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Marijuana legalization: big wins in California and beyond (+video)

patterns of thought

Voters in at least seven states approved ballot measures legalizing recreational or medical marijuana. But Arizona shows the trend might not be inevitable.

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People celebrate in Los Angeles after Californians voted to pass Prop 64, legalizing recreational use of marijuana in the state, on Nov. 8.

Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

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Marijuana legalization made major advances Tuesday, with at least three states voting to legalize recreational marijuana and four states approving medical marijuana laws.

Most notably, California, home to nearly 40 million people and by far America’s largest state economy, legalized recreational marijuana use. So did Nevada, Massachusetts, and, probably, Maine (with results still too close to call Wednesday evening). Only Arizonans rejected the idea.

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Florida, North Dakota, and Arkansas approved new medical marijuana laws, while Montana voted to create a more regulated medical-marijuana system and expand patients’ access to marijuana providers.

Added to the states that have already legalized marijuana, about 1 in 4 Americans now live in a state where pot is legal. It continues a growing momentum toward a state-by-state relaxation of marijuana prohibitions – one that doesn’t always conform to traditional partisan lines, legalization advocates say.

“Clearly this is one of the most significant days in the history of this movement,” said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group, on a conference call with reporters.

Shifting public thought

Public opinion about marijuana has been steadily shifting during the past decade, and the laws have been steadily changing. One concern is that too many Americans were serving prison terms for a drug many consider less harmful than alcohol or tobacco. Legalizing the drug, they say, can also provide tax revenue and reduce black-market crime.

But opponents say pot isn't harmless, and they worry that legalization could lead to increased use by teens and more impaired driving. Commercialization is creating another version of "Big Tobacco," more interested in profits than public health, they add.

If Maine is confirmed in the “yes” camp, eight states and the District of Columbia have now legalized marijuana, and 28 states now allow medical marijuana. In the most recent Gallup poll, 60 percent of Americans now favor marijuana legalization – up from 58 percent last year and 50 percent in 2011. Much of that support crosses partisan lines, with the biggest support coming from young voters (77 percent of those under 35) and from Democrats and Independents. Among Republicans, 42 percent favor legalization – about double the percentage of Republicans that favored it a decade ago.

Next federal steps?

It now seems clear that full legalization can win in blue and purple states, with Alaska the one clearly red (Republican-oriented) state that has approved it. And it’s clear that medical marijuana can get support in even solidly Republican states.

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One of the big questions is what happens at the federal level.

“President-elect Trump has promised to be a law-and-order president,” says Kevin Sabet, director of the Drug Policy Institute and an opponent to legalization, in an email. “I think all of the state legalization laws are up for discussion now.”

Mr. Trump himself has said nothing to indicate he would deviate from the Obama administration’s policy of not interfering with state legalization measures, though some of his top advisers – including Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie, and Sheldon Adelson, as well as Vice President-elect Mike Pence – have been vocal supporters of the war on drugs and opponents to legalization.

But supporters of legalization note that coming out against state laws and public opinion would be a radical shift.

“There are more people [in Congress] now that will be with us than were with us before. When you couple that with all of the states [supporting it], I don’t see this being reversed,” said Earl Blumenauer, a Democratic congressman from Oregon and a proponent of marijuana legalization. “It’s not partisan now, and the president that just came out of arguably the most divisive campaign in history isn’t going to stake out a position that’s in opposition to 60 percent of public and voters in 28 states.”

California has established a new beachhead, both in terms of the state's size and the nature of the bill. It included sentencing reform, more sophisticated licensing and public-health provisions, and environmental protections.

“California really sets a new gold standard for how to do this right,” says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports legalization.

But opponents also see reason to hope.

Mr. Sabet notes that the Arizona was the only state in which opposition funding really matched the other side, and where the opposition campaign started early. “The overarching lesson was that if we could raise enough money early, we can win,” he says.

He also notes that several Oregon counties and cities banned marijuana stores and cultivation. (In Colorado, a widely watched initiative to disallow marijuana in Pueblo County was defeated.)

Tipping point? Hard to say.

Do Tuesday's victories mark an inexorable path toward legalization?

The push for ballot initiatives is slowing, but Mr. Kampia says a legalization initiative in Michigan is likely in the next two or four years, as well as medical marijuana initiatives in Missouri and Oklahoma.

And state legislatures may get the most significant attention in the next few years. According to Kampia, legalization bills will likely be debated in Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Illinois, and medical marijuana could come up in legislatures in Nebraska, Utah, Louisiana, and Texas.

A major focus for legalization advocates is going to be federal policy – changing laws that affect businesses in states with legalization, and a push to remove marijuana from federal the list of Schedule I substances.

“We had stronger support for marijuana in nine diverse states last night ... than either of the two [presidential] candidates,” said Blumenauer of Oregon. “I think the people have spoken and they will continue to speak.”