2016: Breakthrough Year for Legal Recreational Pot

Seven states have a good chance of legalizing recreational marijuana this year. Three are almost certain to. The big prize of California is one of them. And gains won’t be just on the West Coast.

An Amsterdam "coffeeshop."

An Amsterdam “coffeeshop.”

Welcome to the hazy crazy world of the 2010s toker. Legal marijuana is already the law in Colorado, Oregon, Alaska, Washington State and the District of Columbia.

Yet, just a decade ago, recreational pot legalization was unthinkable outside of stoner mecca, Amsterdam. Enthusiasts giggled at the antics in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004). That dogged duo eluded the law and endured a night of craziness, furtive toking and crass street dealers just to score a little weed and some tasty burgers. Their trials and triumphs seemed all too familiar.

At least in clever celebration of a well-worn stereotype.

The legal status of cannabis. In the States and around the world.

The legal status of cannabis. In the States and around the world.

Yet how accurate really is the unmotivated or stupid stoner stereotype? Research shows pot use rises exponentially in those with high intelligence. Plenty of highly successful people are long-term tokers.

Laws haven’t changed much in most of the nation. Not yet, anyway. But attitudes are changing. A 2013 Gallup poll found for the very first time a majority of Americans supported pot legalization. And that trend won’t be reversing any time soon. As older generations die off, a huge demographic of millennials, with a far more lenient attitude toward marijuana, is making its voice heard at the ballot box.

It all began quite humbly in 1996, when California voters approved legal marijuana for medical use. Now the majority of the US population has at least some legal access to medical pot – in 25 out of 50 states plus Washington, D.C. Much to the dismay of drug warriors, allowing patients relief through cannabis didn’t cause the sky to fall.

It didn’t fall either when Colorado and Washington State dipped their toes into the murky waters of recreational legalization in 2012. Auto accidents didn’t skyrocket and kids didn’t smoke more pot.

(Weed. It’s more complicated than you thought. Here’s what it’s like to walk inside a Colorado recreational pot shop.)

No wonder this year’s recreational legalization ballot measures tend to be a bit less restrictive. Here’s how they stack up:

Nevada, Maine and California are likely to legalize this year. Michigan, Arizona, Connecticut and Rhode Island stand a good chance. Massachusetts, Delaware, Maryland and New York are long shots.

Nevada, Maine and California are likely to pass their initiatives.

Maine’s largest city, Portland, voted to legalize recreational possession and use in 2014. The state enjoys a very stable medical marijuana program. A recent poll shows 55 percent of Maine residents support legalization. The 2016 ballot initiative would allow those over 21 to possess up to two and a half ounces of pot, and grow up to 12 plants.

(A brief overview of cannabis legalization efforts in 2016.)

In contrast, Washington State’s successful 2012 Initiative 502 only allows possession of up to one ounce, and prohibits unlicensed growing of marijuana plants. It includes heavy taxation and restrictions on retail and growing. Colorado is more lenient, permitting possession of up to one ounce and the growing of up to six plants for recreational use.

California failed to pass a legalization initiative in 2010, largely because many pro-pot activists thought the measure was too restrictive. Yet polls show between 56 and 60 percent of California voters support legalization. No wonder, since they have enjoyed legal medical marijuana the longest. The initiative most likely to make it onto the ballot is the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. It would allow possession of up to an ounce of marijuana or eight grams of concentrate for those over 21. It would reduce criminal penalties involving pot and allow those now imprisoned for possession to petition for reduced sentences.

(California activists discuss pot legalization. Past, present and future.)

Nevada’s Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol initiative submitted almost 70,000 more signatures than the 102,000 needed almost two years before the deadline. The state also enjoys a successful medical marijuana program. A 2013 poll shows 54 percent of Nevada voters support legalization. The initiative would allow those over 21 to possess up to an ounce of pot. Those living 25 or more miles from a retail outlet could grow up to six plants.

Arizona, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Michigan’s legalization efforts could go either way.

Connecticut cops are preparing for inevitable legalization. Medical pot has been legal since 2012. Increasingly strapped for revenue, some legislators are looking for it through marijuana taxes. A 2015 poll shows an impressive 63 percent of Connecticut voters support legalization. Yet because Connecticut disallows citizens’ ballot initiatives, legalization advocates must depend on their state legislature. Two legalization proposals stalled last year.

