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Ballot Questions: Marijuana Legalization Fails in Colorado, Nevada; Ohio Passes Comprehensive Smoking Ban
Feature Story By Bob Curley Join Together, November 8, 2006


Voters from California to Florida made their decisions on ballot questions related to alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, handing a victory to health groups in Ohio on the issue of public smoking and defeating a bid to make Colorado and Nevada the first U.S. states to legalize the possession of marijuana. Arizona, Missouri, Montana and South Dakota also had major ballot questions on addiction-related topics decided by voters.

Drug-reform groups have enjoyed great success in recent years using ballot questions to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes, but failed in their attempt to up the ante in Colorado, where Amendment 44 was defeated by a solid 61-38 percent margin. Voters apparently did not buy supporters' contention that alcohol was a more dangerous drug than pot; the measure would have allowed Colorado adults to legally possess up to one ounce of marijuana.

Colorado law does allow residents to possess small amounts of marijuana for medical use, and Denver residents previously approved a law to decriminalize marijuana in the city.

Federal officials and prominent state leaders, including the governor, spoke out against Amendment 44. Mason Tvert, head of the group Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER), said the campaign was worthwhile regardless of the outcome because it got Colorado residents talking about alternatives to marijuana prohibition.

An even broader legalization question went down to defeat in Nevada, where voters decided not to add legal sale and possession of marijuana to the state's long list of government-sanctioned vices, such as gambling and prostitution. Question 7, which would have legalized adult possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and required the state to set up a system to tax and regulate marijuana sales, was defeated by a 56-44 percent margin.

In a move that mirrored the Denver law, voters in the cities of Santa Monica, Calif., and Missoula, Mont., did approve ballot measures that make enforcement of marijuana laws the lowest priority for local police. These were among a handful of local bright spots for drug reformers, who also saw voters in South Dakota reject a medical-marijuana question.

For marijuana advocates, medical use has been a much easier sell than outright legalization, with a number of medical-marijuana laws having been passed in the last few electoral cycles. That momentum was curbed this year, however: the only statewide medical-marijuana question on the 2006 ballot, in South Dakota, was defeated by a 53-47 percent margin.

The measure would have made South Dakota the 12th U.S. state to allow medical use of marijuana, freeing patients and caregivers to possess up to six marijuana plants for individual use. But the ballot item was opposed by local law enforcement as well as visiting federal officials, who said it sent a mixed message to kids and could increase access to illicit drugs.

Smoke-Free Legislation Prevails in Ohio, Nevada, and Arizona

On the other hand, the trend toward state restrictions on smoking in public places continued to pick up momentum on Election Day. Voters in Ohio, Nevada and Arizona approved comprehensive indoor-smoking bans, and the tougher measures prevailed over competing questions supported by the tobacco and hospitality industries.

In Ohio, tobacco company R.J. Reynolds spent millions to try to get voters to approve a constitutional amendment, Issue 4, that would have enshrined a weaker public-smoking law and trumped stronger local laws. But voters rejected Issue 4 by a 2-to-1 margin and instead voted decisively to approve Issue 5, the comprehensive indoor-smoking ban backed by Ohio's leading healthcare organizations.

Nevada's gaming and hospitality industries failed to convince voters to approve the weaker of two ballot questions; the industry-backed Question 4 was rejected while Question 5, which limits public smoking to casino floors and stand-alone bars with limited food service, was approved.

Voters in Arizona also had to choose between two competing ballot questions on smoking, and chose to reject a measure backed by the tobacco industry and embrace an indoor-smoking plan supported by health groups. Proposition 201, sponsored by Smoke-Free Arizona, won approval, while Proposition 206, the Arizona Non-Smoker Protection Act, was defeated by a 3-to-2 margin.

Prop. 201 will ban smoking in all public spaces other than retail tobacco stores and outdoor patios. The measure calls for establishing a tobacco-tax supported fund to pay for enforcement of the smoking ban.

Arizona voters also approved Proposition 203, which raises the state's tobacco tax and directs the revenues to childhood-development and health programs. California voters, however, seemed to take a dimmer view of new tobacco taxes: Proposition 86, which would have added $2.60 to the state's already hefty cigarette tax, was defeated by a 55-45 percent margin. Missouri voters had previously rejected a 55-cent tobacco-tax increase on the 2002 ballot.

The tax revenues would have been dedicated to healthcare and antismoking services, but tobacco companies spent $70 million to defeat the proposal, telling voters that the hospitals that helped back the ballot question were just looking for more money for themselves.

In Missouri, which has the second-lowest tobacco tax in the U.S., voters also rejected a proposal to raise taxes and use the money for stop-smoking and healthcare programs. About 51 percent of voters said no to Amendment 3, which would have raised the tobacco tax by 80 cents per pack and generated an estimated $351 million in revenues.

The measure reportedly enjoyed strong support in urban and suburban communities but was opposed by many rural residents. Supporters said tobacco-industry-funded TV ads claiming that politicians would waste the money -- even though the measure included constitutional guarantees about spending -- helped doom the tax. The group Missouri Right to Life also opposed the tax increase, saying the revenues could be used to pay for abortions.

In Florida, however, voters thought that preventing smoking was important enough to warrant a constitutional amendment. Sixty percent of voters approved Amendment 4, which requires Florida to spend a greater portion of its share of the 1998 nationwide tobacco settlement on antismoking programs.

Florida once had the nation's best youth-smoking prevention program, funded by the tobacco settlement, but state lawmakers slowly whittled the program's budget away to nearly nothing. Frustrated in attempts to get the money restored in the legislature, healthcare groups proposed the amendment, which requires Florida to spend at least 15 percent of annual tobacco-settlement payments to prevent smoking.

Florida gets about $470 million annually under the terms of the deal with Big Tobacco.