It's been an important week for supporters of marijuana legalization.
Voters in two states — Alaska and Oregon — and Washington, D.C., took to the polls on Tuesday to approve recreational marijuana use, joining Colorado and Washington as new bastions of carefree pot smoking. Pro-legalization advocates are thrilled with the progress and are already plotting their next moves to bring legal weed to more states across the country.
But the movement to legalize marijuana didn't start this week. Supporters have been working for years to pass and implement policies in states that regulate the distribution and use of marijuana, both for medicinal and recreational purposes. In the light of the most recent progress, it's worth taking stock of where we are, and what we've learned along the way.
So, as legalized marijuana continues to build momentum in states across the country, here are eight facts everybody should keep in mind:
1. Marijuana is legal in some form in close to half the states in the U.S.
Four states and Washington, D.C., allow recreational marijuana. Nineteen states allow it for medical purposes, and 14 have decriminalized it.
In the states with outright legalization, possession and consumption of marijuana is legal for people age 21 and older. Alaska, Oregon, Washington and Colorado have already instated or are in the process of introducing a model whereby marijuana can be legally sold, taxed and regulated. Washington, D.C., has only legalized possession and growing for the time being, but its city council will likely move to tax and regulate soon.
In the additional 19 states where marijuana for medicinal purposes is legal, regulation varies widely, with certain states, such as California, so lax about criteria for a medical marijuana card that it ultimately assumes a quasi-legal status.
States where marijuana has been decriminalized have softened the penalties associated with possessing the drug, often limiting or eliminating prison time and opting for fines instead. Like with medical marijuana, states vary a great deal in their laws, and decriminalization does not do away with harsh penalties for possessing or trafficking large amounts of the plant.
2. A majority of the country supports legalization.
Support for legalization over the past 25 years has steadily increased. Just 16% of those surveyed by CNN/ORC in 1990 supported legalizing marijuana. Recent polling puts support at over 50%, a clear sign that as legalization takes hold in more states, support for greater access to the drug increases:
3. Legalization could lead to billions of dollars in tax revenue.
When states legalize pot, they can levy substantial taxes on the marijuana industry and generate much-needed revenue for their budgets. Colorado's recent introduction of marijuana is already bringing in more than $30 million of taxable revenue a month — leading to upwards of $7.5 million of tax revenue. The Drug Policy Alliance estimates that California could raise $1.4 billion annually in extra revenue if it taxed and regulated the sale of marijuana.
If marijuana is legalized federally, the marijuana industry could be more than three times bigger than the NFL — and it could all be taxed.
4. States with legalization are doing just fine.
Colorado introduced marijuana this year and has not descended into chaos or seen a catastrophic loss of productivity. Instead, it's pulling in millions of dollars in tax revenue. In September, recreational sales exceeded medical sales in the state, suggesting that state-regulated marijuana may be a viable alternative to the black market.
Things haven't been perfect, either. Edible marijuana, the disproportionate potency of which many new consumers aren't aware of, has been associated with two fatalities and a number of emergency room visits. Advocates have taken up a campaign promoting responsible use in the state.
Washington doesn't have comparable figures, having rolled out legal marijuana more recently than Colorado and almost immediately encountering a shortage of the plant for retail. But so far, there are no reports suggesting that legalization has had adverse consequences for the state.
5. The link between legalization and more pot use is inconclusive.
It's too early to draw conclusions from the Colorado or Washington situations on whether legalization increases overall consumption of marijuana. Vox surveyed a number of studies with conflicting conclusions on the link between overall use and access to medical marijuana or overall use and decriminalization.
Regardless, marijuana existing as a commercial product is an entirely different animal, and its effects are impossible to anticipate. It should be said that the power of a for-profit industry to stoke more demand for a already popular drug cannot be overestimated. Exhibit A: tobacco. Exhibit B: alcohol.
6. Regulating marijuana makes society safer.
The correlation between regulation and public safety is a common sense principle borne out by history in countless industries. Just as consumers are protected by requiring restaurants to be inspected for health violations or pharmaceutical companies to submit new products to the FDA, regulating marijuana will make it more likely that consumers are getting a quality product undiluted by potentially harmful additives.
Foul play by a specific pot retailer will be more easily flagged. If legal marijuana successfully displaces the black market, it will make access for minors far more difficult. In the long run, public discourse will finally allow us to have a conversation about responsible use.
7. The feds are turning a blind eye to the states.
Marijuana is not legal under federal law, but no federal entity has intervened in state legalization measures so far. In the immediate aftermath of the first legalization measures, President Obama said that he has "bigger fish to fry" than cracking down on the marijuana industry. The following year, his administration released a memo stating that the Department of Justice wouldn't challenge state laws on marijuana legalization as long as they adhere to a set of strict rules regarding the sale and distribution of the drug, such as ensuring minors don't have access to it.
Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder expressed optimism about Washington and Colorado's paths. But the legalization of recreational marijuana in the nation's capital on Tuesday brings the conflict between local and federal law into full view of federal lawmakers and could prompt congressional action.
8. Legalization helps us better understand marijuana's health effects.
The federal government's prohibition of marijuana has systematically hampered serious scientific inquiry into the health risks of marijuana for decades. We're hamstrung by a Catch-22, pithily captured by the Wire: "Marijuana is illegal because the [Drug Enforcement Administration] says it has no proven medical value, but researchers have to get approval from the DEA to research marijuana's medical value."
There is substantial evidence on its ability to alleviate pain and nausea, but its benefits and risks are still under-explored relative to how long and how widely the drug has been used. Hopefully, as marijuana reform sweeps the country, we can start looking into the complex question of the carcinogenic properties of marijuana smoke and its potential to alter teenage brain development.
These are just a handful of the lessons we've learned from states' experiments in decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana use, either for medicinal or recreational use. Marijuana is hardly the harmful societal force for evil it was once considered. As that new consensus grows, we'll only know more about the drug's actual effects on society.