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Recreational, Medical Pot Initiatives On Ballots Across Country


If 2012 was a triumphant election year for marijuana legalization, 2014 may be more mixed. Two years ago, Washington and Colorado became the first two states to approve recreational pot use. This time around, it's on the ballot in two more states, Alaska and Oregon - plus the District of Columbia. And voters in Florida will see a medical marijuana ballot measure as well. While the D.C. initiative looks likely to pass easily, the others are polling in the maybe to no category. We're going to explore why that is with Ricardo Baca. He edits The Cannabist website, which is part of The Denver Post. And he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

RICARDO BACA: Thanks much.

CORNISH: So let's start with Oregon and Alaska. What's the status of the referendum campaign in these two states?

BACA: Sure. Well, Alaska has already voted down two similar measures like this, you know. And in 2004, a similar initiative failed to legalize pot by a pretty definitive margin, 56 percent to 44. The polling there is very random and skewed, and it's not telling us anything. So I think people are very curious about what's going to happen up there. Looking at Oregon, you know, the data is - shows a very, very close race. And it ultimately comes down to youth showing up to the polls in the midterm election, which they traditionally aren't known to do.

CORNISH: So how much should we read into these state initiatives then? I mean, can we look to these states and see a broader movement?

BACA: Well, there's certainly momentum happening in America with regards to marijuana legalization. But I think we're going to find out a lot here on Tuesday. In addition, this is kind of a warm-up for 2016, when the presidential election comes on board and when the pro-marijuana lobby tries to legalize recreational cannabis in California, which is pretty much the gold standard that they have been waiting for.

CORNISH: Right. If we look at California, it was the first state to allow medical marijuana back in '96. But it still hasn't approved marijuana for recreational use. Does this reflect something broader? I mean, it - this is not on the ballot for California this year.

BACA: Exactly. And I think they were looking at a midterm election and thinking that their money would be best saved for a presidential election, when young folks are more likely to turn out to the ballot box.

CORNISH: Let's talk a little bit more about Florida and that medical marijuana initiative. Polls suggest about 50 percent support. But in Florida, referendum for a constitutional amendment needs 60 percent to pass. Now, already you've got 23 states, plus D.C., that allow medical marijuana use. So why wouldn't Florida follow the trend? What are the dynamics at play there?

BACA: You know, whether it's the state's conservative history or its voter base made up of, you know, senior citizens, Florida isn't necessarily known for its young voter turnout, especially in midterm elections. And so I think that's why this is so close down there.

CORNISH: Do you get the sense that people are still watching Colorado - that one of the reasons why the country's evenly split on this is people just aren't sure, and they're watching to see how things work out there?

BACA: You know, I just returned from a trip to Uruguay, where I was reporting on their recreational marijuana system. And even as far as, you know, South America, they were watching Colorado from very closely. Many of their top aides came to Colorado to kind of observe the system. And even if you look at the way the Alaska amendment is written, you know, the language of this ballot initiative directly mirrors what the successful Amendment 64 campaign did in Colorado in 2012.

CORNISH: Ricardo Baca edits The Cannabist website. It's part of The Denver Post. Thank you so much for talking with us.

BACA: Thank you so much, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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