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Election Day Marks a Major Turning Point for Marijuana Legalization

Today’s vote is a huge victory for advocates who have spent decades fighting for legalization.

By Jared Keller


Pedestrians walk past a medical marijuana dispensary in Hollywood, California. (Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

On November 8th, millions of Americans went to the polls to tell their state governments where they stand on marijuana legalization. And the people have spoken: Green is good.

By Tuesday evening, California, Maine, and Massachusetts had voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington state, and the District of Columbia already permitted recreational marijuana, while another 25 states permit medical use. As of November 9th, some seven states (plus D.C.) will permit recreational marijuana consumption, pushing public acceptance of the drug to a record high among states.

On Election Day, there were initiatives around regulating marijuana use on the ballot in eight states: Arizona, California, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, and North Dakota (in Arkansas, Issue 7 was disqualified from the ballot by the state Supreme Court, according to the Cannabist). While medical marijuana legislation has become a regular fixture of national ballot initiatives, five states (Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada) encompassing 82 million voters — more than a quarter of the population — were considering outright legalization for recreational use. In the month ahead of Election Day, polls showed outright legalization winning in all five states, though as of this writing Nevada and Arizona had narrowly rejected their respective legalization initiatives.

Tuesday’s vote in those states marks not just the biggest victory of advocates who have spent decades fighting for legalization, but the largest swell in national support for making the drug freely accessible to the public. An October poll by the Pew Research Center showed that 57 percent of adults in the United States approved of legalization compared to 37 against, an inversion of the 32 percent for and 60 percent against just a decade ago. According to Gallup, one in eight Americans smokes marijuana, and the 7 percent of Americans identifying as current users in 2013 has almost doubled to 13 percent in October 2016. It’s no wonder marijuana showed up on so many ballots this year. Case in point: Supporters of Maine’s Question 1 — which legalized recreational marijuana for adults over the age of 21 — raised $3.2 million to bolster their cause as of October 31st, according to Mashable, dwarfing the $233,000 raised by opponents of the legalization measure.

It’s unlikely this burst in enthusiasm for marijuana lead to a nation of stoners: A growing body of research continues to dispel the myth that marijuana is a gateway drugfor socially undesirable behaviors. And in the coming months advocates may have even more evidence on their side: The federal government is already in the process of loosening its stranglehold on marijuana. While the Drug Enforcement Administration declined to reschedule the substance in August, it did authorize new research institutions to conduct scientific research, which can only continue to knock down the myths and stigmas around the drug. Recent research has even shown that marijuana could help hasten the end of America’s opioid crisis, the real epidemic pearl-clutching naysayers should be focusing on.

Even when you factor out the relative harmlessness of marijuana to individuals and society as a whole, there’s another incentive at play: economics. The prohibition on the relatively harmless narcotic may be costing local, state, and federal governments some $28 billion in tax revenues, according to a Tax Foundation analysis published in May. Colorado — which raked in some $70 million in the year after legalizing marijuana, twice as much as it collected from alcohol taxes — could earn $140 million from marijuana sales in 2016, according to the Tax Foundation. USA Todayreports that the cannabis market could explode to $8 billion by 2020 at the current rate of legalization. For governments strapped for cash, the decision is a no-brainer.

So what can we expect in the aftermath of this watershed moment for recreational marijuana legalization? We’ll likely see more complaints from states with a more puritanical take on recreational drug use. Back in March, the Supreme Court declined to take up a joint lawsuit by the governments of Nebraska and Oklahoma claiming neighboring Colorado’s decriminalization efforts led to increased trafficking over their borders, resulting in “a direct and significant detrimental impact — namely the diversion of limited manpower and resources to arrest and process suspected and convicted felons involved in the increased illegal marijuana trafficking or transportation,” per NBC News. Despite the economic benefits from and public support for legalization, the courts may certainly see similar cases challenging the constitutionality of state-by-state legalization.

These challenges may hold a silver lining: Should the Supreme Court eventually decide to hear a case, the Court could rule federal prohibitions on marijuana unconstitutional, legalizing the drug from the bench just as the Court did with same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges. Then again, given the current dysfunctional nature of the eight-justice Court — and Republican promises to keep it that way — such a legal gambit would prove risky for advocates and opponents of legalization alike.

Either way, one thing is certain: Americans are more accepting of marijuana than ever before.