The U.S. is nearing a turning point in marijuana legalization on April 20, with nearly half of the country – roughly 43 percent of the population – now living in a state where marijuana is legal to use for fun.
In the past few months alone, there has been a surge in activity as four states in the United States legalized recreational marijuana: New Jersey, New York, Virginia, and most recently New Mexico.
It’s a massive shift that has happened in just a few years. A decade ago, no states allowed recreational marijuana; The first states to legalize cannabis in 2012, Colorado and Washington, did so through picky initiatives. Now 17 states and Washington, DC, have legalized marijuana (though DC doesn’t allow sales yet), with five having passed their laws through legislation, showing that even typically cautious politicians are embracing the issue.
At this point, the issue of national marijuana legalization is more of a time, not a case. At least two-thirds of the American public support the change, based on various opinion polls over the past few years. Of the 15 states that have voted marijuana legalization since 2012, 13 states have approved it – including Republican-dominated Alaska, Montana, and South Dakota (although the South Dakota move is currently on trial). In the 2020 elections, the swing state’s Arizona legalization initiative garnered 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 push to expand further. One of the U.S.’s neighbors, Canada, has already legalized pot, and the other, Mexico, is likely to legalize it soon, creating an international market that U.S. consumers would love to tap into.
The walls join this issue for opponents of legalization – and quickly.
Many politicians have played it cautiously in response to these trends. While some high-profile Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, have voted in favor, Biden continues to oppose legalization. Republicans, including Trump, are almost completely against it.
But at that point their rejection comes out more like a final gasp than a movement that can hold back 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 state-to-state struggle before the federal government ends its own cannabis ban, or maybe federal action will result in a spate of states legalizing. What has become clear is that legalization will eventually win and the vast majority, if not all, of states will soon be legalizers.
The legalization of marijuana is very popular
In two decades, marijuana legalization has moved from being a marginal issue to one that the vast majority of Americans embrace.
In 2000, according to Gallup public polls, only 31 percent of the country were in favor of legalization, while 64 percent were against. 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 the criminal policy that the drug war brought with it, made many Americans call for new approaches. The public didn’t see marijuana as 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 poll 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 in 2018 )).
The trend towards legalization can also be found in the real world. Oregon voters turned down legalization in 2012, only to approve 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 this in 2017, 2018, and 2019; A majority opposed it in 2020, but the difference was within the margin of error and a sizeable 48 percent minority were still in favor of legalization. Pew also found a majority of Republicans – 55 percent – to be in favor of 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 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 won in three of them and 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 isn’t much that could change
There is a world in which one can imagine support for marijuana legalization suddenly collapsing. Maybe things went really bad after Colorado, Washington, or some other states were legalized. Teenage use increased along with car accidents, crime, pot-related emergency medical visits, and other poor outcomes. The voters see the mistake of their way and change their course.
But that just didn’t happen. In the states that legalized things generally went well. There were some concerns about marijuana-laced foods in the early days, but those concerns quickly subsided as regulators introduced some new rules and retail stores increased their advice to newbies regarding food consumption. The gigantic increase in all the problems that the opponents of legalization had warned about never materialized.
One big statement here is how many times politicians flip flops to support legalization once their state is legalized and things are basically going well. In Colorado then governor. John Hickenlooper said in 2012 that he was opposed to the election measure only to fully support legalization and to brag about how his administration implemented it when he ran for Senator in 2020. Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who spoke out against legalization during his 2012 run, said in March that the only thing he would do differently is “[embrace] This position of decriminalization earlier if I had known how successful it was without the consumption of adolescents really increasing, which was a problem when we discussed it. “
There are also great forces that will continue to support legalization and fuel its expansion. The U.S. marijuana industry is now valued at more than $ 18 billion and supports more than 300,000 full-time positions, more than the total number of electrical engineers or dentists, according to the Leafly Jobs Report in 2021.
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 join legalization.
Not to mention, this big new industry can now use its economic weight to directly back legalization efforts and provide much-needed funding to get them across the finish line. In this way, the previous success in legalizing marijuana at the ballot box will lead to more success.
There are of course still major barriers to full legalization across the country. Marijuana remains completely 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 has not been legalized, and it will take a lot of time and effort in legislation 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 the national reality becomes a reality, but marijuana legalization remains in place.