After California became the first state to legalize cannabis for medical purposes in 1996, 19 other states plus the District of Columbia chose to follow its lead. Recent polls show that more than 80 percent of the American public is in favor of the legalization of marijuana for therapeutic purposes, and it may be only a matter of time before medical marijuana is legally available everywhere.
The legislative approval of medical marijuana, plus decriminalization for possession in several states, represents a significant break with the policies of the past. But as radical as the arrival of medical marijuana may have seemed, we are now on the verge of a full-blown revolution in the area of marijuana policy. In November 2012, landmark ballot initiatives were passed in Colorado and Washington state that legalized marijuana without reservation for personal and recreational use, and it seems virtually certain that other states will soon be adopting similar or identical measures.
The public’s attitude on this issue has been evolving rapidly. A Gallup Poll taken in late 2013 revealed that for the first time the majority of U.S citizens — 58 percent — backed full legalization of marijuana for non-medical purposes. Support is particularly strong among the 18-to-29 age group (66 percent in favor), with only the majority of those above the age of 65 still opposed. The federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance with a high potential for abuse, right alongside heroin, morphine and LSD. But despite the persistence of drug war-style hysteria, the latest poll numbers and the demographic trends they reveal show that old presumptions about the dangers of marijuana are gradually fading away.
In response to the changing climate, efforts in support of legal reform are underway in at least 14 states: California, Alaska, Maine, Massachusetts, Delaware, Vermont, Rhode Island, Nevada, Montana, New York, Arizona, Maryland, Hawaii and Oregon, where a ballot initiative similar to those that passed in Colorado and Washington barely failed in 2012. All of these states have already legalized medical marijuana and most have decriminalized its possession, and polls show that either a majority or near-majority of the voters in each favors full legalization.
Most of the efforts for reform are focused on the ballot initiative process. Legalization advocates in several of these states are working to collect the petition signatures necessary to put the issue up before the public during the 2016 election cycle. There are some states where direct legislative action will be required to change marijuana laws, and the sledding figures to be a bit tougher in these localities since elected officials are often reluctant to risk rocking the boat on drug laws.
Getting Baked on the Frozen Tundra
But in Alaska, the future is now: on Aug. 19, residents in the 49th state will be given the opportunity to vote on a ballot initiative that would legalize the sale and distribution of marijuana throughout the Alaskan territories, effective immediately. Recent polls reveal that about 55 percent of Alaskans support legalizing pot for recreational use, so unless anti-drug forces pull off a miracle, it appears that Alaska will in fact become the third American state to remove marijuana from its list of prohibited chemical substances.
Most of the campaigns in support of marijuana law reform have focused on the tax benefits that states will enjoy if they shut down the black market and bring the marijuana trade into the legal fold. In Alaska, legalization would require plant cultivators to pay a flat $50 tax for every ounce of pot they produce, while in Colorado and Washington, revenue will be generated through an excise tax on wholesale pot and a sales tax paid by buyers at the point of sale (the respective rates are 15 percent/10 percent in Colorado and 25 percent/25 percent in Washington). It is estimated that these new taxes will swell the public coffers to the tune of $50 million to $100 million annually in each state — and those numbers may turn out to be somewhat conservative, if the early returns coming in from Colorado are any indication.
A sizable portion of these new revenues will be used to fund substance abuse treatment programs, although some of the money will be reserved for education and general healthcare. In addition to increased tax revenues, criminal justice system costs will be reduced substantially, since it will no longer be necessary to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate people for violation of the laws against marijuana.
The Future of Marijuana Is Now, but Still Uncertain
However, pro-legalization forces have not been entirely forthcoming about the true effects of marijuana. Like all chemical intoxicants, marijuana can be addictive if consumed regularly or to excess, and if legalization does lead to a spike in usage, it will inevitably increase the problem of substance abuse.
The true public health costs of marijuana use are difficult to calculate. However, they will undoubtedly grow as legalization becomes a fact of life from coast to coast.