Marijuana legalization is closer than the horizon, if changes in policies and public opinions are any indication. The highway to legal pot has had drastic ups and downs, from the exaggerated anti-pot paranoia of the "Reefer Madness" era, to the laid-back weed haze of Woodstock and classic rock, and back to the hyper-conservative efforts of the War on Drugs. Through it all, marijuana legalization has been caught between two distinct camps: the one that sees marijuana as a powerful gateway drug leading to a life of narcotics and crime; and the one that sees marijuana as a relatively harmless, even beneficial, substance that can be enjoyed as casually as a glass of wine — without any of the dangers of alcohol.
The latter camp appears to be winning.
Perhaps it's the medical community's recognition of marijuana's substantial medical benefits, or the fact that in many parts of the country marijuana is something most people are just assumed to enjoyon occasion. Maybe it's the large number of movies and pop songs painting weed in an almost mundanely normal light. Or it could all be Snoop Dogg's fault. In any case, in just a few short years, public opinon has shifted dramatically toward a general acceptance of marijuana use.
Don't believe marijuana legalization is closer than ever? Check out the numbers. Despite the steadfast federal prohibition on weed, eighteen states plus the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical purposes since 1996! It was California that first kicked off this wave of partial legalization, but in 2012, Colorado and Washington took marijuana legalization to the next level and approved pot for recreational use. Just a short time after Bill Clinton promised America he "did not inhale," you can now legally buy and smoke pot for fun in two American states. Alaska is poised to vote on joining the recreational marijuana legalization crew in 2014, and several other states are expected to have it on the ballot in 2016.
Marijuana legalization isn't a shocker when you look at the statistics on public experience and opinion. Almost half of all adults have tried marijuana, with many more teenagers saying they smoke marijuana than cigarettes. As for adult opinions on legalizing weed, 52 percent of adults are in favor — up 11 percentage points since 2010. Sixty percent believe the federal government should not interfere with states that have legalized pot, and even more — a whopping 72 percent — now think the government's efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more than they're worth.
That last point is a key factor in the phenomenon of marijuna legalization being enacted by so many states in defiance of the federal law. Theoretically, the feds could storm in and shut it all down. So why don't they?
According to President Obama, "It does not make sense, from a prioritization point of view, for us to focus on recreational drug users in a state that has already said that under state law that's legal."
Nevertheless, it would be silly to think that this new storm of marijuana legalization is all hunky-dory with The Man. In April, Atty. Gen. Eric Holder told Congress, "We are certainly going to enforce federal law. ... When it comes to these marijuana initiatives, I think among the kinds of things we will have to consider is the impact on children."
But marijuana legalization wouldn't be happening at all without a few supporters in government ranks. Rep. Jared Polis, a Colarado Democrat, favors legalization — and he's betting the federal government will take a hands-off approach, especially after Obama's comments about law enforcement priorities. "We would like to see that in writing," Polis said, "But we believe, given the verbal assurances of the president, that we are moving forward in Colorado and Washington in implementing the will of the voters."
Marijuana legalization is closer than ever, but it's no less complicated than before. Despite the huge leaps in public support, there are still plenty of dissenting voices out there. Opponents of legalized pot point to recent studies suggesting that regular use of marijuana during teen years can lead to a long-term drop in IQ, and another study suggesting that pot can induce and exacerbate psychotic illness in susceptible people. And many are concerned by changes in pot itself. Marijuana is much more potent than it was back in the days of Woodstock. In 2009, concentrations of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in pot, averaged close to 10 percent in marijuana. In the 1980s, it was only 4 percent. Opponents argue that it's wrongheaded to look at today's marijuana as the same substance the Beatles were smoking in the late 1960s.
So far, these voices have't been able to stop the tides of change. There are now a total of 20 states, plus the District of Columbia, where marijuana is legal to some degree. Check out our list below to find out where you can smoke pot and not wind up in cuffs.
States where medical marijuana is legal:
Medical marijuana is also legal in Washington D.C. Isn't that ironic?
States where recreational marijuana is legal:
What do you think? Should pot be legalized? Do you live in a state with liberal policies toward marijuana use? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!