Plus, two stories we’re not hearing
This post contains an op-ed written by Carolyn Short, and it highlights two things that rarely make it into the national news. One is the backlash against “medical” marijuana laws in some very liberal states. In California, individual cities regularly vote to ban marijuana dispensaries. Oregon voters also rejected dispensaries, but their state legislature, influenced by the marijuana lobby, created them anyway.
The other point is how vastly the pro-marijuana forces outspend their opponents. The dissatisfaction with “medical” marijuana in the state where it was born should be a national story. But money is always a good story, especially when a cause that presents itself as inevitable can only win when it has a huge spending advantage.
The image of a country embracing legalization is misleading. What looks like a steady march toward legalization is a combination of a well-organized marijuana lobby, an unfunded opposition and a media that tends to favor one side.
Other than the few percent who care about this issue and nothing else, public support for marijuana is a mile wide and an inch thick. There’s a reason for this: the public isn’t hearing both sides of the debate. So they’re not really convinced. They’re just feeling, “Well, I guess it’s okay.” The pro-marijuana arguments are not that strong; they are simply going unanswered. Not totally, of course, but the average news consumer is hearing mostly one side. Public opinion on marijuana could easily change if the opposition viewpoints were covered equally.
So here’s the op-ed:
Legalization is far from inevitable
By Carolyn Short
Since the 2012 election, national news coverage about marijuana has focused almost solely on Colorado and Washington, creating the impression the country is moving toward legalization. But anti-marijuana forces actually won most of the contests in 2012 and in 2010, and lost only when outspent by large margins.
In the last two elections, voters in four states considered initiatives to legalize pot. This year, Washington and Colorado voted “yes,” while Oregon voted “no.” Two years ago, California voted “no.”
In those same two elections, another four states voted on medical marijuana. The initiative in Massachusetts passed with 63 percent of the vote, while Arizona’s squeaked by with 50.1 percent. In Arkansas and South Dakota, the ballot measures were defeated.
So when voters considered legalization and medical marijuana, each side won half the contests. But there were also ballot measures to allow marijuana dispensaries in states where medical use was already legal, and the marijuana lobby lost those every time.
In 2012, five California cities voted on initiatives that would have allowed dispensaries; all five voted it down. In 2010, Oregon voters rejected a similar initiative. These two liberal West Coast states where voters saw the real-world effect of medical marijuana up close are apparently having second thoughts.
That’s how the voting went, but money really explains how tenuous the pro-marijuana victories are. The information about spending was obtained from two websites: Follow the money.org and Open Secrets.org.
In Colorado, the marijuana lobby spent $3.5 million while opponents of legalization brought in only $700,000. In Washington, it was even more lopsided. The marijuana lobby spent $6 million, while opponents had just $16,000. That’s 375 to 1. It’s not easy to get out your message against those odds.
Money also mattered in the two states that passed medical marijuana laws. In Arizona, opponents were outspent $800,000 to $25,000. In Massachusetts, it was $1 million against a mere $600.
This financial advantage makes a big difference. First, it can cost several hundred thousand dollars to get an initiative on the ballot. So if it passes, and the public later decides they were misled and so-called “medical” pot goes mostly to drug abuse, it can be prohibitively expensive to get the issue back to the voters.
Second, marijuana advocates depend on misleading the public to win elections. Opponents can defeat these initiatives only if they can expose the deception.
For example, to pass medical marijuana laws, the marijuana lobby runs ads designed to give the impression that the law is only for serious illnesses like cancer. That’s what happened in Arizona. And without money, opponents couldn’t tell voters that in most medical marijuana states, over 90 percent of the pot goes to people who claim pain, not serious illness
The marijuana lobby told voters in Washington that regulating marijuana would keep it out of the hands of teenagers. However, states with medical marijuana laws have much higher rates of teenage marijuana use, even when it’s strictly regulated. Voters never heard that message.
In Arizona, the Marijuana Policy Project called its campaign “Stop Arresting Patients.” They wanted us to picture grannies in prison, doing their knitting surrounded by tattooed gang-bangers. But the marijuana lobby was never able to name a single genuine patient in jail or prison on a simple possession charge. That’s because there aren’t any; no one is arresting genuine medical patients. The whole premise of their campaign was false, but opponents couldn’t get that message out.
Pro-marijuana initiatives have succeeded so far only because proponents can vastly outspend the opposition. And despite that advantage, they still lost most of the recent votes. In the California and Oregon legalization battles, pro-marijuana forces outspent opponents by more than ten to one, and were still defeated. When opponents have the resources to fight back, they win.
So don’t assume that Americans are ready to legalize pot. If that were true, the marijuana lobby wouldn’t be spending millions trying to convince us.
This is an edited version of an op-ed that appeared in the Arizona Capitol Times on February 25, 2013.