However one feels about legalizing recreational use of marijuana, the current campaign surrounding this issue — it will be Question 4 on the Nov. 8 ballot — has to give one pause.
So far, more than $5 million has poured into the campaign from out-of-state sources, as part of a national campaign to legalize the drug state-by-state. Meanwhile, opponents of the measure have raised less than half a million dollars in total.
“The money is coming from out-of-state special interest groups that are looking to make money off the sale of marijuana,” Jeff Zinsmeister, a spokesman for opponents of the ballot question, told Statehouse reporter Christian Wade in a recent story in the Townsman.
Clearly, that’s the case, as the relatively new marijuana industry sees growth potential here, in a state that has already legalized medical use of marijuana. It’s undoubtedly true that some also comes from people who feel on principle that the drug laws are out of date and that marijuana is relatively harmless.
What the outsized spending does not do is reflect the feelings of Massachusetts voters.
The most recent polls, taken in May and July, show an electorate that is clearly split. A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll in May showed 43 percent of voters who were polled supported legalization, and 46 percent opposed it, with 11 percent undecided. A second poll in July, this one conducted by a conservative political action committee, showed pretty much the same thing, with 41 percent supporting, 51 percent opposed, and 9 percent undecided.
That’s why the huge disparity in out-of-state contributions feels amiss. It represents an effort by people who don’t live here and can’t vote here to influence a close local election — and because they have so much money to throw around, they may be able to tip the balance. Whether or not you support their view, it feels somehow unfair.
That’s not the case with another ballot question, Question 3, which would ban the sale of eggs and other products from animals raised in cages. Much of that money has come from out-of-state sources like the Humane Society of the United States, while virtually nothing has been raised out-of-state by those who oppose it — even though the food industry spent $10 million unsuccessfully fighting a similar initiative in California in 2008.
That’s because Massachusetts voters are leaning heavily in favor of the ban. A poll conducted for WBUR this month found that 66 percent of likely voters support the ban, with 25 percent opposed. Given the ban’s popularity, “I don’t think big-agriculture wants to go on a kamikaze mission,” said Stephanie Harris, the Massachusetts director for the Humane Society.
It’s when the will of voters is clearly divided, as with the marijuana issue, that the influence of out-of-state money rankles, because it’s where it could matter the most.
Local voters are, in fact, capable of making up their own minds about a ballot question that they, after all, will live with, one way or the other. The donors in Washington and Oregon and Arizona will not be affected in any way, unless they happen to be in the marijuana business, but still they are able to flood local campaign accounts with money to try to sway the election.
How we finance elections of any sort is a much bigger issue. But if anything should drive legislators to seek reforms, it’s campaigns such as this, where a close election could be decided by people who don’t have a right to vote here.