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The Future of Marijuana Reform, After Huge Victories in 2012

Marijuana reform has huge momentum after legalization victories in Washington and Colorado. Here's what's coming next.

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On Tuesday, a coalition of congressional lawmakers, led by Reps. Jared Polis (D-CO) and Earl Blumenaur (D-OR) will introduce legislation to permit for the regulated commercial production, retail sales and taxation of cannabis to adults in states that have legalized its consumption. The historic measures mark the first time members of Congress have sought to legalize the social use of marijuana and are indicative of the shifting tone in public and political opinion regarding the plant once dubbed the "assassin of youth."

America is at a tipping point regarding the public’s desire for common-sense alternatives to marijuana prohibition. Never in modern history has there existed greater public support for ending the nation’s nearly century-long experiment with pot prohibition and replacing it with a system of legalization and regulation. And following the Election Day victories in Washington and Colorado this past November, even some congressional lawmakers are gaining the confidence necessary to align themselves with public opinion when it comes to pot.

Cannabis prohibition financially burdens taxpayers, encroaches upon civil liberties, engenders disrespect for the law, impedes legitimate scientific research into the plant's medicinal properties, and disproportionately impacts communities of color. Furthermore, the criminalization of cannabis simply doesn't achieve its ostensible goals. Since 1970, an estimated 22 million US citizens have been cited or arrested for violating marijuana laws. Yet despite this vigorous criminal enforcement, over 100 million Americans acknowledge having consumed cannabis, and one in 10 admits to consuming  it regularly. Prohibition hasn't dissuaded a significant portion of the general public from consuming pot or reduced its availability, but it has damaged the lives and careers of millions of people who were arrested and sanctioned for choosing to ingest a substance that is safer than alcohol or tobacco.  

After witnessing decades of failure, a majority of Americans are now saying “Enough,” turning their backs on cannabis criminalization and demanding alternatives. National polling affirms this emerging public sentiment, as do the historic and much-talked about Election Day results in Colorado and Washington – where for the first time ever, a majority of the electorate decided in favor of legalizing the consumption, production, and retail sale of cannabis by adults.

In the three months since the November 6 election, it has become apparent that these victories at the ballot box have only strengthened the public’s desire for change.  For example, a December 2012 Public Policy Polling telephone survey of US voters found that 58 percent of the public believes that marijuana “should be legal.” Only 34 percent of respondents opposed the notion of legalizing cannabis. A newly released poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International reports that 53 percent of Americans believe that “the government should treat marijuana the same as alcohol,” while over 70 percent of respondents say that the federal government should butt out of the affairs of states that have legalized the plant. A post-election survey by the polling firm Angus Reid found that 54 percent of US citizens favor legalizing cannabis, and two out of three predicted that marijuana would be legal nationwide within 10 years. Their prediction may be accurate – assuming the marijuana law reform movement continues to build upon its existing momentum. It can do so in the following ways.

Address Polling Gaps

Despite Americans’ significant support for legalizing pot, there remain pivotal pockets of opposition. For example, self-described Democrats and Independents favor marijuana legalization by far greater percentages than do self-identified Republicans or conservatives. Republicans are the controlling party in many states, particularly in many southeastern and Midwestern states that lack the ballot initiative process and where cannabis possession and cultivation penalties still remain disproportionately harsh, such as in Florida, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Texas. If marijuana law reform advocates ever expect to replicate their recent ballot box victories in the legislatures of these and other politically right-leaning states, they must do a better job in the years ahead convincing self-identified and politically elected Republicans that this is an issue deserving action and support.

Polls also reveal an age divide within the public’s support for legalization. Predictably, those aged 18 to 65 – who likely have had firsthand experience with the drug – typically express far greater support for legalization than those over 65, many of whom likely have never consumed or even seen cannabis.

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