This November, voters in Washington, Oregon, and Colorado have the chance to do something radical: legalize marijuana for recreational use. In all three states, activists secured enough petition signatures to place initiatives on the ballot to essentially treat cannabis like alcohol, regulating its distribution and taxing it. The three states already allow patients with ailments like cancer and AIDS to use marijuana; Colorado allows dispensaries, which make for a bigger and broader semi-decriminalized system. But if these initiatives pass, they would be the first allowing anyone who doesn't have (or claim to have) a medical need to use marijuana. One poll shows the Washington initiative passing by a 13-point margin, while a poll in Colorado predicts an even bigger margin in favor. These polls should be read skeptically, but they suggest the strong possibility that at least one of these initiatives could succeed.
If that happens, it will raise a whole slew of questions for the country about personal liberty, the costs of the drug war, and the relationship between the federal government and the states. But the momentum is clearly with those who would undo some of our nation's restrictions on marijuana.
This May, Connecticut became the 17th state (plus the District of Columbia) to pass a law allowing people suffering from certain medical conditions to legally possess marijuana. But these laws vary greatly in their practical effects. On one end of the spectrum are laws that are essentially meaningless; for instance, in Maryland, patients can get out of prosecution for possession, but there's no way for them to obtain the drug legally. Then there are states like Michigan and Oregon, which allow registered patients or their caregivers to grow a small number of plants for their own use. A few states like Arizona, New Mexico, and New Jersey passed laws providing for a small number of heavily regulated dispensaries, though many of these are tied up in bureaucratic wrangling about how the system will actually work. Finally, you have Colorado and California, which have large numbers of lightly regulated dispensaries where patients can buy cannabis. Dispensaries have proliferated in these two states; there are reportedly 400 in Denver, and the Los Angeles city council recently voted to shut down all of the city's 762 dispensaries after concluding that the system had gotten out of control (the future of pot in Los Angeles is unclear; the city council may pass new legislation allowing some grandfathered dispensaries to remain open).
The multiplication of dispensaries in California and Colorado does offer some cautionary lessons for future legalizers. On one hand, the dispensary system is akin to the brown paper bag covering your beer. It allows everyone to pretend that people are only using pot for its medicinal effects, when the truth is that lots of those who get their cannabis at dispensaries just like getting high (not that the two are mutually exclusive). But a complete lack of regulation has its own problems, as shady operators rush in to make a quick buck and the dispensaries become targets for crimes like burglary. As the Los Angeles experience demonstrates, officials have to think carefully about how the distribution system for marijuana is going to work.
No one should be surprised if one or more of the initiatives in Washington, Oregon, and Colorado succeed. Support for legalization has always been higher in the West, with its more libertarian pioneer traditions. And nationally, support for legalization has been growing rapidly (support for medical marijuana runs between 60 and 80 percent, depending on how the question is asked). Last year, support for outright legalization exceeded 50 percent in the Gallup poll for the first time. Other surveys show similar results; shown here are data from the General Social Survey, which has asked this question since the 1970s. Support dipped into the teens during the 1980s, at the height of Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign, but has been climbing steadily ever since. There are probably multiple cultural and political factors driving that change, but one factor is surely demographic. Those most opposed to legalization are the oldest generations who had the least experience with it in their youth; as they die off and are replaced by generations with plenty of exposure to the drug, support for legalization is likely to increase.
The public opinion data have parallels in what we know about who has used marijuana. According to the government's National Survey on Drug Use and Health, majorities of every age group below 60 (with one anomalous exception) tell surveyors they have smoked pot sometime in their lives. Given that the surveys ask people to admit to illegal behavior, it's almost certain that the actual numbers are higher, though just how much higher we can't tell. While there are surely some people who have smoked pot but believe fervently that it should be illegal, the fact that half the electorate got high and survived suggests an ample constituency for legalization efforts.
Let's say one of the marijuana initiatives wins at the ballot box in November. What happens then? This is where things get complicated. No matter what a state decides, marijuana is still illegal under federal law. While Barack Obama's Justice Department said in its first year that it wouldn't go around arresting people who were complying with their state's marijuana laws, he turned out to be nearly as much of a drug warrior as any of his predecessors. Obama has never advocated removing marijuana from Schedule 1, the classification that puts it alongside heroin and cocaine as drugs that "have a high potential for abuse" and "no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States." The federal government has raided hundreds of dispensaries since Obama took office. As long as marijuana remains illegal on a federal level, everyone who participates in that market is potentially vulnerable to prosecution.
And that's with a Democrat in the White House, one who by his own admission smoked lots and lots when he was younger. When the next Republican becomes president—whether it's Mitt Romney or somebody elected in 2016 or 2020—chances are the federal government will work aggressively to undermine any legal regime a state put in place. The only thing that would make things less complicated would be legalization, or at least decriminalization, on a national level. Despite the clear direction of public opinion, that seems a long way away.