Slowly but surely, America’s long-standing prohibition of marijuana is going up in smoke. On Nov. 4, two more states – Oregon and Alaska – officially legalized the sale of pot for recreational use. Meanwhile, voters in Washington, D.C., voted to lift a sizeable portion of the criminal sanctions against the sale and distribution of marijuana, subject to the final approval of Congress, since the District of Columbia does not possess completely independent status.
Pro-legalization forces were a bit concerned that it might be harder to pass such ballot referendums in a midterm election. Young people traditionally show up at the polls in much lower numbers when the presidency is not at stake, and it is among this group that pot legalization enjoys its greatest support. But even with turnout skewed toward an older demographic, nothing could stop the inevitable; it is clear the tide has turned in favor of legalization, as the three referendums passed by margins of 54 percent to 46 percent in Oregon, 52 percent to 48 percent in Alaska and a resounding 65 percent to 28 percent in Washington, D.C. A ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana in Florida failed, but only because it fell slightly short of the 60 percent approval mark required in that state to make such a significant change in the law. Voters in Guam approved a medical marijuana referendum, making it the first U.S. territory to legalize the drug for medicinal purposes.
Colorado and Washington broke the ice on recreational marijuana legalization in the 2012 election, blazing a trail that more and more states are undoubtedly destined to follow. The laws in both Oregon and Alaska are very similar to those that were approved by voters in Colorado and Washington: there will be no restrictions on the purchase and use of marijuana by those age 21 and older, and all growers, manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers must be sanctioned and licensed by the state before they can market their products. Tax revenues collected from the sale of cannabis will be used to fund a variety of services, including expanded treatment and rehabilitation for drug addiction. In Oregon, stores selling marijuana products will be allowed to open their doors for business after July 1, 2015, while in Alaska pot consumers will have to wait until 2016 to get their hands on the legal versions of their favorite drug-based goodies.
The Washington, D.C., referendum passed by voters is more restrictive than the new state laws, occupying a middle ground between decriminalization and outright legalization. Here, anyone who has reached age 21 will be free to possess up to two ounces of marijuana for personal use and grow as many as six cannabis plants in his or her home as long as there is no intent to sell anything that is produced. It will also be legal in D.C. to transfer up to one ounce of pot to another individual, provided it is given as a gift and that no money changes hands.
Of course, this latter prohibition will be impossible to enforce – what’s to stop a recipient of “free” pot from giving her benefactor $10 the next day as a “loan”? But those responsible for crafting the Washington law tried their best to come up with a compromise that would have a decent chance of gaining the federal government’s approval. Referendum authors realized that a congressional veto of full-blown legalization was a certainty, and many are, in fact, expressing doubts that the new Republican-controlled Congress will allow even this watered-down version of legalization to go into effect.
What Will Marijuana Legalization Really Mean?
Over the last decade, legalization of marijuana in the United States has been transformed from a pipe dream into the wave of the future. In 1999, the legalization of cannabis for recreational use was opposed by two-thirds of the American people, but an October 2014 poll taken by the Pew Research Center shows that 52 percent of the public now supports marijuana legalization, and this number is continuing to trend upward.
Libertarian impulses combined with an enthusiasm for converting a tax drain into a tax benefit spurred the public’s evolution on this issue. The United States is incarcerating more people for minor drug crimes than any other country in the world, and the fact that we are spending a ridiculous amount of money to do so only adds to the absurdity of the situation. In the meantime, funds for addiction treatment and rehabilitation are sorely lacking, and even opponents of drug law reform are expressing hope that taxes collected from pot sales will be used to expand treatment options.
Will the U.S. Government Join the Parade?
Even before Tuesday’s resounding affirmation, ballot initiatives on marijuana legalization for recreational use were expected to be presented to voters in California, Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada and Arizona in 2016. With the legalization train now rolling downhill and its momentum seemingly unstoppable, reform advocates in a number of other states are feeling emboldened. Fledgling campaigns to get the issue on the ballot by 2016 in Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont are expected to pick up steam.