By Alex Dobuzinskis
(Reuters) - Voters in three western U.S. states go to the polls on Tuesday to decide whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use in a move that could spur a showdown with the federal government, with polls showing legalization ahead in Washington and Colorado.
If voters approve the measures, the states could become the first in the country to legalize the recreational use of pot. Each of the initiatives would see marijuana taxed and would regulate its sale in special stores to adults age 21 and older.
But the prospect of legalizing pot, which the federal government considers an illicit and dangerous drug liable to be abused, has raised concerns about how to keep stoned drivers off the roads and joints out of the hands of teenagers.
"We're risking a lot simply because people think they want to buy marijuana from a store," said Kevin Sabet, a former adviser to the Obama administration's drug policy czar.
Surveys show legalization measures ahead in Washington state, where campaign finance records say its sponsors have raised $6 million, and Colorado, where backers have pulled in nearly $2 million. But legalization was trailing in Oregon, where a grass-roots campaign was struggling to sway voters.
Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann, whose affiliate groups have funded current and past legalization initiatives, said he was more optimistic about legalization prospects now than he was before a California legalization referendum that voters rejected in 2010.
"In this case, the polling has stayed up there. It's almost like we're seeing a surge of support for this in the final week," Nadelmann said.
A survey of 932 likely voters in Washington state released on Saturday by Public Policy Polling found 53 percent support legalization, with a margin of error of 3.2 percent.
Legalization was also ahead in Colorado, where a recent SurveyUSA poll of 695 likely voters conducted for the Denver Post showed 50 percent in favor and 44 percent opposed. The survey had a 3.8 percent margin of error.
But in Oregon, legalization was trailing with just 42 percent in favor, according to a survey of 405 likely voters by Elway Research for The Oregonian. The poll had a margin of error of 5 percent.
The initiatives in Colorado and Oregon, in addition to allowing and taxing pot sales at state-sanctioned stores, would allow individuals to cultivate pot plants for their own use.
The Washington state measure differs in that it would ban people from growing their own pot. Unlike the other two measures, it would also create a specific blood limit on pot's psychoactive element, THC, for drivers.
Nadelmann said that provision and endorsement by such figures as John McKay, the former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington state, make the measure in that state the most likely to sway hesitant voter and ultimately succeed.
Meanwhile, a Massachusetts ballot initiative on Tuesday proposes allowing medical marijuana in that state, and voters in Arkansas are being asked whether to become the first southern state to allow marijuana as medicine. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana.
In Montana, where voters in 2004 approved medical marijuana, voters will be asked whether to overturn a 2011 law that imposed tough restrictions on medical pot and led to the shutdown of dispensaries.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)