With Montana vote, most of West covered by medical marijuana laws

November 02, 2004

Angie Wagner, Associated Press

When Montana voters approved a medical marijuana initiative Tuesday, they followed what has become a Western trend. Nearly three-fourths of Western states now have such laws, while only two of the remaining 37 states have adopted them.

Why the West? Part of it is procedural, but activists and political scientists also say the West is just different. Westerners are less willing than other Americans to tell their neighbors what they can and can't do. And historically, Western states tend to be in front on social trends.

Marijuana reform groups say that, from a procedural standpoint, it's just easier to get pot issues on Western ballots because most states in the region allow initiatives. Across the country, just 24 states allow citizens to put issues on the ballot by petition, bypassing the Legislature. Eleven of those 24 states are in the West. In the other 26 states, the Legislature must take the lead.

Westerners are also a libertarian bunch. Many subscribe to the old live-and-let-live adage and despite their party affiliation, they don't want government telling them what to do.

'I would guess many of the people that voted for it probably don't use marijuana, but they don't want to say their neighbors can't,' said Steven Stehr, political science professor at Washington State University.

'Westerners have a stronger belief in kind of individualism in the old-fashioned frontier sense,' said Sven Steinmo, a University of Colorado political scientist and board member for the Center of the American West.

The population also is newer than the rest of the country and states don't have deeply ingrained traditions, said David Olson, political scientist at the University of Washington.

'Our politics in the West are much less constrained ... and it gives opportunities for initiatives like the death with dignity issue in Oregon or medicinal marijuana. You name it,' Olson said.

Montana now has become the 11th state in the country – and the ninth Western state – to allow medical marijuana. The approval came even as Montana voted by wide margins to ban gay marriage and to re-elect President Bush.

'We always say in Montana we're extraordinarily independent, so we'll vote for contradictory things,' said Jerry Calvert, political science professor at Montana State University in Bozeman.

The Montana initiative passed 62 percent to 38 percent, support that marijuana reform groups say was the highest ever for a medical marijuana ballot initiative.

Oregon voters rejected a measure that would have dramatically expanded its existing medical marijuana program. That may have been too ambitious even for the West, said Bruce Mirken, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project.

Alaska, which also has an existing medical marijuana law, rejected a measure to decriminalize the drug, though marijuana groups were impressed that 43 percent of voters there supported it.

Outside the region, voters in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Columbia, Mo., approved local medical marijuana measures.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has ruled that states are free to adopt medical marijuana laws so long as the marijuana is not sold, transported across state lines or used for nonmedicinal purposes. The ruling covers only those Western states in the circuit. The Bush administration has appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Besides the favorable initiative process in the West, the region is also usually the start of progressive political movements that work their way East, said Keith Stroup, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

In addition to Montana, Western states that allow medical marijuana are Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon and Washington state. Arizona has a law permitting marijuana prescriptions, but no active program.

Maine and Vermont are the only states outside the West with existing medical marijuana laws.

'We have long enjoyed stronger support on the left coast than in the rest of the country,' Stroup said.

Charissa Fiddler, a 25-year-old night manager of the Uptown Cafe in Butte, Mont., doesn't see what the big deal is over medical marijuana.

'I think marijuana should be legal,' said Fiddler, a Democrat who voted for the initiative. 'I don't think it's as harmful as everyone says it is. Not that I smoke marijuana.'

For now, medical marijuana has not only found acceptance in the West, but the region may set the tone for proposals across the country.

'As medical marijuana becomes more regulated and institutionalized in the West, that may provide a model for how we ultimately make marijuana legal for all adults,' said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director for the Drug Policy Alliance. 

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EDITOR'S NOTE – Angie Wagner is the AP's Western regional writer, based in Las Vegas.



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