Yes, I wrestled with the title here.
Reeferendum? Weed the People? Vox Potuli? Each is progressively more of a stretch, and I'll stick with what's in orange here. Anyway, I want to talk about why I think the Massachusetts ballot initiative to decriminalize the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana is so interesting from a Civics 101 perspective -- the way that popular initiatives have the power to change laws in the way that the normal "How a Bill Becomes a Law" type of stuff sometimes can't.
When you draw it out on a very large scale (like, say, the entire Bay State electorate) something like the decriminalization of marijuana passes by a 2-to-1 margin because by and large, people feel that it makes sense -- from an economic, practical, or moral perspective. And every single one of the "Yes" votes is done anonymously with a black marker inside a private polling place.
For any single politician to align himself or herself to the cause of decriminalizing marijuana would be a tremendous risk to that individual's political career.
Because being "Pro-Drug" is probably as good a recipe for electoral success as being "Anti-Environment" or "Pro-Crime."
Just as it's easy for people to demonize marijuana using the it-must-be-bad-if-it's-illegal argument, the specious "gateway drug" argument (that's like saying that seventh grade is a "gateway" to a Ph.D. program), or the my-older-brother-is-a-stoner-who-sleeps-on-the-couch-downstairs-and-he's-29 argument (that confuses correlation with causation), it would be very easy for people to demonize, and rally against, a candidate who openly aligned himself with a "soft on drugs" policy, unless he or she were in a VERY safe seat or had no ambitions for higher office.
See my point?
Even if politicians feel that decriminalization is the right thing to do, to publicly say so is to open yourself up to charges of wanting to give kids access to dope (unlike, say, booze, which is fully legal but of course no minor ever touches...), being an apologist for drug users, criminals, and whatever else people might come up with.
Then, you'd have to weigh that against the people who saw it as a courageous stance and felt passionately about it. But what big voting electorate is going to organize and rally around the "righteousness" of decriminalized weed the way they might around something like abortion, the death penalty, or gun control?
So to look at any individual politician's perceived incentive structure, there's a huge potential downside to advocating this with only a small potential upside.
That all changes when you ask each individual voter in an anonymous setting.
Each voter can individually weigh the pros and cons, and then decide for himself, based solely on what he believes as a citizen and taxpayer, and not based on how it will look to the proverbial 55 year-old homemaker in Dubuque (or, in our case, let's call it Acton).
So, the pretty neat result is that you get, almost literally overnight, a major policy change without having to rely on politicians.
I'm sure if we sat down for a few minutes at a diner together we could come up with similar policy challenges. One I'll throw one out here now -- fixing Social Security. That could very easily be done in a flash by just adjusting the benefits collection age to better reflect changes in lifespan and health care since the time of FDR.
But why can't that happen?
Because, again, no individual politician can stand by that. Millions of regular folks could do it in a national referendum, but no single Congressman or Senator could do it.
Assuming, of course, he ever wants to be re-elected.