Come November, almost one-quarter of the U.S. population could be living in states that have toppled longstanding prohibitions on marijuana.
Five states will vote on measures to legalize and regulate the sale of recreational marijuana on Nov. 8, and with polls indicating that they could pass in all five, the national conversation around cannabis is likely to change drastically.
The burst of ballot initiatives is unprecedented. Four states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana since 2012, but together, they only account for about 18 million Americans. If the new wave of states — California, Nevada, Arizona, Maine and Massachusetts — legalizes marijuana next month, the number will surge to 75 million people, according to the most recent Census estimates.
Much of that increase is due to California, the most populous state in the country, with about 40 million residents, and the sixth-largest economy in the world (ahead of both France and Brazil). Because of its size and significance, the state “has the ability to be a change agent in this election,” said John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on marijuana policy.
If California votes to legalize marijuana, it would further normalize the sale and use of recreational marijuana, putting it in line with more mainstream drugs like alcohol and tobacco, said Hudak. The expanded legal market would also put political pressure on Congress to ease banking regulations in the cannabis industry. And it would provide another business model for other prospective states to evaluate, imitate and improve upon before adopting their own.
The federal prohibition of marijuana makes it difficult for weed businesses to set up accounts with banks and credit unions, as most financial institutions are hesitant to offer their services to an industry still routinely targeted by law enforcement. They also can’t get loans or accept credit cards. Customers must pay in cash. Businesses in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska have faced these challenges in recent years, but with little progress. A “yes” on Proposition 64 in California could finally draw attention to the problem, said Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center.
“I think there’s gonna be a stronger voice for reforms at the federal level, especially with respect to the banking issue,” Kilmer said. “If California legalizes, you’re going to have a lot of its federal representatives and senators … pushing for some of these reforms.”
Apart from California, the other state measures could also present interesting dynamics for the future of the marijuana reform movement. Arizona could become the first historically red state to approve recreational marijuana, and Massachusetts could lay the groundwork for its New England neighbors to adopt similar initiatives.
Of course, some states may reject marijuana legalization in November. Although the issue is leading in all five states — in California, it has almost 60 percent support — those margins are narrow and a lot can change in the next few weeks, Hudak said.
If the issues fail in a few of the states, it will be a setback, but not a major one.
“Whether these initiatives pass or fail, they are undeniably fostering a public dialogue for ending prohibition,” said Mason Tvert, spokesman for the pro-reform Marijuana Policy Project. “The debate in each state will start to shift more toward, ‘How will marijuana be legal?’ and, ‘What will that look like?’ instead of whether it should be legal.”
“As we continue to see success in these states, it further solidifies the decision for legislators and for voters in other states,” Tvert continued. “They see it’s working. They see it hasn’t caused the problems people claimed it would. They see that it would be beneficial. Then there’s this growing sense of inevitability and of urgency.”
Like efforts to legalize medical marijuana — which have been successful in 25 states and the District of Columbia, with four more states voting on the issue in November — Tvert said Americans will likely adjust to the idea of legalizing recreational marijuana. It just takes time.
“It will be really interesting to see how this plays out over the next couple years,” Kilmer said, adding that the winner of the 2016 presidential election “could have important implications for how this plays out in other parts of the country.”
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