A version of this story first appeared in January.
For the first 4/20 ever, people will gather in Colorado this weekend to show support for fully legal marijuana. Just months after the state opened its doors to recreational pot, crowds will head to events on Sunday like the sold-out Cannabis Cup, all to celebrate a plant that brought Colorado $14 million in taxed sales in January alone. Colorado's example has served as a promising sign that legal marijuana can be a strong source of income for other states interested in scaling back harsh anti-pot laws and listening to voters, who have increasingly shown support for legalizing marijuana.
(Scroll down to see if your state is likely to be one of the next to legalize.)
Taxed and regulated marijuana is coming soon to Washington state, which along with Colorado passed a legalization measure at the polls during the 2012 general election. And with Attorney General Eric Holder now willing to admit that he is at least "cautiously optimistic" about the groundbreaking laws, marijuana policy reformers in other states are looking more intently at the best way to proceed.
The momentum is on marijuana's side. It has the forces of capitalism behind it -- one study has predicted that the industry could do as much as $8 billion in annual sales by 2018, and there are some signs that the federal government may be ready to help normalize the marijuana business. Legalization is also becoming widely accepted as a social justice issue. Advocates have become increasingly vocal, arguing that it makes no sense to continue treating pot as a Schedule I substance, considered by federal authorities alongside heroin and LSD. In a drug war-obsessed nation that already incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other in the world, around 750,000 people are arrested for marijuana each year, with more than 650,000 of them for possession alone.
For opponents who believe marijuana is damaging to the mind and body, these stats appear to be of less importance. And while supporters of marijuana continually cite the comparative effects of weed and alcohol, or counter anti-pot studies with emerging research that has supported the drug's therapeutic qualities, one thing remains certain: Objective, conclusive scientific research into the effects of marijuana will continue to remain discouraged until the federal ban on the substance is lifted or relaxed.
While debates on marijuana's health effects should and will continue even beyond the next wave of legalizations, it's clear that the floodgates have already been broken. More states will legalize marijuana, and some will do it relatively soon. In states around the nation, pro-pot legislators bolstered by public opinion and the examples set by Colorado and Washington are putting the once-taboo issue before their colleagues, hoping to become the first state to legalize legislatively. Activists are also making the push, working to get the issue before voters in 2014 and beyond.
Here's the likely road ahead for legal marijuana:
Alaskans will have the first chance to make their state the third to legalize pot. A ballot measure to tax, regulate and legalize weed for adult recreational use was initially scheduled to be on the primary election ballot on Aug. 19, the earliest date of any states, though due to a timing issue in the state Legislature, it was recently moved to the general election in November. Anti-marijuana groups are hoping to keep it from passing.
Pot has already been decriminalized and legalized for medical use in Alaska. A survey of Alaska voters taken earlier this year by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling found that 55 percent supported legalizing marijuana.
While hopes for a successful push on legal weed in 2014 may be dwindling, pro-pot organizers have expressed optimism that they'll have a strong campaign for the state ready ahead of 2016. Efforts are underway to gather the required 259,213 signatures needed by July in order to get the legalization issue on the 2014 ballot -- but without serious financial backing, it's looking unlikely. Activists with the influential Marijuana Policy Project have said they're on board with a forthcoming ballot initiative to fully legalize the drug in 2016, when more voters will likely turn out for the general election. The group has also said that by then, they'll have had enough time to figure out which aspects of previous efforts have been successful in other states.
Cannabis was legalized in the state for medical use in 2010 by ballot initiative. A poll taken earlier this year found that 51 percent of Arizonans supported legalizing recreational marijuana sales.
A statewide initiative to legalize recreational marijuana failed in California in 2010, but reformers have expressed hope at finding success in 2014 and beyond. Activists gave up on a major petition effort earlier this year that would have put the issue of legalization to voters in November. There have also been efforts to gather support for the California Cannabis Hemp Initiative, though they lack the financial support other proposals had. While the momentum is certainly in favor of legalization in California, some prominent figures have urged organizers to wait until 2016, when demographics and voter turnout will be even more in their favor.
Cannabis has already been decriminalized and legalized for medical use in California. Multiple polls taken last year found a majority of Californians in favor of legalizing pot, with one longstanding poll showing such support for the first time in 45 years of surveying the issue.
Delaware only recently took steps to begin implementing a system for medical marijuana, but activists with MPP believe the state Legislature could push forward on a broader legalization bill. Delaware also doesn't have citizen ballot initiatives, so any such effort will need to come from state lawmakers.
A recent poll showed that a majority of the state's residents would support such a move.
Lawmakers in Hawaii have considered a number of bills to both decriminalize and legalize marijuana this year -- and killed them before allowing them to reach a full vote. Activists don't have a citizen ballot initiative process to allow them to pursue legalization, so they're hoping the pro-pot momentum will carry over to lawmakers in the Aloha State this year and beyond.
Hawaii has already legalized cannabis for medical use, and lawmakers recently passed legislation to improve the system. A poll taken earlier this year showed that 66 percent of Hawaiians supported legalization.
Bolstered by a November vote to legalize marijuana in Portland, Maine, pro-pot activists have announced the state as one of the top targets for legalization in upcoming election cycles. While initiatives to legalize through legislation have repeatedly failed votes in the state Legislature, MPP has announced plans to help coordinate a grassroots campaign to get a legalization measure on the ballot, though probably not until 2016. In the meantime, more communities appear ready to take legalization into their own hands.
Cannabis has been decriminalized and approved for medical use across Maine. According to a PPP poll released last year, 48 percent of registered voters in Maine believe pot should be legal for recreational use.
