Marijuana ballot measures bring haze of regulatory questions

By Emily Yehle | 10/31/2016 01:16 PM EDT

Smoking a joint is the end of a long journey: A field must be plowed, trees perhaps cleared, seeds planted, water secured, rodents killed, marijuana harvested and dried.

For decades, that process happened largely outside the law, without the environmental regulations that cover traditional agriculture. But next week, voters in five states will consider legalizing recreational marijuana, with unclear ramifications for the environmental footprint of a growing agricultural industry.

Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada all have initiatives on the ballot that would make it legal for adults to possess and use marijuana. Four other states will vote on legalizing medical marijuana: Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota.

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In all, 82 million residents live in states that could loosen rules on marijuana next Tuesday, according to Ballotpedia. If legalization proponents are successful, recreational or medical marijuana could be legal in 29 states after Election Day.

California will play an outsized role: Proposition 64, if passed, would add 40 million people as potential customers to a new recreational industry. Most polls have shown passage likely; the most recent from the Public Policy Institute of California found that 55 percent of respondents supported the measure.

The 65-page ballot question would levy taxes, set out environmental regulations and allow big corporations to join the rush after a five-year grace period. The state’s Department of Finance estimates that the initiative’s passage could bring in $1 billion in tax revenues every year.

It’s unclear what that will mean for the environment in a state that is still grappling with a drought and has seen years of damage from illegal marijuana farms.

"I think it’s unknown at this point whether or not it’s going to increase the footprint of cultivation in the state," said Jennifer Carah, a freshwater ecologist with the Nature Conservancy.

The group is not taking a position on the initiative, called the "Adult Use of Marijuana Act." But it supports what Carah called the ballot’s "strong environmental protections," including an estimated $200 million annually for environmental remediation and additional funds for regulatory programs that protect wildlife habitat and water quality.

A study published in the journal PLOS ONE last year estimated that marijuana cultivation may be killing imperiled salmon and steelhead trout in Northern California, thanks to clandestine farms diverting streams to water their plants. The hope is that Prop 64 could persuade farms to follow regulations in order to tap into a large legal market.

"I think there are probably places that are suitable to grow and places that aren’t. There’s no reason to grow cannabis in the middle of a redwood canopy" other than to hide, Carah said. "I think bringing it out of the shadow could potentially help with that issue and bring it into places that’s really appropriate to grow," she said.

The debate over Prop 64 — and similar initiatives in other states — has not, however, focused on environmental implications. Supporters and opponents have poured millions of dollars into their respective campaigns, largely focusing on public health.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group that has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars opposing legalization efforts in several states, describes the push for a recreational industry as Tobacco 2.0.

"What these initiatives are not about is letting a guy smoke in his basement on Monday night. They’re about setting up a tobacco industry," said Jeffrey Zinsmeister, the group’s executive vice president and director of government relations. He also asserted that a legal industry would only encourage the black market and ensure "a huge environmental footprint."

"We know that marijuana really has a big environmental impact not just on water use but also on energy," he said, later adding: "There really isn’t any serious attempt to regulate these impacts."

But every state’s initiative is different, with varying environmental regulations and funding. California’s Prop 64 is by far the most specific: It hands some tax revenue to the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the State Water Resources Control Board and the Department of Pesticide Regulation.

Some revenue would also get deposited into the "California Marijuana Tax Fund." Twenty percent of that would fund "cleanup, remediation, and restoration of environmental damage in watersheds affected by marijuana cultivation" as well as efforts to discourage illegal cultivation on public lands and additional measures to enforce environmental laws.

Other state initiatives rely on broader language. Here’s a look at their recreational initiatives:

Arizona

Proposition 205, or the "Arizona Marijuana Legalization Initiative," would establish a Department of Marijuana Licenses and Control to oversee regulation of an expanded industry. The state already allows medical marijuana.

The new department would establish rules on the "production, manufacture, transportation, sale storage distribution and testing" of marijuana. Adults age 21 or older would be allowed to use marijuana and grow up to six plants at home.

About 50 percent of Arizona voters support the measure, while 42 percent oppose it, according to a recent Arizona Republic/Morrison/Cronkite News poll. The poll of 779 voters had a 4-point margin of error.

Maine

Question 1 would set up a regulatory system for a new recreational marijuana industry, including marijuana "social clubs" where it could be sold and used on the premises. The Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry would oversee licensing of retail stores, as well as testing and packaging requirements.

Maine already allows medical marijuana, and Question 1 has the financial support of groups like the Marijuana Policy Project and Legalize Maine.

But some public figures have come out against it. Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) appeared in a video earlier this month calling the initiative "deadly."

A Portland Press Herald poll from last month found that 53 percent of respondents indicated they would support Question 1, while 38 percent opposed marijuana legalization. Ten percent were undecided. The margin of error was 4.3 points.

Massachusetts

The "Massachusetts Marijuana Legalization Initiative," or Question 4, would create a three-member Cannabis Control Commission to issue regulations for the distribution of marijuana. The initiative, if passed, would allow those 21 and older to possess marijuana and grow up to six plants.

A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll found that 48.8 percent of respondents supported marijuana legalization, while 42.4 percent were opposed and 7.8 percent were undecided. The poll, which included 500 likely voters and was conducted Oct. 24-26, had a 4.4-point error margin.

Nevada

Question 2 follows the usual formula for legalization, allowing adults to possess marijuana and grow up to six plants for personal use. The Department of Taxation would regulate licenses for businesses that sell marijuana; for the first 18 months, only wholesale liquor dealers would be able to apply. The measure would also limit the number of marijuana retail businesses based on the population of each county.

A recent poll commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal found that 47 percent of likely voters supported the measure, while 43 percent were opposed and 10 percent were undecided or did not answer. The poll had a margin of error of 3.5 points.

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