Washington DC followed Colorado and Washington state into a closely watched experiment to legalize marijuana, as voters overwhelmingly backed an initiative 7 to 3 allowing cannabis to be consumed and grown in the nation’s capital. The move to allow the drug almost certainly will take effect unless the next US Congress, which holds significant legislative authority over the city, blocks it. Under a voter-proposed measure, known as Initiative 71, residents and visitors age 21 and older will be allowed to legally possess as much as two ounces of marijuana and to grow up to three marijuana plants at home.
If D.C. residents vote to legalize marijuana possession next week, it wouldn’t just mean a sea change in drug policy in the nation’s capital. It could also mean big business. A study by District financial officials shared with lawmakers estimates a legal D.C. cannabis market worth $130 million a year. The ballot initiative voters will see Tuesday does not allow for the legal sale of marijuana — only the possession and home cultivation of small amounts — but D.C. Council members gathered Thursday to hear testimony about what a legal sales regime might look like.
Retail marijuana sales for adults are now legal (at least at the state level) in Colorado and Washington. Next month, voters in Alaska and Oregon may decide to follow suit. It is nearly certain that marijuana legalization will make it onto the California ballot in 2016, during a presidential election season that will generate enormous interest among young voters. Robert MacCoun looks at options for designing a marijuana proposal.
A report from Greenwave Advisors, a "comprehensive research and financial analysis for the emerging legalized marijuana industry," projects that legal cannabis could be an industry with revenues of $35 billion by 2020 if marijuana is legalized at the federal level. To put that figure in perspective, $35 billion represents more annual revenue than the NFL (currently $10 billion), and is roughly on par with current revenues for the newspaper publishing industry ($38 billion) and the confectionary industry ($34 billion).
For decades, the United States has been a champion of the global drug control treaty system, which limits the use of marijuana exclusively to medical and scientific purposes, and obligates governments to punish and even criminalize recreational marijuana activity. But American attitudes toward marijuana policy are shifting: voters in Colorado and Washington approved ballot initiatives to legalize regulated recreational marijuana in 2012, and recent polls suggest that the majority of Americans think marijuana use should be legalized.
Two U.S. states have legalized recreational marijuana, and more may follow; the Obama administration has conditionally accepted these experiments. Such actions are in obvious tension with three international treaties that together commit the United States to punish and even criminalize activity related to recreational marijuana. The administration asserts that its policy complies with the treaties because they leave room for flexibility and prosecutorial discretion.
The decision by California voters in 1996 to legalize medical marijuana produced a wave of similar initiatives around the country. Less than two decades later, over half the states allow at least limited medical use. Now it looks as though recreational use of the drug may follow the same path. In 2012, Washington State and Colorado legalized recreational marijuana. This November, voters in Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia will decide whether to do the same — effectively disregarding the misguided federal ban on a drug that is far less dangerous than alcohol.
The Washington state’s legal recreational marijuana market is expected to bring in about $636 million in taxes to state coffers through the middle of 2019, according to an economic forecast. The forecast by the Economic and Revenue Forecast Council showed that just over $25 million from a variety of marijuana-related taxes — including excise, sales, and business taxes — is expected to be collected through the middle of next year.
It may be an off-year election, but it's a big one for drug policy reform... voters across the country will have a chance to accelerate the unprecedented momentum to legalize marijuana and end the wider drug war. In fact, there are more drug policy reform questions on the ballot this November than ever in American history. Here is an overview, starting with the highest-profile measures.
The state of New York could legalize marijuana for recreational use as early as 2015. State Sen. Liz Krueger (D) will reintroduce the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act during the next legislative session, which begins in January. Krueger's bill would permit the opening of retail marijuana dispensaries, which would be regulated by the State Liquor Authority. The bill would establish an excise tax on all marijuana sales, and adults would legally be able to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and grow up to six marijuana plants at home for personal use.
A state judge said that a small city can continue to ban state-licensed marijuana businesses, in a case with big implications for Washington’s experiment in legal pot. Pierce County Superior Court Judge Ronald Culpepper issued the ruling after extensive arguments over whether Initiative 502, the voter-approved state law that legalizes adults’ recreational use of marijuana, left any room for such local bans.
Conservative Republicans often talk about the need to constrain the power of the federal government. On everything from environmental regulation to education policy, Republican officeholders argue that individual states should be able to adopt their own policy priorities, free from federal interference. Yet many of these same people are silent when the question turns to marijuana. In 2012, voters in Colorado and Washington state voted to legalize marijuana possession within their states. This November, voters in Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia will get the chance to follow suit. (See also: Let states decide on marijuana)
As Americans continue to embrace pot—as medicine and for recreational use—opponents are turning to a set of academic researchers to claim that policymakers should avoid relaxing restrictions around marijuana. It's too dangerous, risky, and untested, they say. Just as drug company-funded research has become incredibly controversial in recent years, forcing major medical schools and journals to institute strict disclosure requirements, could there be a conflict of interest issue in the pot debate? (See also: The real reason pot is still illegal)
That the black market in Colorado bustles in the emerging days of legalisation is not unexpected. By some reckonings, it will continue as long as residents of other states look to Colorado as the nation’s cannabis cookie jar. And as long as its legal retail competition keeps prices high and is taxed at rates surpassing 30%. “I don’t know who is buying for recreational use at dispensaries unless it’s white, middle-class people and out-of-towners,” said a longtime community activist. “Everyone I know still has the guy on the street that they hook up with.”
The federal law that makes possession of marijuana a crime has its origins in legislation that was passed in an atmosphere of hysteria during the 1930s and that was firmly rooted in prejudices against Mexican immigrants and African-Americans, who were associated with marijuana use at the time. This racially freighted history lives on in current federal policy, which is so driven by myth and propaganda that it is almost impervious to reason.
No sooner had the Times published its opening editorials advocating legalization of marijuana than the White House fired back with an unconvincing response on its website. It argued that marijuana should remain illegal because of public health problems “associated” (always a slippery word) with increased marijuana use. Careful readers will immediately see the White House statement for what it is: A pro forma response to a perceived public relations crisis, not a full-fledged review of all the scientific evidence.
America’s four-decade war on drugs is responsible for many casualties, but the criminalization of marijuana has been perhaps the most destructive part of that war. The toll can be measured in dollars — billions of which are thrown away each year in the aggressive enforcement of pointless laws. It can be measured in years — whether wasted behind bars or stolen from a child who grows up fatherless. And it can be measured in lives — those damaged if not destroyed by the shockingly harsh consequences that can follow even the most minor offenses.
It took 13 years for the United States to come to its senses and end Prohibition, 13 years in which people kept drinking, otherwise law-abiding citizens became criminals and crime syndicates arose and flourished. It has been more than 40 years since Congress passed the current ban on marijuana, inflicting great harm on society just to prohibit a substance far less dangerous than alcohol. The federal government should repeal the ban on marijuana. (See also: Why the New York Times editorial series calling for marijuana legalization is such a big deal and Evolving on Marijuana)