campaign?

If the answer to even one of these questions is "no," then an initiative is
not the way to go.


 1.  A. Ranney, "The United States of America," in D. Butler & A. Ranney
(editors), Referendums: A Comparative Study, (Washington, D.C.: American
Enterprise Institute, 1978).

 2.  U.S. Department of Justice, Sourcebook of Criminal Justice
Statistics-1992, (Washington, D.C.).

 3.  B. Zisk, Money, Media, and the Grass Roots: State Ballot Issues and the
Electoral Process, (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1987).