By Jonathan Kaminsky
SEATTLE (Reuters) - Marijuana legalization activists hope Alaska and Oregon will become the next two states to put recreational use of the drug before the voters, perhaps as early as next year.
A more robust state-by-state legalization effort is planned for 2016, when the presidential election is expected to boost turnout among younger voters who are seen as more pro pot, said Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project.
His group also plans to lobby lawmakers in five states, including Rhode Island and Hawaii, to legalize recreational pot by 2017, even as the drug remains classed as an illegal narcotic under federal law.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see legalization on the ballot in Alaska and Oregon in 2014," said Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center. "I expect the groups trying to put it on the ballot in these states to learn from what has happened in Colorado and Washington State."
Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational adult use after approving separate ballot measures last year. Some 20 states and the District of Columbia allow pot to be used for medical purposes.
While pot activists remain optimistic over the prospects of legalizing the drug for recreational use in more states, the question of whether to push hard at the ballot box next year or to hold off until 2016 has divided some within the movement.
Those eager to see such ballot measures in 2014 say successful campaigns in Washington state and Colorado, followed by the August release of a U.S. Justice Department memo giving states leeway to experiment with legalization, underscore a shift in public sentiment that should be quickly capitalized.
"Originally I agreed with the Marijuana Policy Project and other activists who urged waiting until 2017," said Anthony Johnson, director of New Approach Oregon, one of two planned 2014 pot legalization campaigns in Oregon. "But I've been convinced there's a path to victory in 2014."
That path may start in the Oregon statehouse, as lawmakers consider referring a ballot measure to voters to tax and regulate commercially sold marijuana while allowing individuals to grow and possess a modest amount of the drug.
"Most of my colleagues have voiced a perspective of us putting something forward rather than having a citizen initiative go forward that could be much more unworkable," said Oregon Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Floyd Prozanski, a legalization supporter.
If the legislative effort in Democratic-led Oregon fails, Johnson said his group was ready to gather roughly 87,000 signatures needed to put a similar measure on the 2014 ballot.
By contrast, those preaching patience say that, since 2000, well-funded, marijuana-liberalization initiative campaigns have polled between 8 percent and 10 percent higher in presidential years than in mid-term elections.
Among the failures was California's Proposition 19, which would have legalized recreational use, but was defeated 53.5 percent to 46.5 percent in 2010.
"It's a simple numbers game," said Steve Fox, a Washington D.C.-based marijuana policy and business consultant.
Opponents say they plan to counter the coming legalization campaigns by warning voters against the rise of "Big Marijuana," which they liken to the tobacco and alcohol industries.
"The Marijuana Policy Project has been very public about what states they've been focusing on," said Kevin Sabet, co-founder of Project Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or Project SAM, and director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida. "We're going to take our playbook from theirs and we're in the process of raising money to fight those campaigns...
"The idea of big marijuana and targeting kids is not good for anybody," he said.
Such an idea could be effective with most Americans, who view marijuana use as "no big deal" but are not passionate about ending its prohibition, said Robert MacCoun, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, who is advising Washington state lawmakers on the issue.
"The support for this shift toward marijuana legalization is soft, and these are the kinds of things that are going to persuade some people," he said.
As pot legalization efforts progress in Oregon, the Marijuana Policy Project is funding a signature drive to put a measure on the 2014 ballot in Alaska to allow possession of up to an ounce of pot, and to tax and regulate a pot industry.
It is ignoring its wait-until-2016 outlook in Republican-leaning Alaska because of the state's libertarian bent and permissive approach to marijuana, as well as state rules that dictate ballot measures be voted on in primary elections, dampening any presidential race bump, Tvert said.
The Marijuana Policy Project, which has been behind a number of successful pot liberalization measures including last year's Colorado initiative, plans with its allies to target California, Arizona, Nevada and Maine in 2016.
But grassroots campaigns are already underway in Arizona and California to put pot initiatives on the 2014 ballot, although those efforts are more far-reaching and appear less well funded.
A proposed Arizona measure, for example, would make the legal age to use marijuana 18 years old, lower than in Washington state and Colorado where it is 21. It would allow possession of 2.5 ounces of pot and would make it harder to successfully prosecute stoned drivers.
Safer Arizona Initiative author Dennis Bohlke said his campaign has raised roughly $2,000 and gathered less than 5 percent of the 259,000 signatures needed by next July to get on the ballot. "We've got a long ways to go," he said.
Meanwhile, the California Cannabis Hemp Initiative will begin campaigning next month to get a measure on the 2014 ballot that would allow individuals to possess up to 12 pounds of cannabis. The measure is similar to ones that failed to get on ballots in 2008 and 2012.
The initiative's campaign director Buddy Duzy relishes the opportunity to push his measure without competition from better-funded pot proponents.
"I'm appreciative that they are not standing in our way, other than to tell people that we don't stand a chance," he said.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Leslie Gevirtz)