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What's Next for Marijuana Legalization?

In the wake of the big election victories on November 4, many people are asking, "What's next for the push to legalize marijuana in the United States?"
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In the wake of the big election victories on November 4, many people are asking, "What's next for the push to legalize marijuana in the United States?"

It generally falls into four buckets:

1. Legalizing Marijuana for Adults in 11 More States and D.C.

Measures to regulate marijuana like alcohol have now passed in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. All four states did so via the ballot initiative process.

The state that will most likely be next to legalize is Rhode Island, which would be the first to do so via state legislature. Also this spring, the District of Columbia is expected to enact a similar law through its city council.

There's also a real opportunity to legalize marijuana through five more state legislatures between now and 2017 -- Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Vermont. There will also be serious legislative activity in other states, such as New York, but it is less clear when such legislation will pass.

In November 2016, at least five states are expected to vote on similar ballot initiatives -- Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada -- and one could potentially appear on the ballot in Missouri.

By the end of 2017, marijuana could be legalized in 15 states and D.C., which would comprise 26% of the nation's population.

2. Legalizing Medical Marijuana in Two or Three More States

Medical marijuana is legal in 23 states and D.C. The next two states that are most likely to follow suit are Florida and Pennsylvania -- the former via a ballot initiative in November 2016 and the latter via the state legislature.

Regarding Florida, approximately 58% of the electorate voted for medical marijuana on November 4, but because Florida requires initiatives to obtain 60% of the vote to pass, the initiative failed. If the same initiative is placed before the voters in November 2016, the initiative is likely to pass, because the electorate during presidential elections is typically larger, younger, and more independent.

Medical marijuana initiatives could also appear on ballots in Arkansas and Ohio, and there's a real chance that Michigan could improve its existing medical marijuana law by allowing the licensing of dispensaries.

3. Decriminalizing Marijuana Possession in Five More States

There are serious efforts to decriminalize marijuana possession through five state legislatures in 2015 and 2016 -- Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, New Hampshire, and Texas.

While the definition of "decriminalization" varies from state to state, the idea is to remove the threat of arrest and jail, instead treating marijuana possession like a speeding violation.

4. Continue Making Progress in Congress

This year saw the first real breakthrough in Congress, with the passage of an amendment on the House floor to prohibit the U.S. Justice Department (which includes the Drug Enforcement Administration) from spending taxpayer money to interfere with state-level medical marijuana laws.

This amendment, which was sponsored by Congressmen Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Sam Farr (D-CA), passed the Republican-controlled chamber by a 219-189 vote. Whether this amendment is included in the omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2015, it's almost a certainty that the House will vote on the amendment again in the spring or summer of 2015 (for fiscal year 2016).

Also in the House, there's growing momentum for various marijuana-related bills, including bills to (1) give states the right to enact their own marijuana policies without federal interference, (2) allow Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend medical marijuana to their patients, and (3) prohibit the federal government from seizing your property unless you've actually been convicted of a crime.

In the Senate, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) said he intends to hold a committee hearing to investigate marijuana legalization, and Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Corey Booker (D-NJ) will probably take a leadership role in trying to pass the aforementioned Rohrabacher-Farr amendment on the Senate side.

Also, both chambers will be considering whether to allow marijuana legalization to take root on the local level in D.C., because Congress has ultimate jurisdiction over the nation's capital.

According to the latest national poll on the issue, which Gallup conducted in October, 51% of American adults support making the "use" of marijuana legal. And then there's the question of who the next president will be, with Sen. Rand Paul being the best choice, but with the possibility that people like Hillary Clinton could also be good about not interfering with state-level marijuana laws.

So things are in flux right now, but marijuana policies are obviously trending in the right direction.