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Marijuana legalization looks promising, but plenty of questions remain

Marijuana legalization looks promising, but plenty of questions remain


‘We’ve now moved the conversation from an ‘if’ to a ‘how,’ and the ‘how’ matters’

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This year, April 20th feels different. Marijuana enthusiasts have long celebrated 4/20, but now that businesses are seeing profit potential, they are getting involved, too, with things like $4.20 Lyft credits and CBD-infused Carl’s Jr. hamburgers. Marijuana is a big business, even if it’s not legal everywhere yet. So what’s the current state of marijuana legalization?

In a nutshell, things look promising. From a public opinion standpoint, marijuana legalization has become very popular. As Vox’s German Lopez has noted, three major national polls highlight just how quickly support is growing. All three show that more than 60 percent of Americans support legalization. According to Gallup, for example, 66 percent of Americans supported legalization in 2018, compared to about 60 percent just two years earlier.

The trend holds when it comes to state-level legislation. The 2016 election was a tipping point for marijuana legalization, and three states voted in favor during the 2018 midterm elections, including Michigan, the first state in the Midwest to do so. In total, 10 states and Washington, DC have legalized marijuana, and others have decriminalized the drug. States like Ohio and Arizona are likely to have ballot initiatives pushing for legalization soon.

“The political wind is certainly in favor now of marijuana legalization,” says Steve Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. “If we have 10 states right now that have legalized marijuana, we could easily see 10 more states by the end of 2020.”

Hawkins’ group believes that once marijuana is legal in 25 states, it’ll “create that tipping point” for Congress to end federal prohibition. “It would be a mistake to think that Congress will act because of federal lobbying efforts,” Hawkins says. “Lawmakers have to hear from their constituents. Change will come when there’s a chorus of state voices exerting pressure on Congress to act.”

That said, federal reform of marijuana laws has become a key talking point for the 2020 presidential Democratic candidates. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have all spoken out in favor of loosening marijuana laws.

“If we have 10 states right now that have legalized marijuana, we could easily see 10 more states by the end of 2020.”

Justin Strekal, political director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), points out that the previous Congress introduced 63 bills related to cannabis prohibition. “That number is larger than every previous session of Congress combined,” he says. The bills have addressed everything from ending the policy of criminalization to providing resources to expunge criminal records to narrow legislation that would allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to conduct research trials.

Some of the legislation under debate now includes the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act, which would officially remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and let states regulate. (The Drug Enforcement Administration currently lists marijuana as a Schedule I drug, meaning it is considered more dangerous than cocaine and meth). There is also the SAFE Banking Act, which would allow financial institutions to work with cannabis companies without fear of punishment by the federal government, and the RESPECT Resolution, which encourages states to adopt certain best practices to address racial disparities in the marijuana industry and help repair the effects of the war on drugs. Even though black and white Americans use marijuana at similar rates, black people are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, according to one 2013 report. This general pattern holds even after legalization.

For Strekal, there are plenty of questions that remain about how legalization might play out. For example, will federal policy reform end the criminalization of marijuana, or will it restrict federal enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act? Will a federal comprehensive bill include aspects of restorative justice for those affected by criminalization? Would it include resources for those in the underground economy to work in the legal marijuana marketplace? “We’ve now moved the conversation from an ‘if’ to a ‘how,’” says Strekal. “And the ‘how’ matters.”