Marijuana Revolution? Let the States Decide

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Even though the majority of Americans want Congress to legalize marijuana, that isn’t likely to happen soon.


The Obama administration, for its part, could take steps to remove pot from the list of dangerous drugs, but they aren’t hustling to take action, either.

That means the reality of marijuana politics for the past several decades still holds true now: If you want to legalize pot, you’re going to have to tackle it state-by-state.

The most high-profile legalization pushes happening this year are in Oregon, Alaska and California (a longshot). A victory in Oregon this year could energize activists for a wider campaign in 2016, a presidential election year when the electorate is traditionally younger and voter turnout is higher.

While the new legalization programs in Colorado and Washington have people thinking big about changes to marijuana law, activists haven’t given up on campaigns to legalize medical marijuana. Medical programs can be big revenue generators for some states. Estimates in California put the annual tax revenue from between $59 and $109 billion dollars.

Voters in Florida, the country’s fourth most populous state, will soon get to decide if they want that kind of cash infusion. A medical marijuana measure will be on the ballot in this November’s midterm elections. That could have a interesting side effect: drawing more young voters to the polls, which would help Democrats.

In New York, another economic powerhouse, medical pot has widespread support. Yet a bill that would create a program is stalled in the state legislature, and skeptical Republicans are unlikely to pass anything during an election year.


Then there’s Washington, D.C. The nation’s capital already has a limited medical marijuana program. But soon they’ll also decriminalize the drug in an effort to cut down on discriminatory arrests. A bill was approved in March but still needs to undergo a review period by Congress, due to the federal city’s unique rules of governance.

The effort in D.C. is the first time that marijuana activists primarily focused on a perceived social injustice to enact policy change, instead of focusing on economic or medical benefits. Nine in ten people arrested for marijuana possession in the District are black, even though reported usage of the drug by blacks and whites tends to be even.


The takeaway: The fight to legalize weed is still happening at the state-level. Don’t be surprised if the push for legal pot — as medicine or just for fun — crops up in some other states that aren’t mentioned here, too.

Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.