(Reuters) - In a test for broader marijuana legalization efforts across the United States, voters in the U.S. capital and two West Coast states were casting ballots during national midterm elections on Tuesday to decide whether to legalize cannabis.
Ballot measures in Oregon and Alaska would set up a network of regulated pot shops, similar to those already operating in Colorado and Washington state after twin landmark votes in 2012. A measure in the District of Columbia would allow possession but not retail sales.
The referendums come amid rapid shifts in Americans’ opinions on marijuana in recent years that have seen efforts to legalize cannabis creep closer toward the mainstream and brought about sweeping pot policy changes in states and cities where the drug remains illegal under federal law.
“Win or lose, we expect to see more support and more dialogue about the issue than ever,” said Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, which is working on legalization measures in California and other states for 2016.
Legalization advocates backed by national organizations have had more cash to spend in Oregon and Alaska on advertisements and get-out-the-vote drives.
“Anything short of easy passage in all states is a major defeat for the deep pockets of the legalization advocates,” said Kevin Sabet, co-founder of anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana.
In left-leaning Oregon, where voters rejected a 2012 recreational pot measure, two October polls showed the current initiative favored to pass by about 52 percent to 41 percent, while a third poll in late October showed it trailing by a razor-thin margin. Polling has been inconsistent in Alaska, a Republican-leaning state with a libertarian streak.
“It’s a freedom issue. We are Americans, we should be able to do whatever we want – within reason,” said Ben Wilcox, a bartender waving signs backing the measure at an intersection in downtown Juneau, Alaska.
The D.C. measure has been favored by a two-to-one margin, and advocates have portrayed it as a civil rights issue, saying studies have shown that blacks are disproportionately more likely to be arrested than other races on marijuana charges. The measure would allow adults 21 and over to possess up to two ounces (57 grams) of cannabis and grow up to six plants.
“I think it’s a misallocation of public resources to be arresting people for smoking marijuana,” Douglas Farrar, a 31-year-old think tank employee who voted for legalization, said outside a Washington polling place.
A proposed constitutional amendment to make Florida the 24th state and the first in the South to allow medical marijuana faces an uphill battle after well-funded conservative opposition.
Two Maine cities, Lewiston and South Portland, were also voting on whether to legalize the possession of small amounts of recreational marijuana.
In Guam, unofficial results on Tuesday indicated it became the first U.S. territory to approve medical marijuana, an election official there said.
Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Additional reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington, D.C., Steve Quinn in Juneau, Alaska, and Barbara Liston in Orlando, Florida; Editing by Nick Macfie and Mohammad Zargham