If the unthinkable occurs and Donald Trump is elected president on November 8, residents of a handful of states may soon be able to legally smoke weed to cope.
Legalization of recreational use of marijuana is on the ballot in five states, and medical marijuana laws are up in another four. In legalization states, it may be a clean sweep: recent polls in Arizona, Alaska, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada all show significant public support for legalization, and there is a wide margin of support in some of these states. Support for medical marijuana is strong in Arkansas, Florida and North Dakota, although a ballot question seeking to improve already existing medical marijuana laws in Montana lags in the polls.
This year’s “marijuana election,” as Newsweek described it, comes just four years after Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize and regulate cannabis and reflects the US’s growing acceptance of marijuana. These developments have advocates optimistic that, as Mike Ludwig reported in 2014, “the end of America’s marijuana prohibition is finally in sight.”
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“The 2016 election may be a tipping point for marijuana reform,” said Morgan Fox, a spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project in an interview with Truthout. “This is by far the biggest year we have ever seen on this issue.”
California to Colorado: 20 Years of Progress
Should any of these ballot initiatives pass, they will be the latest in a 20-year run of progressive reforms on this issue. The first major victory was in 1996 when California voters passed Proposition 215, legalizing marijuana for medical use for the first time. Since then 24 more states and Washington, DC, have passed similar laws.
Medical marijuana was a stepping stone to other reforms. And in time 20 states decriminalized non-medical cannabis, making possession of small amounts punishable only as a civil offense — like a parking ticket. These changes proved to be very effective, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ).
“As a result [of decriminalization], many fewer young people in the former states are suffering the damages and costs of criminal arrest, prosecution, incarceration, fines, loss of federal aid, and other punishments,” concluded CJCJ’s 2015 study on five states that decriminalized cannabis. “Meanwhile, no harmful consequences appear to be materializing.”
The report, however, concluded that “staggering racial disparities” did not improve even after decriminalization. While decriminalization greatly reduced arrests for marijuana, it did not abolish them; arrests still occur depending on the weight possessed and how the marijuana is packaged, among several other factors. “One particularly striking finding is that post-reform marijuana arrest rates for African Americans across these [decriminalization] states remain considerably higher (251.9) than pre-reform rates for people of all other races (167.7),” the report concluded.
The report, in light of these lingering issues, suggested the states “move toward full legalization.” And, as the 2012 election showed, legalization is where the movement is headed.
“The Sky Hasn’t Fallen”: Two Case Studies in Legalization
The legalization of marijuana in the states of Colorado and Washington was obviously a watershed moment for the movement to end prohibition. But more than that, these first states also functioned as valuable case studies showing the potential impacts of legalization. The results have debunked the doomsday scenarios predicted by the opposition.
“I would say that the rollout was extremely smooth: the sky hasn’t fallen like some had predicted, and we’re moving forward and trying to ﬁne-tune this regulatory model,” said Ron Kammerzell, the director of enforcement at the Colorado Department of Revenue, in an interview with Vox. This quote is proudly shared by advocates of yes votes in states where legalization is on the 2016 ballot.
As the Marijuana Policy Project reported in a July 2016 study, marijuana cases in Colorado plummeted 77 percent, eliminating a lot of wasted time and money. Meanwhile, the industry created almost 30,000 jobs, especially since retail sales locations opened in 2014 and tourism boomed. In 2015 Forbes named Denver as the best city in America for “business and careers.”
Furthermore, while many opponents of legalization have argued that it would increase drug use among children, trends suggest otherwise. A 2016 study from the Washington School of Medicine has concluded that “rates of marijuana use by young people are falling despite the fact more U.S. states are legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana use and the number of adults using the drug has increased.”
What is arguably most inviting to voters is the tax revenue that has been collected. The Tax Foundation reported in 2016 that “Marijuana tax collections in Colorado and Washington have exceeded initial estimates.” Colorado collected over $135 million in fees and taxes from marijuana businesses, including $35 million that was earmarked for school construction. Washington State, likewise, is expected to collect $270 million annually in revenue from taxes on marijuana. Given that these laws were passed in the aftermath of the Great Recession when states suffered from depleted tax bases and huge budget shortfalls, this added revenue is especially important.
Marijuana and the Political Establishment
While marijuana advocates are thrilled about recent developments, it is worth noting that these citizens are winning despite a political and media establishment that is “way behind the public on this issue,” as Fox told Truthout. “Many politicians are still afraid of being considered ‘soft on drugs,'” he said.
In Massachusetts, for instance, the most powerful politicians in both major parties oppose the referendum, including the governor and the mayor of Boston. In Florida, which must meet a 60 percent threshold to pass the medical marijuana ballot initiative, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) just filed a lawsuit against a county election supervisor for allegedly leaving the medical marijuana question off the ballots in Broward country.
On the federal level marijuana is still illegal, with the White House’s website devoting a sizable section to express opposition to legalization. It is worth noting, however, that the presidential candidates are more open to reforming marijuana laws than many politicians on the state level. The Marijuana Policy Project grades each candidate for president, and gave Hillary Clinton a B+ for saying that reforms in the states for both medical marijuana and recreational use “need to be supported.” Trump has given conflicting statements and received a C+. Both Jill Stein and Gary Johnson have As.
The Return of “Reefer Madness”?
The 80th anniversary of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, the first law to prohibit marijuana in the United States, will come in October 2017. The law was passed after Henry J. Anslinger’s absurd and openly racist campaign, “Reefer Madness,” which alleged marijuana was a “burning weed with roots in hell,” that could cause one to kill their own family members.
The campaign was so bizarre — and unintentionally hilarious — that the Reefer Madness film has a cult following. Yet, in 2016 one can still watch prime-time cable news and hear almost identical ruminations. In 2014 Nancy Grace famously said “people on pot” “shoot,” “kill” and “strangle” each other, and even “kill whole families.” This kind of language is almost identical to the absurdities expressed in the Anslinger days.
Of course, Grace does represent the extremes. CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, for example, reversed his past opposition to medical marijuana in 2013 and now calls for a “medical marijuana revolution.” Still, even “serious” commentators, like The New York Times’ David Brooks, argue that states that legalize marijuana are “nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.” And Brooks, like so many other opponents of legalizing marijuana, does so without even trying to reconcile opposition to a drug that is non-fatal and relatively benign, with his acceptance of legal alcohol, which is potentially fatal and far more dangerous.
Despite Marijuana Reform, Drug War Rages On
Whatever the trajectory of marijuana laws, it cannot be forgotten that it is just one sliver of a much larger injustice: the country’s failed “War on Drugs.” This war rages on — with complicity from the Obama White House — at a steep price to our country, and especially to people of color, who face institutionalized racism at every level of the criminal justice system. Every year well over a million Americans are arrested for drug offenses, often resulting in life-long consequences, including, in many states, losing the right to vote.
“Any changes in the war on drugs will require continued organizing and agitation, because history has shown that one step forward has also resulted in two steps back [for] communities of color,” David Simon, creator of HBO’s “The Wire,” told In These Times in 2013. “Changing the laws in two states, while a step forward, does not cut off the legs of this broader system.”
But since then, Oregon and Washington, DC have legalized marijuana. The 2016 election offers the chance for voters to take the biggest step toward ending marijuana prohibition in the nation’s history. It is possible that by 2017, eight states (plus DC) could be added to the list. And the momentum seems likely to continue into the future. Efforts for more ballot questions in 2018 are already under way.