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Marijuana legalization successes pave way for national conversation on drug laws: Experts

Voters in five states passed measures for recreational and medical use.

5 states pass marijuana legalization

A majority of voters in five states, both red and blue, passed ballot measures that legalized marijuana on Election Day.

This show of support at the polls will put more pressure on other states and the federal government to update its drug policies, according to advocates and experts.

“This indicates that people are frustrated with the outdated drug policies from the 1970s,” Mason Marks, a law professor at Gonzaga University and a fellow in residence at Harvard Law School’s Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, told ABC News.

In some cases, like New York, elected officials are publicly sounding the call for major policy changes.

In ballot measures passed in New Jersey, South Dakota, Montana and Arizona, residents over 21 will be able to purchase and consume marijuana for recreational purposes. South Dakotan voters also passed a separate measure that legalized medicinal marijuana in the state. Mississippi will also allow adults to use medical marijuana after voters passed an initiative on Election Day.

State legislatures and health departments in the five states will come up with the specific regulations for recreational marijuana next year.

The ballot measures came after marijuana advocates across the country ran campaigns promoting the benefits of legal marijuana by citing the examples from the states that already passed it, according to Matthew Schweich, the deputy director of the nonprofit group the Marijuana Policy Project.

A study released last year by Washington State University found “no statistically significant long-term effects of recreational cannabis laws, or the initiation of legal retail sales, on violent or property crime rates,” in Washington State or Colorado, the first states to legalize recreational pot.

Last year, Colorado, one of the first states to legalize recreational marijuana, generated more than $1 billion in sales from marijuana, which increased the state’s coffers.

“The message that has resonated with voters in all five states was the fact that marijuana legalization is a proven policy and worked successfully in other states,” Schweich told ABC News. “Eleven states had legalized marijuana in the lead up to Election Day, and none of those states have repealed legalization.”

Domino effect?

Marks said the ballot measure successes in the five states could create a domino effect for the surrounded state leaders who have been hesitant to take up the calls for drug policy changes.

“I think other states will definitely follow suit when it comes to legalizing recreational marijuana,” he said.

In New York, leaders from all three branches of government have already begun those calls.

A day after New Jersey passed its ballot measure, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called on the state, which currently allows medical marijuana use, to its lead.

“We see it in New Jersey. Now, it’s time for New York State to do it. Legalize marijuana the right way,” he said during his daily news conference.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo echoed that call a day later during an interview on WAMC public radio, contending the conditions for legalization were “ripe” because of the state’s budget issues.

“I think this year it is ripe because the state is going to be desperate for funding,” he said.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., also called on the federal government to end its marijuana prohibition “to undo the harms done by the War on Drugs, particularly in Black and brown communities.”

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency classifies marijuana as a “schedule 1” drug that is illegal and has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

Resistance remains

Marks said while this rhetoric indicates more support for changing the nation’s drug policy, he noted there is still resistance from major groups.

The advocacy group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes legalization, contended in a statement to ABC News that the legalization efforts have benefited corporate entities “intent on expanding addiction for profit.”

Kevin Sabet, the nonprofit’s president and co-founder, praised President-elect Joe Biden’s marijuana policy, which emphasizes decriminalizing marijuana and expunging criminal records for people who were arrested for possessing small amounts of the drug.

“We are ready to work with the Biden Administration to help promote science-based drug policy that benefits people, not the addiction-for-profit marijuana industry and its investors from Big Tobacco, Big Alcohol, Big Pharma, and others on Wall Street,” he said in a statement.

Marks noted that Biden has come under heavy criticism for his role in passing legislation in the ’90s that punished Americans for minor drug offenses. He added there has been criticism of Biden’s current drug policy proposals, particularly his call for diversion programs where persons arrested for drug offenses are placed in treatment programs instead of jail.

“A lot of advocates say that’s the equivalent to incarceration,” Marks said. “They impact people’s civil rights. It could do more harm than good. If someone doesn’t follow the court’s order for treatment, they can still end up in jail.”

