The U.S. midterm elections may have been tragic for Democrats, who not only lost control of the Senate but gave the Republicans their largest majority in the House of Representatives since the time of Herbert Hoover. However, advocates for the legalization of marijuana have plenty to celebrate, as Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, D.C. all voted to legalize the recreational use of cannabis. This brings the grand total of states where the drug is now legal for recreational purposes up to four, including Washington and Colorado, which have been legally regulating sales of the drug since earlier this year. With public opinion on cannabis beginning to turn across the nation, many are looking at California to be the next domino to fall in the chain of legalization.
Cannabis was on the ballot in several states this year, and voters in libertarian-leaning Alaska, as well as Oregon and the District of Columbia voted in favor of full legalization. Florida had a question on the ballot about legalizing the drug strictly for medical purposes, and while the measure failed to reach the 60% necessary for a state constitutional amendment, it still received approximately 57% approval from voters, possibly hinting at future gains for the legalization movement in Florida. For a frame of reference, Florida’s governor Rick Scott was only re-elected this week with 48.2% of the vote. Marijuana is already legal for medicinal purposes in 23 states as well as D.C, and public opinion polls show that between 80-85% of Americans support legalization for medicinal purposes.
In Oregon, voters have likely been paying close attention to their neighbors to the north, as Washington State has been experimenting with recreational marijuana for several months now with no noticeable increases in crime or other such social afflictions critics had feared. Many suggest the push for legalization in Oregon came from libertarians and civil rights advocates alike, but even wider support must be the case as the measure passed with over 54% of the vote. In Alaska, long seen as a more conservative state which is suspicious of the federal government, many see an earlier law allowing the possession of marijuana inside one’s home as what set the stage for a yes vote. In both Oregon and Alaska the ballot measure has set in motion the establishment of dispensaries and stores, which will most likely lead to a setup similar to that found in Colorado or Washington today. Furthermore, many see California to be the next state to legalize recreational marijuana. Not only was it the first state to allow for the sale of medical marijuana in 1996 but is politically liberal and geographically situated to be next in line, as legalization sweeps from Alaska down the west coast through Washington and Oregon.
Perhaps more interesting is the legalization in Washington, D.C, where the city council has yet to outline the terms of sale and taxation on the up to two ounces now allowed to anyone over the age of 21. The voter proposed measure was passed by a ratio of 7 to 3, with many citing arrest statistics as a reason to support the motion. Though white and black citizens are equally likely to use the drug in D.C., there are eight times as many African Americans arrested for marijuana-related crimes in the city. Such disparity suggests a need for reform, and it is certainly interesting that a major push has come from the city that acts as the seat of the U.S. federal government. Washington D.C. will not set up shops like Oregon or Alaska, the sale of cannabis will remain illegal, and use on federal grounds (about 25% of the city) will remain forbidden. Instead the new law will allow the cultivation and possession of up to 2 oz. in one’s home, as well as giving up to an ounce to others without payment. A key question that remains is how the federal government will react to these developments. The Obama Administration has already said that it will not enforce the federal ban on marijuana in states which have voted for legalization, but Washington D.C. is a different story, as it falls under the administration of the federal government, and its city council’s powers are devolved from Congress (which as of last Wednesday will have a Republican majority going forward).
As two new states approve the recreational use of cannabis, many question whether full-scale legalization is the future of the United States, similar to how most view nation-wide marriage equality as inevitable. When Colorado first began legally selling marijuana I wrote an article praising what seemed to be going well in the state and suggesting room for improvement. With over ten months hindsight, a clearer picture has since emerged. The pot industry is rapidly growing in Colorado, fueled by tourists from states with stricter laws, and is strongly regulated by state authorities. Police in cities like Denver have actually reported decreases in crime since legalization earlier this year, though the correlation is still unknown. What Colorado has done successfully is taxation and regulation- as sale of cannabis is restricted to stores with licenses to sell, of-age consumers are restricted to how much they can buy, and tax revenue from the sale of marijuana has amounted to $45 million over the first eight months. Washington State has far fewer stores, but progress has been similarly successful.
The largest outstanding problem is the sale of edibles, a market state officials had not expected to take off as it has – estimates place edibles as responsible for as much as 45% of the Colorado cannabis market. The key concern with regards to edibles is their falling into the hands of children, already a number of kids have been sent to the emergency room for consumption of marijuana-infused sweets. The government has contemplated changing labeling for infused candy, and have already taken steps to limit the potency of chocolates and other candies laced with marijuana. Alaska and Oregon should learn from Colorado, taxing sales of cannabis appropriately and strictly regulating the sale of edibles to keep it out of the hands of children. As Washington and Colorado have largely demonstrated, when carried out appropriately the legalization of marijuana can have a net positive effect on society. Not only do states get increased tax revenue, but those who are going to use marijuana anyway can now do so in a safer, regulated environment. As Justice Brandeis of the Supreme Court once wrote, states are “laboratories” which can experiment with policy without great damage to the rest of the country. Almost a century later this phrase remains as applicable as ever, as Oregon and Alaska join the experiment of legalizing marijuana; how they fare may influence the rest of the country.