Are the voters in Massachusetts ready to embrace marijuana legalization in 2012? Analysis of the vote on local marijuana legalization advisory ballot question strongly points to yes.

Massachusetts allows for citizens to place non-binding local “public policy questions” on the ballot. This year, in several precincts, voters weighed in on whether their local representatives should “vote in favor of legislation that would allow the state to regulate and tax marijuana in the same manner as alcohol.” On Tuesday, over 150,000 votes were cast on the issue across the state in districts containing around 8.5 percent of the total vote.

In the districts where it was on the ballot, the advisory question passed with an impressive 61 percent of the vote, but these districts were on the whole slightly more liberal and pro-reform than the rest of the state. To determine how these results might translate to a statewide marijuana legalization ballot question, I used two different metrics.

2010 marijuana legalization advisory vote compared to 2008 decriminalization ballot initiative

2008 Yes Votes for Question 2 2010 Yes Vote for Marijuana Legalization
In District With Advisory Question 70% Actual 61.4%
State-wide 65% Projected* 56.6%

First, I compared the results in these precincts for legalization to the 2008 results for Question 2, a sweeping marijuana decriminalization measure, which passed overwhelmingly statewide, 65 percent to 35 percent. These districts voted 70 percent for decriminalization, slightly higher than the state average. Assuming this relative level of support held true for legalization, you would expect that if the marijuana legalization question were on the ballot statewide, it would have passed this year with a vote of Yes 56.6 percent to No 44.4 percent.

2010 gubernatorial results compared to local marijuana legalization advisory question

Combined % for Davel Patrick and Jill Stein Yes Vote for Marijuana Legalization
In District With Advisory Question 58.1% Actual 61.4%
State-wide 49.9% Projected* 53.1%

The second metric I used was the total vote in these districts in the 2010 governor’s race–for both incumbent Democrat Deval Patrick and Green Party candidate Jill Stein–to find out how much more “liberal” these districts are than the rest of the state. There is a strong but imperfect correlation between voting for more liberal candidates and voters’ relative support for marijuana reform. In these districts, Patrick and Stein took 58 percent of the vote, compared to only 50 percent of the vote statewide. Using this liberal metric, I project marijuana legalization would have passed statewide with roughly a vote of Yes 53.1 percent to No 46.9 percent.

A small majority of Massachusetts voters likely support legalization

This analysis leads me to believe that a small majority of the individuals who turned out to vote this year in Massachusetts supported legalizing and regulating cannabis in the same way the state does alcohol. That is a good sign for marijuana reform given that midterm elections tend to have much lower turnouts among young voters–who are, in general, more supportive of legalization–and this midterm in particular had a higher than normal turnout among older conservatives, who tend not to support marijuana reform. For these reasons, the 2012 electorate is almost assured to been even more supportive of legalization than the 2010 electorate.

This analysis of the election results, combined with other factors, suggests Massachusetts is a strong candidate for becoming one of the first states to embrace legalization. Massachusetts is a very liberal state, has a huge number of colleges, is demographically relatively young, and contains an existing grassroots marijuana advocacy community. In 2008, the state passed Question 2, a strong marijuana decriminalization initiative, by 30 points. Most importantly, Massachusetts allows for binding statewide citizen-sponsored initiatives. There is strong evidence that if a well-crafted marijuana legalization initiative makes in onto the ballot in 2012, it could pass.

*There are several variables that could cause error in this analysis or make it not exactly apply to a binding statewide initiative. Imperfect Metrics: There is no prefect metric against which to compare the results. I think comparing them to the vote on decriminalization is pretty good, but it is possible more conservative parts of the state were only mildly less supportive than these districts of decriminalization, but would be dramatically less supportive of legalization. Dropoff: For obvious reasons, non-bidding advisory questions are not a top priority for voters, and around 10 percent of voters do not enter a preference. It is possible supporters are more likely to vote Yes, but those weakly opposed are more incline to just skip them, resulting in a slight overstatement of support. Cold Feet: There is probably some small percentage of voters who are fine sending the message they support legalization in general, but might change their minds when their vote might actually make it happen. Actual Ballot Language: Similarly, the actual language of a binding ballot initiative is very important, unlike an advisory question. It is probably impossible to craft a ballot initiative that every supporter of legalization would vote for. The specific design of provisions could cause some people to vote No even if they support the concept.