After voters in five states approved measures to legalize marijuana, experts say elected officials are more pressured to make drug policy changes.

Here Are All the States That Have Legalized Weed in the U.S.

Election Day 2020 added four more states to the ever-growing list: New Jersey, Arizona, South Dakota, and Montana.

Weed is so normalized in America that it’s hardly cool anymore. Once Martha Stewart, Elon Musk, and your aunt—not even the eccentric one—started talking about marijuana like it was ibuprofen, it felt like it lost its gloried grunge. Long gone are the days of dirty bongs, replaced by high-tech vaporizers and edibles ranging from extravagant chocolate candies to curated, catered dining experiences. Oh, and hundred-thousand-dollar bongs that are coveted like art, because they are art. Brewers are dabbling in non-alcoholic THC beers, and the country’s first-ever weed restaurant, where you can smoke and dine in public without feeling anything more than your regular dose of paranoia, opened in West Hollywood.

Weed has a golden cloud around it, where traditional fears have been replaced by excitement, at least on the grand scale. (If you want to know where all that pent-up reefer madness went, take a look at our national nicotine vape situation.)

Obviously, legalization has a lot to do with that. In the U.S., recreational marijuana legalization is slowly eking out victories on a state-by-state basis. In the 2016 election, which was bad for most reasons but good for this one, four states got on board, raising the total to eight states to legalize since Colorado kicked off the movement in 2012. On the first day of 2020, Illinois became the eleventh state in America to legalize weed, with lines snaking along blocks for hours on day one. And then, on Election Day 2020, with the presidential vote still infuriatingly undecided either way, another four states added their numbers to the growing pack: Arizona, New Jersey, Montana, and South Dakota.

At this point, it’s hardly a surprise that yet another state has decided to make itself a haven for marijuana users (as well as businesses tapping into the lucrative marijuana market). About one in three Americans now live where all adults have access to it, according to Politico. That’s 93 million of us. If you’re keen on placing bets, then look to New York, Florida, and Ohio as the states that could pass legalization efforts in 2021.

But as states legalize and business booms, as celebrities enjoyed marijuana goodies in their Oscars swag bags and influencers sucked on vape pens for the ‘gram, marijuana has led to vast inequality in America. Historically, law enforcement grossly targeted minority people, even though white people statistically use marijuana at the same rate. While cannabis brands blossom on social media, people still sit in prison for nonviolent drug offenses. Expungement of criminal records and cannabis business practices that protect the communities most ripped apart by the War on Drugs are necessary, and must go hand in hand with legalization in the states. Or, at the federal level.

While he was in his Attorney General post, Jeff Sessions—Remember him? The flaming racist who thinks “good people don’t smoke marijuana?”—rescinded an Obama-era memo that protected states where marijuana was legal from most federal prosecution. But more and more politicians on both sides of the aisle are at least trying to give states the right to decide for themselves. Last spring, prominent members of Congress introduced the bipartisan Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, which would protect states’ rights to determine their own marijuana laws without federal interference. Under a Biden presidency, marijuana would also stand a good chance of being decriminalized, at the very least.

President Trump generally has respected the rights of states to decide for themselves, though he’s fallen far short of calling for substantive drug law reform. (He does, it should be noted, think marijuana makes people “lose IQ points,” a fact we present without comment.) Nothing big has happened in Washington since the 2018 federal legalization of hemp, and in a way, CBD, but politicians continue to debate cannabis at a low-level hum, which is an improvement, relatively speaking.

By the way, Canada officially legalized weed throughout the entire damn country in 2018. Aren’t they just so lucky. As we wait our turn, keep an eye on psilocybin, the active compound in shrooms that was just legalized for therapeutic use in Oregon.

Who knows? Maybe one day our federal government will get it together. Until then, here are the 15 states plus the District of Columbia where it’s legal to buy and consume recreational marijuana, as well as the 35 states plus D.C. that have approved medical marijuana.