Maryland recently decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana following efforts by state lawmakers, and while some see legalization as the next step, it won't happen this year. A Democratic candidate for the state's upcoming gubernatorial election was a big proponent of the decriminalization push, and has supported legalization as well. Maryland's system only allows for referenda on already-passed legislation, so the state will have to rely on state lawmakers for action on marijuana.
Maryland has also passed legislation legalizing cannabis for medical use. A poll taken this year showed that 50 percent of Maryland voters support legalizing marijuana.
The deep-blue New England state is being eyed as a prime opportunity for legalization, with marijuana reform advocates pointing to high margins of support for previous pro-pot initiatives. Advocates with marijuana reform group Bay State Repeal have already begun laying the initial groundwork in order to begin coordinating a campaign to legalize pot via ballot initiative in 2016. A bill to legalize has also been submitted in the state Legislature, and is scheduled to have a hearing later this month.
Massachusetts has decriminalized cannabis, and just last November passed a ballot measure legalizing it for medical use. Recent polls have support for legalizing, taxing and regulating cannabis hovering around 50 percent.
Montana has had a checkered history with marijuana laws. Voters passed an initiative legalizing cannabis for medical use in 2004, but opponents have since taken various steps to amend the measure or repeal it altogether. Reform advocates remain hopeful that voters will support full legalization, with MPP announcing plans to support a statewide effort to legalize at the ballot in 2016. Pot reformers wasted no time following the 2012 election, filing a ballot question aiming to put the issue before voters in 2014. They later dropped the effort for this cycle.
There are no recent statewide surveys to gauge current support for pot legalization in Montana, though previous polls have showed a majority of Montana voters supporting the decriminalization of marijuana.
Marijuana advocates in Nevada are organizing an effort to force a vote on legalization as early as 2015. If that isn't successful, most organizers in the state and at the national level see 2016 as the best chance for a push. The liberal bent of the state makes it a popular target for reformers.
Nevada has legalized medical cannabis, and last year the state passed a measure establishing a dispensary system to help increase access for sick citizens. According to a recent poll, 56 percent of Nevadans would favor legalizing cannabis for recreational use if the money raised went to fund education.
Marijuana advocates have expressed hope that New York could become the third state to legalize marijuana, and perhaps the first to do it through legislation, though support for such measures has so far been minimal. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently came out in favor of efforts to loosen marijuana laws, though he has been hesitant to show support for a popular medical marijuana bill moving through the state Legislature. The governor has also announced a set of executive actions to give seriously ill patients access to marijuana. New York has no system for citizen ballot initiatives.
New York has already decriminalized cannabis possession, though harsh penalties still exist for anybody found using it in a public place or showing it in public view -- a loophole that pot reformers claim has been abused by law enforcement. A 2013 poll showed 82 percent of New Yorkers in support of medical marijuana statewide, and one taken earlier this year showed 57 percent in support of legalization.
Marijuana legalization advocates in Oregon began by approaching the issue from two sides, both pushing for a ballot initiative and lobbying state lawmakers for legislative action. The latter route appears to have failed for now. An earlier legalization effort, which was poorly coordinated and widely mocked inside the state, failed in 2012. Organizers knew there was plenty of room for improvement, and they believe they've found it with New Approach Oregon, a group supported by high-profile national donors that is seeking to see their legalization measure put into law and recently began collecting signatures. Two more legalization initiatives are also being pushed by Paul Stanford, a prominent marijuana business owner. Read more about the specifics here.
Oregon has already decriminalized cannabis and legalized it for medical use. According to a poll taken last year, 57 percent of likely voters in Oregon support a proposal to tax, regulate and legalize marijuana for recreational use.
Marijuana advocates had high hopes that Rhode Island would be one of the first in the next round of states to legalize. Because it has no citizen-initiated ballot process, Rob Kampia, the executive director of MPP, said last year that lawmakers in the state could undertake the effort. Gov. Lincoln Chafee (D) has appeared somewhat open to the idea, and pot reformers were confident that a push this year would be different than the last. Earlier this month, however, lawmakers killed a set of bills before they could get out of committee.
Rhode Island recently decriminalized marijuana and passed legalized medical cannabis around 2007. A PPP poll taken in January found that 52 percent of voters in the state support legalizing pot for recreational use.
Yes, we know that D.C. isn't a state. It's already taxed without representation, so it certainly doesn't need your snark about it. But either way, the District is set to decriminalize marijuana, pending approval from a congressional panel on a recently passed bill. Marijuana activists have also gotten the go-ahead to begin collecting signatures to get a legalization initiative on the November ballot.
D.C. has already legalized cannabis for medical use and is expected to approve a bill to decriminalize the substance. A survey taken earlier this year found that 63 percent of the District's residents supported legalizing marijuana.
Vermont has made strides to scale back marijuana prohibition over the past few years, with a successful measure to decriminalize and a separate bill to establish a system of dispensaries for the state's medical cannabis patients. Observers have seen the state's strong support for the reelection of Gov. Peter Shumlin (D), an advocate for marijuana reform, but not outright legalization, as a sign that voters could be ready to legalize. Another Northeastern state without a citizen-initiated ballot process, Vermont will have to rely on this push coming from state lawmakers. Legalization bills have been submitted, though some preliminary efforts are currently being bogged down by disagreements in the legislature.
Polls have consistently shown Vermonters to be supportive of efforts to scale back prohibition of marijuana, but split on the issue of legalization itself.
This story has been updated with additional information about the ballot initiative in Alaska.