According to some – and god, do I hope they’re right – Colorado and Washington are in the process of Pied Piper-ing the country towards marijuana legalization. Some states have come very close already, but either had legalization ballot measures voted down (Oregon, California, Nevada) or preempted by state legislatures (also California). In an article well worth reading, Rolling Stone has it that seven particular states are next in line to face reality and undergo this transformation – Oregon, California, Nevada, Rhode Island, Maine, Alaska, and Vermont, in that order – and they make individual arguments for each. Most have already drastically decriminalized marijuana, and some have allowed medical marijuana. So the incentive to make the short leap to legalization really comes down to two things: money, and a desire to avoid wasting the time and resources of law enforcement (which, I suppose, are really just one thing: money, in the form of new revenue from taxes and in the form of savings from freeing up law enforcement to do, you know, police work).
Regarding Oregon (emphasis mine):
[G]iven that Oregon’s biggest city, Portland, will be just across the Columbia River from prevalent, legal marijuana, the state legislature will be under pressure to create a framework for the drug’s legal use in Oregon – in particular if the revenue provisions of Washington’s law are permitted to kick in and lawmakers begin to watch Washington profit from the “sin taxes” on Oregon potheads.
For prominent state politicians, the full legalization, taxation and regulation of weed feels all but inevitable. “Thinking we’re not going to have it is unrealistic,” assemblyman Tick Segerblom of Las Vegas said in November. “It’s just a question of how and when.”
And Rhode Island:
In the wake of Colorado and Washington’s new state laws, Rhode Island has joined a slate of New England states that are vowing to vote on tax-and-regulate bills. A regulated marijuana market in Rhode Island could reap the state nearly $30 million in new tax revenue and reduced law enforcement costs. ”Our prohibition has failed,” said Rep. Edith Ajello of Providence, who is sponsoring the bill. ”Legalizing and taxing it, just as we did to alcohol, is the way to do it.”
The state legislature of Maine is “moving on a legalization-and-regulation bill that could bring the state $8 million a year in new revenue,” according to the article. In addition to the revenue incentives, legalization would also end the persecution of those people engaging in a nominally harmless and victimless act and allow them to enjoy it without the threat of arrest. This would also, as I said, free up the time and money law enforcement spends on prosecuting these people, which I believe qualifies as the rare political win-win. Good for everyone. And it has already been shown that decriminalization causes crime rates to drop:
In 2010, the state appeared to be on track to fully legalize and tax pot with Proposition 19. The Obama administration warned of a crackdown, and the state legislature beat voters to the punch with a sweeping decriminalization of pot that treats possession not as a misdemeanor but an infraction, like a parking ticket, with just a $100 fine. In a stunningly progressive move, that law also applies to underage smokers. And removing normal teenage behavior from the criminal justice system has contributed to a staggering decline in youth “crime” in California of nearly 20 percent in 2011.
This brings up my next point, which is that this is all likely to happen in 2016, at least in California and a few other states. Amanda Reiman, a marijuana reform activist and California policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, said on Sacramento’s NewsReview.com:
“There has not been a decision made about 2014 vs. 2016,” she wrote, but added that, in her opinion, it makes more sense to put an initiative on the ballot in 2016 for two reasons: One, “2016 is a presidential election year, which brings out more of the youth vote we need,” and two, “it gives us longer to strategize, see what the Feds do about [Colorado] and [Washington state], and see what the outcomes are in terms of public health, revenue, etc.”
One interesting possibility is that state legislators may be sufficiently intimidated by the growing wave of pro-marijuana sentiment that they preempt the vote on a legalization bill in order to retain some control over the situation. This has already happened in California, as mentioned above, and after the legislature passed its “sweeping decriminalization” of marijuana in 2010, the Proposition 19 bill failed 53 to 47 percent. Other states are susceptible to this too:
State legislators in Maine, as in other direct-democracy states, are actually wary of the ballot initiative process and may work to preempt the voters. A legalization scheme devised by lawmakers, after all, is likely to produce tighter regulation and more revenue than a bill dreamed up by pot consumers themselves.
Either way, now that Obama stated that state-legalized marijuana use is “not a top priority,” and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy recently sent a letter to Attorney Genreal Eric Holder suggesting it could be possible “to amend the Federal Controlled Substances Act to allow possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, at least in jurisdictions where it is legal under state law,” many states are unlikely to sit dormant on this issue. We will surely see some development as some state officials come around to doing the right thing.