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Drug Reform Ballot Initiatives Scramble to Recover

avatar Hilary Corrigan / May 15, 2020

Along with everything else, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the ballot initiatives which have been the driving force in cannabis and drug reform. In this presidential election year, voters across much of the country were expected to have their say on legalizing REC or MED. But the campaigns to gather the signatures needed to get initiatives on the ballot have been forced to cease operations amid the lockdown.

Here’s how closely watched campaigns in three states are adapting, or not.

Arizona

Cannabis industry insiders look to Arizona as a bright spot on the election landscape.

“We are expecting to qualify for the ballot and win,” said Stacy Pearson, spokesperson for Smart and Safe Arizona, the state’s REC ballot initiative, and a senior vice president at public affairs firm Strategies 360.

Proponents say legalizing Arizona would generate $3B in the first 10 years to fund public health, safety, colleges and roads. It would also allow for expunging the criminal records of those convicted of low-level marijuana charges.

The Arizona Dispensary Association is a main backer of the initiative. The effort needs 238,000 signatures by July 2 and says it already has crossed the threshold with about 300,000. The effort started last year and continues to gather more signatures to ensure a buffer. 

As in other states, efforts to allow the use of electronic signatures during the pandemic failed. So signature collectors set up at places like dispensaries and use masks, gloves and one-time-use pens. They also reach out to registered voters through text and email.

Pearson expects the initiative to win partly because of the boost it would provide the state’s budget. And the strong opposition to a failed 2016 REC ballot initiative has failed to materialize.

“That reflects the inevitability” that this will pass, Pearson said.

California

California had two drug-related ballot initiative efforts in the works for this year’s election. Once the lockdown took effect, neither were able to collect the hundreds of thousands of signatures necessary by the April 21 deadline. As a result, one effort is stalled and the other is considering a lawsuit.

The California Psilocybin Decriminalization Initiative aims to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms. The push stopped several weeks ago, campaign director Ryan Munevar said. The organization petitioned the state to allow electronic signatures, an extension or to just place all the remaining initiatives on the ballot whether they had the signatures or not. The state rejected the request, which didn’t surprise Munevar.

“We’re gonna have to run for 2022,” Munevar said. “It’s kind of like this limbo that we’re in.” He doesn’t know whether voters would have approved the ballot initiative, but he expects it would have obtained the more than 623,000 signatures required.

“I’m pretty confident,” he said. He did not have final collection numbers but said the effort was on track to succeed.

Meanwhile, the organizer behind the California Cannabis Hemp Heritage Act 2020 is considering legal action against the state. The aim would be to win a place on the ballot for several initiatives unable to complete their signature gathering efforts.

“We are not giving up. We’ve got way too much invested in this campaign and the issue in general,” said Patrick H. Moore, a longtime proponent of the effort.

The initiative aims to reform what it calls complications in Amendment 64, the 2016 initiative which legalized REC in the state. Moore said the existing law is too restrictive and imposes excessive taxes.

Like the existing law, the Heritage Act would allow REC and tax sales. But it would set specific caps on taxes and fees. It calls for half the taxes from sales to fund development of the industrial, nutritional and medicinal cannabis industries. It would also prohibit taxes on MED and prohibit city and county governments from imposing “discriminatory, excessive, or prohibitive zoning requirements and fees” on cannabis businesses. This would likely be welcomed by the industry since vast swaths of the state remain closed to cannabis businesses.

The state has rejected Moore’s requests to collect signatures digitally, or to put the remaining initiatives on the ballot. But the effort has attracted support from actors Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes, better known as Jay and Silent Bob, who did a Facebook video in March saying Amendment 64 rolled back rights and access to cannabis for some people.

The initiative needed about 640,000 signatures by an April 21 deadline. “It’s a near-overwhelming task,” said Moore, who has tried for years to get the proposal on the ballot. “It’s a massive undertaking.” He praised the simpler cannabis rules in states like Oklahoma, which has roughly three times as many dispensaries as California despite its far smaller and more conservative population.

“Oklahoma will be the new Humboldt in 10 years,” Moore said.

Oregon

In Oregon, two radical drug-related initiatives appear likely to make the November ballot. Both may have collected enough valid signatures and continue to collect more, by mailing out forms to voters.

The Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act would make Oregon the first state to remove criminal penalties for personal possession of small amounts of all drugs and direct people to drug treatment services. While it wouldn’t legalize, the effort aims to shift Oregon’s approach to help, rather than punish, those suffering from addiction. It calls for using existing marijuana tax revenue to fund addiction and recovery services such as supportive housing.

The effort gathered more than 125,000 signatures in March, just before the pandemic, according to Devon Downeysmith, the campaign’s communications director. That exceeds the approximately 112,020 required by July 2.

Although they can’t use digital signatures, the group has taken the campaign digital. They use digital ads and apps so people can circulate, download, print, sign and mail their signed forms back. They mail packets to those without printers, paying the return postage. They have hosted a virtual volunteer event to hear about the ways the pandemic has impacted those with substance abuse problems.

Downeysmith expects that because of the pandemic, more people will need the services that the effort aims to provide. Many people are home alone, depressed, unemployed—conditions that can exacerbate substance abuse. The petitioners include Anthony Johnson, a drug policy reform expert and former defense attorney who successfully petitioned to legalize marijuana in the state in 2014. Supporters also include the National Association of Social Workers, the ACLU and Oregon AFSCME, one of the state’s biggest public sector unions.

The state’s other petition is the Oregon Psilocybin Services Act. It would create a regulatory program allowing licensed psilocybin therapy, which has been gaining credibility in recent years.

A married therapist couple in Portland are the measure’s proponents. It has backing from the Bronner family of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, according to campaign manager Sam Chapman, and got a favorable tweet from author Michael Pollan.

The petition has more than 133,000 signatures and aims for 12,000 more. The effort would have met that target three weeks ago without the pandemic, he said. Now, the campaign has mobilized volunteers and supporters to get friends and family to sign and continues mailing packets out to people.

“We’re confident we’re going to make it, but we’ve got our work cut out for us,” Chapman said.

Correction: This article originally stated author Michael Pollan endorsed Oregon’s psilocybin initiative.

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Hilary Corrigan
Reporter