Marijuana and the Election: Time to Start Asking Blunt Questions

10/22/2012 05:16 EDT | Updated 12/22/2012 05:12 EST
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LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 7: Marijuana plants grow at Perennial Holistic Wellness Center, a not-for-profit medical marijuana dispensary in operation since 2006, on September 7, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. A group of activists have submitted about 50,000 signatures in an effort to force a referendum on a marijuana dispensary ban in Los Angeles to take effect next week. A minimum of 27,425 valid signatures from registered voters is needed to let voters decide on the issue in March, and until the number can be verified, the ban will not be enforced. . The ban would not prevent patients or cooperatives of two or three people to grow their own in small amounts. Californians voted to legalize medical cannabis use in 1996, clashing with federal drug laws. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

It's confusing and worrisome that election polling has become about as reliable as Tarot cards, or military intelligence. And media ignorance makes it all worse. Percentages are trotted out irrespective of pollster affiliation, pollster track records, sample sizes, sample weightings (gender, race, age, region), the nature of questions, times when info gathered and cell versus landline percentages. This year, some polls are sliced and diced into undefined pieces such as decideds, undecideds, registered Rs and Ds or independents.

All these factors skew polls and political teams have become masters at timed-releases in order to create the fiction that their guy's momentum builds or, conversely, their opponent's support ebbs. This is not transparency or democracy. This is polling war.

Besides baffling, poll reporting leaves out important factors. After Obamacare was approved, a poll was trotted out allegedly stating 57 per cent of Americans were not happy about the new laws. Turns out the media later said the 57 per cent were not happy because they felt the laws did not go far enough.

This year, polling gets nearly as much ink as do candidates, and often misses what's really on minds. An obvious gap is the fact that this November 6 will mark a turning point in an issue that's bubbled below the radar with more consequences than how Obama used the "T" word in the Rose Garden or Romney's reference to "binders of women."

On November 6, three states have on their ballots the outright legalization of marijuana -- Washington, Oregon and Colorado. So far, support is strong and bipartisan. The last such vote occurred in 2010 in California where a state-sanctioned referendum on legalization narrowly lost.

But on Nov. 6, there are three that appear ready to legalize in addition to three others -- Montana, Massachusetts and Arkansas -- that are voting on granting permits for "medical marijuana" usage. If they approve, and support appears to be strong so far, they will be added to the 17 states in the United States where "medical marijuana" can be grown and sold. Where this is allowed, loopholes and permits for medical consumption are so lax that there becomes virtual decriminalization.

In addition, five cities are staging referendum questions on the ballot about decriminalizing marijuana possession: four in Michigan or Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids and Ypisilanti; then also Springfield, Missouri.

So 2012 is a banner year for the movement, headed by the NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) Foundation. And it represents the convergence of national polls, that show up to 63 per cent of Americans favour lifting the prohibition on the basis of personal freedoms, and those often conservative types who realize that legalizing marijuana can boost government revenues instead of costing governments money.

The nub of the matter, however, will be that if these states vote to legalize their federal counterparts will still be obliged to enforce bans. So if a vote wins, that state or states will be taking the issue of state's rights to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In June 2011, Democratic Representative Barney Frank and Republican Ron Paul tabled a stopgap measure. Their bill would remove marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances in order to allow states to decide how they would regulate it.

"Criminally prosecuting adults for making the choice to smoke marijuana is a waste of law enforcement resources and an intrusion on personal freedom," said Frank. That grinds its way through a fractious Congress, but the marijuana movement grows. And if Washington, Oregon and Colorado legalize grass in November, whoever becomes the next President will have a showdown. He will have to instruct his DEA whether to enforce laws or ignore the outcomes and both candidates have supported the status quo. Last week, a DEA spokesman warned voters that legalization at the state level would contravene federal laws and incur a crackdown.

Colorado appears ready to go. A June poll showed that 61 per cent of voters will vote in favour of the recreational sale of cannabis to adults and only 29 per cent will oppose. The state has 500 dispensaries for medical marijuana in operation. Others, such as law enforcement and medical professionals, are lending their support to the initiative too. Polls in Oregon are running 46 per cent to 43 per cent against legalization, while those in Washington State -- beside the region's pot capital Vansterdam -- are running 50 per cent to 37 per cent in favour.

In Canada, the federal and provincial governments have also parted company. Provincial courts and police have virtually decriminalized possession and support by 2012 for outright decriminalization or legalization of marijuana was 66 per cent, according to Forum Research Inc. Despite this, the federal government tabled tough laws to crack down on crime, including mandatory sentences for marijuana possession. But such prohibition mentality is contrary to public opinion and also to common sense.

It was interesting that, after the Canadian law was proposed, a high-profile group of current and former U.S. law enforcement officials sent a letter to the Harper government with a surprising message: Take it from us, the war on drugs has been a "costly failure."

So you may not hear about the marijuana issue in debates or from the campaign stump, and in polls, but people south of the border are taking the matter into their own hands. November 6, will be a vote in some states that will be heard around the corridors of power and whoever is President, or Prime Minister of Canada, should certainly heed the results.

This article originally appeared in the Financial Post.

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