Arizona’s voters are evenly split on the issue. Or they oppose legalization by a 43 to 48 percent margin, according to a recent poll commissioned by the anti-drug organization, Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy. The Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Arizona ballot initiative would allow those over 21 to possess up to one ounce of pot and cultivate up to six plants. The former poll shows support from Republicans at only 29 percent. Success will likely depend on a large voter turnout.

Rhode Island, like Connecticut, disallows ballot initiatives. So, despite a 2015 poll showing 57 percent voter approval for marijuana legalization, activists tried and failed to get the state legislature to approve it last year. Rhode Island boasts the nation’s highest rate of pot consumption.

(Comedian Tommy Chong voices support for the MILegalize campaign.)

Michigan voters submitted an indirect initiated state statute this year to legalize marijuana. The measure will be submitted for a vote by the legislature. It would allow the use and possession of pot by those over 21, and the cultivation of up to two plants per residence. 16 Michigan cities, including Detroit, have voted to decriminalize cannabis possession. High Times magazine voted the state one of the eight most likely to legalize. The state has had legal medical marijuana since 1998. A 2014 poll shows support for legalization at 50 percent for, 46 percent against. Yet legislators have a rocky history of alternately loosening and tightening restrictions.

Legalization in 2016 is a long shot in Massachusetts, Delaware, Maryland and New York. Massachusetts has the best chance of passing a Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol initiative. A 2014 poll shows 53 percent of respondents favoring legalization. Yet the state has bungled medical marijuana, resulting in lawsuits and a soured atmosphere, at least until the situation is cleaned up.

(Massachusetts activists accuse politicians opposing legalization of hypocrisy.)

What are the benefits of pot legalization?

ArrestBut what have been the consequences, good and bad, of pot legalization? Not increased use among teens. Federal data shows little impact. Not carnage on the highways. Traffic fatalities are near an all-time low in Colorado since it passed Initiative 64 in 2012.

Police departments and prisons are not happy about the legalization push. They funded roughly half of the successful campaign against California’s 2010 Prop 19 legalization initiative. No wonder. Of the $6.5 billion police seized through asset forfeiture between 2002 and 2012, $1 billion came as a result of illegal pot. Asset forfeiture laws allow police to confiscate cars, houses, cash and other possessions associated with crime, often in drug busts. The plant’s distinctive smell makes it easier for police to detect than other drugs.

(Kevin Sabet, a leading pot prohibition advocate, explains his views.)

Washington State collected $67.5 million in tax revenues during its first year of marijuana legalization. Colorado collected $53 million. Legalization has created a near-billion dollar industry in Colorado alone, replete with new jobs and entrepreneurs.

More legal marijuana, recreational or medical, means less black market marijuana. Seizures of pot at the Mexican border have dropped from almost four million pounds in 2009 to one and a half million in 2015. A Mexican pot grower lamented to NPR in December, 2014 that prices for a kilo of his weed had dropped from $60 to $90 per kilo to only $30 to $40. “If the U.S. continues to legalize pot, they’ll run us into the ground.”

(The Young Turks discuss the prison-industrial complex and the intricacies of asset forfeiture.)

According to the ACLU, taxpayers spend $3.6 billion annually on enforcing laws against marijuana possession. Marijuana arrests, even for possession of small amounts, stay on people’s records, ruining their prospects for jobs, loans and housing. Then there is the racial disparity in arrest rates. In 2010, the nationwide arrest rate was 716 per 100,000 Blacks. It was only 192 per 100,000 Whites, despite a similar marijuana use rate for both races.

2016, a “watershed year?”

Portland-based pot activist Russ Belville told the Marijuana Times, “2016 could be the watershed year for marijuana reform that pushes America beyond the tipping point.” Much of that depends on high voter turnout. Republicans and older people – the demographics least favorable to legalization – tend to dominate off-season elections. Voter turnout is higher in presidential election years. Like 2016.

That’s good news for folks like Mr. Belville. Folks like Bernard Noble too. He was recently sentenced to 13 years of hard labor in a Louisiana prison for possession of two marijuana cigarettes. His only criminal record was two minor drug possession charges years earlier.

Related content:

Trudeau’s Promise to Legalize Marijuana in Canada Hits Snag; Aims for Spring of 2017

US DEA to Consider Reclassification of Marijuana by Mid-2016

California Marijuana Industry Now Allowed to Make Profit

HB523 Medical Marijuana Becomes Law in Ohio

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