Democracy is a loud, divisive, and ponderous task. This is true when the parties involved mostly agree. Undoing a lifetime’s worth of failed policy — even a vastly unpopular policy that benefits only a privileged few, to wit: marijuana prohibition — is a titanic undertaking, akin to melting a glacier with a hair dryer. But legalizing marijuana is something legislatures have been tinkering on for some time.
With how quickly Americans’ attitudes have shifted on drug policy, it’s easy to forget how long and torturous a path the movement to allow adults to use cannabis without fear of arrest has trod. Remember: California voters rejected legalizing marijuana recreationally in 2010 — after medical cannabis production and sales had been legal for more than a decade. It took another seven years (and three other states going first) before the state at last legalized in November 2016.
Do you have that kind of patience? Thankfully, it won’t be required. If anything like the following is going on in your state, legalizing marijuana will likely come much sooner than seven years.
You already have medical marijuana
You gotta walk before you can run, you gotta hum before you can sing — and you have to have CBD oil available to kids with epilepsy, former NFL players with head trauma, and senior citizens with chronic pain before you can walk into a dispensary and cop a handful of pre-rolled joints.
Every state to legalize cannabis for adults 21 and over has had medical marijuana in place first — and in most cases for a very long time. In Oregon, medical preceded legalization by 14 years; in Maine, it was 17 years.
And it shouldn’t be some mythical, “medical marijuana in name only” situation where only hemp-derived CBD oil is allowed or where dispensaries are as rare as unicorns. In both Maine and Massachusetts, where legalization passed by the smallest margins in November, retail storefront dispensaries had been open for a few years.
Ask any monorail salesman: There’s nothing like a real-life demonstration to win over the unwilling. Medical cannabis sales normalizes the concept of incorporating the drug into society, and provides tangible proof of the benefits.
This bodes well for Michigan, where dispensaries have been in operation for several years, patients have been able to grow their medicine at home, and the Marijuana Policy Project is currently organizing and fundraising for a ballot initiative.
Decriminalization is happening
A good first step towards allowing something is ending the practice of punishing it severely.
Most medical marijuana measures have been preceded by decriminalization, where cannabis possession, once a misdemeanor crime punishable by arrest and incarceration, becomes a violation akin to a traffic ticket, punishable by only a fine.
This is another example of social conditioning: it’s hard to convince people to start collecting taxes on conduct that’s still criminal, but it’s a much easier sell to regulate and tax when cops grow so bored with writing tickets for a relatively harmless activity that they stop bothering.
And this is happening all over… albeit slowly. Embarrassed by arrest statistics so spectacularly biased it’s a wonder they didn’t earn a statue in New Orleans, pragmatic lawmakers and law-enforcement officers in Houston and Nashville moved to decriminalize possession — though in Nashville’s case, the good turn was undone by state lawmakers, who recognized the first step towards legalizing marijuana when they saw it.
Necessity is the mother of invention, desperate times call for desperate measures — pick your pablum: it applies to the dire straits Illinois finds itself in.
The state is an apocalyptic $9 billion in the red, a budget deficit so bad it makes California’s subprime crisis-era fiscal hole look like a molehill. Residents are fleeing, and a political impasse means no new tax money is coming anytime soon. It’s no accident that Democratic lawmakers in Springfield are now floating the idea of legalizing marijuana as a ready and easy moneymaking solution.
Together, Colorado and Washington collected about $455 million in tax revenue from the sale of cannabis. Together, the two states have a smaller population than Illinois, which could net as much as $700 million with regulated and taxed cannabis sales. Cannabis cash has allowed one Colorado town to pave its streets and build a new city hall and civic auditorium. Marijuana revenue won’t solve longstanding systemic problems like population imbalances (hi, Baby Boomers) or high fixed costs like healthcare, but it’s an untapped source of revenue. There aren’t too many of those around.
There won’t likely be any bailouts from Washington in the Trump era, and with hard-up citizens unlikely to volunteer to pay more income or property taxes, turning a black-market economy into something that can fund schools, roads, and public-employee pensions is one of the only remaining cards yet to the played.
Lawmakers are finally doing their jobs
If our elected representatives were truly interested in working for us, cannabis would have been legal a long time ago.
More than 90 percent of Americans support medical marijuana; more than 60 percent of all Americans believe recreational marijuana should be legalized. Cannabis is more popular than Donald Trump, and has better-attended inauguration parties.
Yet, to date, legalization has only come through the citizens’ initiative.
You can blame special interests, you can blame political deadlock — either way, lawmakers aren’t doing their jobs and making laws the people want. In Florida’s case, lawmakers took forever to do the job they were constitutionally bound to do, simply because that job involved weed.
So if notoriously risk-averse politicians are willing to publicly say it’s time for legalizing marijuana, it’s probably well past time. And judging by the reaction state lawmakers in New Jersey are triggering from human roadblock Gov. Chris Christie with their proposal to legalize cannabis in the state, it won’t be long before a Legislature votes to legalize.
This follows a similar formula as above: first medical, then legal, and a host of state houses have already passed medical cannabis and successfully convinced the governor (most of whom in America are Republicans) to affix his (most are men) to the bill. And even setbacks like Vermont’s, where the governor declined to sign a just-passed legalization bill, came with the caveat that the only problem was the details, not legalization itself.
The real progress, however, would come if Congress called one of the more than a dozen cannabis-related bills introduced this session for a committee hearing. Once that happens, legalization will be imminent everywhere in the country.
Take heart: It’s already inevitable.