Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Public Policy

First Advisor

Mark R. Warren

Second Advisor

Michael Johnson

Third Advisor

Julianna Pecheco


In this study, I sought to document and better understand the ballot initiative-driven policy diffusion of cannabis legalization and its potential to address equity issues and disproportionate enforcement in the United States. Using a case study approach, I examined the passage and adoption of the 2016 Legalization, Regulation, and Taxation of Marijuana Initiative (Question 4) in Massachusetts. I interviewed 31 participants: drafting committee activists, state and local officials, and potential licensees. I reviewed meeting minutes, official documents, and media reporting. I used quantitative methods to consider the impact of language copying on policy diffusion and to evaluate the Cannabis Control Commission’s selection of disproportionately impacted areas.

My research illuminates the unique policy learning that initiatives are subject to and the political pressures activists must consider while working to spread policy. While political science scholars have traditionally studied diffusion as an elite-driven process through legislative action, my research demonstrates that the process of drafting an initiative and mobilizing support among activists and voters is a distinct model, incorporating political learning and networking that facilitates diffusion, given sufficient initial success. The spread of legalization to Massachusetts from other states suggests that both the methods and the content of policymaking can be subject to diffusion. Proposals by the Question 4 drafting committee and a larger community of racial justice activists resulted in enhanced efforts to assist communities impacted by criminalization. Even as the policy’s potential is only partially fulfilled in Massachusetts, advocates for these communities have continued to develop stronger proposals in other jurisdictions.

This study has broad implications for the role of ballot initiatives in policy outcomes and the impact of participation by activists of color in the process to develop and spread equitable policy. I seek to place my research in the context of a growing body of literature comparing regulation across closely-regulated substances, including alcohol, tobacco, and heroin, by demonstrating how the legalization of cannabis can be described. Policy recommendations include calls to re-examine the Cannabis Control Commission’s selection of areas impacted by criminalization as well as enhanced efforts to connect research with policymaking.


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