The US is nearing some sort of tipping point in marijuana legalization: Almost half the country – roughly 44 percent of the population – now lives in a state where marijuana is legal or will soon be allowed to be used only for fun.
In the past few months alone, there has been a surge in activity as five states in the United States legalized recreational marijuana: New Jersey, New York, Virginia, New Mexico, and Connecticut on Tuesday.
It's a massive change that has happened in just a few years. A decade ago, no state allowed recreational marijuana; the first states to legalize cannabis in 2012, Colorado and Washington, did so through voter-led initiatives. Now 18 states and Washington, DC, have legalized marijuana (though DC doesn't yet allow sales) – with six enacting their laws through lawmakers, showing that even cautious politicians typically embrace the issue.
At this point, the question of national marijuana legalization is more a matter of when, not if. At least two-thirds of the American public support change, based on various opinion polls over the past few years. Of the 15 states that have voted marijuana legalization since 2012, 13 have it approved – including Republican-dominated Alaska, Montana, and South Dakota (although the South Dakota move is currently on trial). In the 2020 elections, Swing State Arizona's legalization initiative received nearly 300,000 more votes than Joe Biden or Donald Trump.
Legalization has also created a large new industry in very populous states, including California and soon New York, and that industry will continue to expand. One of the U.S.'s neighbors, Canada, has already legalized cannabis, and the other, Mexico, is likely to legalize it soon, creating an international market that U.S. consumers would love to tap into.
For opponents of legalization, the walls are moving into this question – and quickly.
Many politicians have played cautiously in response to these trends. While some high profile Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, have endorsed each other, Biden continues to oppose legalization. Republicans, including Trump, are almost completely against it.
But at that point their refusal comes more like one last gasp than a movement that can stem the tide of change. At some point, lawmakers must follow public opinion or risk losing an election. And the public has always spoken very clearly.
What is less clear is how it will happen. Maybe it will be a slow battle between states before the federal government lifts its own cannabis ban, or maybe federal action will result in a spate of states legalizing. What is clear is that legalization will eventually win and that most, if not all, states will soon be accepted into the ranks of legalizers.
Marijuana legalization is very popular
Within two decades, marijuana legalization has moved from being a marginal issue to one that is embraced by the vast majority of Americans.
In 2000, according to Gallup's public polls, only 31 percent of the country supported legalization, while 64 percent opposed it. By 2020, the numbers turned around: the latest Gallup poll on the subject found that 68 percent were in favor of legalization and 32 percent were against.
There are a few possible explanations for the flip. The general failure of the war on drugs to actually stop widespread drug addiction (see: the opioid epidemic), as well as the backlash to punitive policies that the drug war brought with it, made many Americans cry for new approaches. The public now thinks marijuana is no longer that bad – less harmful than legal drugs like alcohol or tobacco. The advent of the internet has likely accelerated some of these conversations as well, and the proliferation of medical marijuana may have shown more Americans that the US can handle legalizing the drug.
Regardless, the trend towards support can be found in virtually every major survey on the subject, with survey groups consistently finding a strong majority in favor of legalization, from the Pew Research Center (67 percent in 2019) to the General Social Survey (61 percent annually 2018). ).
The trend towards legalization can also be found in the real world. Oregon voters turned down legalization in 2012, only to agree to a separate initiative two years later. Arizona voters said no to one legalization move in 2016, only to approve another four years later.
There's even solid Republican support for legalization. Gallup noted that a slim majority of Republicans supported him in 2017, 2018, and 2019; a majority opposed it in 2020, but the difference was within the margin of error and a sizable 48 percent minority still supported legalization. Pew also found that the majority of Republicans – 55 percent – supported legalization in 2019.
That Republican support is seen in the real world as well. In the 2020 elections, Trump won Montana with 16 points and South Dakota with 26 points. In both states, most voters approved the legalization initiatives in the same year, with pretty strong margins of around 8 percentage points in South Dakota and 16 percentage points in Montana.
In other words, marijuana legalization has appeared on the ballot in four Republican-dominated states: Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. It was won in three of them, only lost in North Dakota. Marijuana Legalization is 3-1 in Solid Red States!
There is little reason to believe that any of these trends will change anytime soon.
There's not much that can change
There's a world in which you can imagine the growing support for marijuana legalization suddenly collapsing. Maybe things went really bad after Colorado, Washington, or a few other states were legalized. Teenage use increased, along with car accidents, crime, visits to the emergency room related to cannabis, and other poor outcomes. Voters see the flaw in their behavior and change their course.
But that just didn't happen. In the states that have been legalized, things have generally gone well. There were some concerns about marijuana-fortified edibles in the early days, but those worries quickly faded as regulators put some new rules in place and retail stores stepped up their advice to newbies on how to consume edibles. The gigantic increase in all the consequences of the problems that opponents of legalization warned against has never materialized.
A big clue here is how often politicians flip flops in support of legalization once their state is legalized and things are basically going well. In Colorado, then governor. John Hickenlooper said in 2012 that he was against the election move just to fully support legalization and brag about how his administration implemented it when he ran for Senator in 2020, March that the only thing he would do differently, " Adopting this position of decriminalization sooner had I known how successful this was without a really big surge in youth use, which was a problem while we were discussing it. ”
There are also great forces that will continue to support legalization and fuel its expansion. According to the Leafly Jobs Report 2021, the U.S. marijuana industry is now valued at more than $ 18 billion, which is over 300,000 full-time jobs, more than the total number of electrical engineers or dentists.
This is just a big industry now, for better or for worse. Any politician who tries to shut it down risks the wrath of hundreds of thousands of people who will lose their jobs. And because it is a promising industry, there is a strong economic incentive – between additional jobs and tax revenue – for more states to embrace legalization.
Not to mention, this big new industry can now use its economic weight to directly support legalization efforts and provide the much-needed funding to get them across the finish line. In this way, the previous success of marijuana legalization at the ballot box will lead to more success.
Of course, there are still major barriers to full national legalization. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, even in states that have legalized it under their own laws. International treaties prohibit countries from legalizing recreational marijuana (although Canada, Mexico, and Uruguay are pushing legalization, no one really seems to care). Most of the US population still lives in a state that is not legalized, and it will take a lot of time and effort in lawmakers and ballot boxes to change that.
But now it is very clear where the trends are going. It could be a few more years before it becomes a national reality, but marijuana legalization will remain.