From: NATLNORML@aol.com Message-Id: <firstname.lastname@example.org> To: email@example.com 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.  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 include: - 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 marijuana. 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."  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 s." 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 election. 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.  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 marijuana. - 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.  - 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 ballot. 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 demoralization. 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.  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. References 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).