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Marijuana: Oregon and Alaska could be next to legalize recreational use

While the fight is heating up in Florida over a ballot measure to legalize medical marijuana, voters in Oregon and Alaska will decide whether to join Colorado and Washington in legalizing recreational use.

If marijuana advocates have their way, the number of states where recreational pot is legal could double this year.

On the November ballot in Oregon and Alaska are measures allowing the sale of recreational marijuana to adults. If those initiatives pass, the two states would join Colorado and Washington in legalizing cannabis.

Meanwhile, Florida voters will decide on a constitutional amendment legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes. That would make it the 24th state, plus the District of Columbia, to legalize medical marijuana.

In Oregon Thursday, supporters of marijuana legalization turned in 145,000 signatures – far more than the 87,213 valid signatures of registered voters necessary to qualify as a ballot initiative.

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“The Control, Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana and Industrial Hemp Act strictly regulates marijuana sales and possession,” according to New Approach Oregon, the advocacy group that submitted signatures to the Oregon secretary of state. “It legalizes the use of marijuana by adults only and taxes marijuana and its products to generate money for education, public safety, drug treatment, and drug prevention.”

Initiative Petition 53, as the measure is also known, would allow adults to possess up to eight ounces of marijuana and up to four plants. Sales would be subject to a flat tax of $35 per ounce for marijuana flowers, $10 per ounce of marijuana leaves, and $5 per immature cannabis plant.

A poll of Oregon voters earlier this month showed 51 percent support for making the personal use of marijuana legal with 41 percent opposed. Younger voters in this poll were much more likely to support marijuana legalization (70-to-22 percent), as were Democrats (65 percent) with just 28 percent support among Republicans.

In Alaska, a November ballot measure would legalize the adult possession of up to one ounce of cannabis as well as the cultivation of up to six plants (three flowering) for personal consumption, according to “The Daily Chronic,” a newspaper produced by marijuana reform activists. It would also allow for the establishment of licensed, commercial cannabis production and retail sales of marijuana and marijuana-infused products to those over the age of 21.

Commercial production and retail sales of cannabis would be subject to taxation in Alaska, but no taxes would be imposed upon those who choose to engage in noncommercial activities – growing small quantities of marijuana for personal use or engaging in not-for-profit transfers of limited quantities of cannabis. Public consumption of cannabis would be subject to a civil fine.

Polls show a majority of Floridians support medical marijuana legalization, but constitutional amendments need a 60 percent majority in order to pass.

Still, a Quinnipiac University poll last month showed 88 percent support for allowing adults to legally use marijuana for medical purposes, if a doctor prescribes it. By a smaller 53-42 percent majority, Florida voters support allowing adults to legally possess small amounts of marijuana for personal use, according to this poll.

While proponents of the referendum got a head start in fundraising, deep-pocketed Republicans have since jumped into the battle. The Drug Free Florida campaign, which opposes the amendment, has raised $2.7 million, including a $2.5 million contribution from Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a major Republican donor. Earlier this month, the nonpartisan Florida Sheriffs Association began a separate “educational campaign” against the amendment.

“I’m not 100 percent sure it’s a slam dunk,” University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus told Reuters. “We’re starting to see a lot more attention to some of the unintended consequences [of marijuana legalization] that have happened in Colorado, the negative side of it.”

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The Florida amendment is also enmeshed in the hot race for governor. Republican Gov. Rick Scott opposes it, while former GOP Gov. Charlie Crist, who is seeking to return to the office as a Democrat, supports it.

Marijuana use – whether for medicinal purposes or recreational – remains a point of legal conflict between the federal government and states legalizing cannabis.

At the federal level, marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, which means it is considered to have a high potential for dependency and no accepted medical use, making distribution a federal offense.

But last August, the US Department of Justice backed off to what amounts to a wait-and-see position regarding marijuana legalization.

In a memo updating its marijuana enforcement policy, the Justice Department said it expects states such as Colorado and Washington – and potentially Oregon and Alaska – to establish strict regulatory schemes.

For states that have enacted laws to authorize the production, distribution, and possession of marijuana, the Department expects these states to establish strict regulatory schemes that must be “tough in practice, not just on paper, and include strong, state-based enforcement efforts, backed by adequate funding.”

“Based on assurances that those states will impose an appropriately strict regulatory system, the Department has informed the governors of both states that it is deferring its right to challenge their legalization laws at this time,” according to the memo. “But if any of the stated harms do materialize – either despite a strict regulatory scheme or because of the lack of one – federal prosecutors will act aggressively to bring individual prosecutions focused on federal enforcement priorities and the Department may challenge the regulatory scheme themselves in these states.”