The 15 States (plus D.C.) with Legal Recreational Weed

These are the 15 states, plus Washington, D.C., that have legalized recreational weed—and medical marijuana, as well. Laws about possession, distribution, personal cultivation, and concentrates differ across state lines. NORML, a nonprofit group that advocates for marijuana reform, has a more detailed, state-by-state rundown.

Alaska

• It is legal for adults 21 and over to possess up to one ounce of marijuana.
• It is legal for adults 21 and over to grow up to six marijuana plants per household, but no more than three can be mature and flowering at a time.

Arizona

• It is legal for adults 21 and over to possess up to one ounce of marijuana.
• It is legal for adults 21 and over to grow up to six plants per household.

California

• It is legal for adults 21 and over to possess up to one ounce of marijuana.
• It is legal for adults 21 and over to grow up to six marijuana plants per household.

Colorado

• It is legal for adults 21 and over to possess up to one ounce of marijuana.
• It is legal for adults 21 and over to grow up to six plants per household, but no more than three can be mature at a time.

District of Columbia

• It is legal for adults 21 and over to possess up to two ounces of marijuana.
• It is legal for adults 21 and over to grow up to six plants per household, but no more than three can be mature at a time.

Illinois

• It is legal for Illinois residents 21 and over to possess up to 30 grams of marijuana (roughly 1.06 ounces). Non-Illinois residents 21 and over can only possess 15 grams of marijuana (roughly half an ounce).
• It is legal for registered medical marijuana patients to grow up to five plants per household that are five inches or taller.

Maine

• It is legal for adults 21 and over to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana.
• It is legal for adults 21 and over to have up to three flowering plants and 12 immature plants growing per household.

Massachusetts

• It is legal for adults 21 and over to possess up to one ounce of marijuana outside the home, and up to 10 ounces of marijuana inside the home.
• It is legal for adults 21 and over to grow up to six plants per household.

Michigan

• It is legal for adults 21 and over to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana outside the home, and up to 10 ounces of marijuana inside the home.
• It is legal for adults 21 and over to grow up to 12 plants per household.

Montana

• It is legal for adults 21 and over to possess up to one ounce of marijuana.
• It is legal for adults 21 and over to grow up to four plants for personal use.

New Jersey

• It is legal for adults 21 and over to possess a yet undecided amount of marijuana.

Nevada

• It is legal for adults 21 and over to possess up to one ounce of marijuana.
• It is legal for adults 21 and over to grow up to six plants per household.

Oregon

• It is legal for adults 21 and over to possess up to one ounce of marijuana outside the home, and up to eight ounces of homegrown marijuana inside the home.
• It is legal for adults 21 and over to grow up to four plants per household.

South Dakota

• It is legal for adults 21 and over to possess up to one ounce of marijuana.
• It is legal for adults 21 and over to grow up to three plants for personal use.

Vermont

• It is legal for adults 21 and over to possess up to one ounce of marijuana.
• It is legal for adults 21 and over to grow up to six plants per household, only two of which can be mature.

Washington

• It is legal for adults 21 and over to possess up to one ounce of marijuana in private.
• It is illegal to grow plants.

The 20 States with Legal Medical Marijuana

In addition to the 15 states plus D.C. with legalized recreational weed—and therefore legal medical marijuana—these 20 states have legalized just medical marijuana.

• Arkansas
• Connecticut
• Delaware
• Florida
• Hawaii
• Louisiana
• Maryland
• Minnesota
• Mississippi
• Missouri
• New Hampshire
• New Mexico
• New York
• North Dakota
• Ohio
• Oklahoma
• Pennsylvania
• Rhode Island
• Utah
• West Virginia

Here are the 15 states (and D.C.) where it's legal to buy and consume recreational marijuana, plus the 35 states plus D.C. that have approved medical marijuana.