This 4/20, the US is nearing a tipping point of sorts on marijuana legalization: Almost half the country — about 43 percent of the population — now lives in a state where marijuana is legal to consume just for fun.
It’s a massive shift that took place over just a few years. A decade ago, no states allowed marijuana for recreational use; the first states to legalize cannabis in 2012, Colorado and Washington, did so through voter-driven initiatives. Now, 17 states and Washington, DC, have legalized marijuana (although DC doesn’t yet allow sales), with five enacting their laws through legislatures, showing even typically cautious politicians are embracing the issue.
At this point, the question of nationwide marijuana legalization is likely more a matter of when, not if. At least two-thirds of the American public support the change, based on various public opinion surveys in recent years. Of the 15 states where marijuana legalization has been on the ballot since 2012, it was approved in 13 — including Republican-dominated Alaska, Montana, and South Dakota (although South Dakota’s measure is currently held up in the courts). In the 2020 election, the legalization initiative in swing state Arizona got nearly 300,000 more votes than either Joe Biden or Donald Trump.
Legalization has also created a big new industry in very populous states, including California and (soon) New York, and that industry is going to push to continue expanding. One of the US’s neighbors, Canada, has already legalized pot, and the other, Mexico, is likely to legalize it soon, creating an international market that would love to tap into US consumers.
The walls are closing in on this issue for legalization opponents — and quickly.
Many politicians have played it cautiously in response to these trends. While some high-profile Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, have come out in support, Biden continues to oppose legalization. Republicans, including Trump, are almost entirely opposed.
But at this point, their refusal comes off more like a last gasp than a movement that can hold back the tide of change. At a certain point, lawmakers will have to follow public opinion or risk losing an election. And the public has spoken very clearly, time and again.
What’s less clear is how it will happen. Maybe it’ll be a slow, state-by-state battle before the federal government ends its own prohibition on cannabis, or maybe federal action will lead to a flurry of states legalizing. What has become clear is that legalization will eventually win, and the vast majority of states, if not all, will soon join the ranks of the legalizers.
In the span of two decades, marijuana legalization has gone from a fringe issue to one the vast majority of Americans embrace.
In 2000, just 31 percent of the country backed legalization while 64 percent opposed it, according to Gallup’s public surveys. By 2020, the numbers flipped: The most recent Gallup poll on the topic showed that 68 percent supported legalization and 32 percent were against it.
There are a few possible explanations for the flip. The general failure of the war on drugs to actually stop widespread drug addiction (see: the opioid epidemic), as well as backlash to the punitive policies the drug war brought, left a lot of Americans craving new approaches. The public has come to see marijuana as not so bad — less harmful than legal drugs such as alcohol or tobacco. The advent of the internet likely sped up some of these conversations, too, and the spread of medical marijuana might have shown more Americans that the US can handle the drug’s legalization.
Regardless, the trend toward support is found in basically every major survey on this issue, with polling groups consistently finding a strong majority backing of legalization, from the Pew Research Center (67 percent in 2019) to the General Social Survey (61 percent in 2018).
The trend toward legalization is found in the real world, too. Oregon voters rejected a legalization measure in 2012, only to approve a separate initiative two years later. Arizona voters said no to a legalization measure in 2016, only to approve another one four years later.
There’s even solid Republican support for legalization. Gallup found that a slim majority of Republicans supported it in 2017, 2018, and 2019; a majority opposed it in 2020, but the difference was within the margin of error, and a sizable minority of 48 percent still backed legalization. Pew also found a majority of Republicans — 55 percent — backed legalization in 2019.
This Republican support is also seen in the real world. In the 2020 election, Trump won Montana by 16 points and South Dakota by 26 points. In both states that same year, most voters approved legalization initiatives, with pretty strong margins of around 8 percentage points in South Dakota and 16 percentage points in Montana.
In other words, marijuana legalization has appeared on the ballot in four states dominated by Republicans: Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. It’s won in three of them, losing only in North Dakota. Marijuana legalization is 3-1 in solid red states!
There’s little reason to think that any of these trends will change soon.
There’s a world in which you could envision growing support for marijuana legalization suddenly collapsing. Maybe after Colorado, Washington, or a few other states legalized, things went really badly. Teen use went up, along with car crashes, crime, ER visits related to pot, and other bad outcomes. Voters see the error of their ways and change course.
But that just hasn’t happened. In the states that have legalized, things have generally gone fine. There were some concerns about marijuana-laced edibles in the early days, but those worries faded quickly as regulators instituted some new rules and retail outlets bolstered their advice to newbies about how to consume edibles. The gigantic rise in all the problem outcomes legalization opponents warned against never came to fruition.
A big tell here is how often politicians flip-flop to support legalization once their state legalizes and things go basically fine. In Colorado, then-Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2012 said he opposed the ballot measure, only to fully support legalization and brag about how his administration implemented it by the time he ran for senator in 2020. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who opposed legalization during his 2012 run, said in March that the one thing he’d do differently is “[embrace] this position of decriminalizing it earlier, had I known how successful this has been with not any really large increase in juvenile usage, which was a concern while we were debating this.”
There are also major forces that will continue to support legalization and encourage its expansion. The US marijuana industry is now valued at more than $18 billion, supporting the equivalent of over 300,000 full-time jobs, more than the total number of electrical engineers or dentists, according to the 2021 Leafly Jobs Report.
This is simply a big industry now, for better or worse. Any politician moving to shut it down risks incurring the wrath of hundreds of thousands of people losing their jobs. And because it’s a promising industry, there’s a strong economic incentive — between additional jobs and tax revenue — for more states to embrace legalization.
Not to mention that this major new industry can now use its economic weight to directly back legalization measures, providing much-needed funding to help get them across the finish line. In this way, marijuana legalization’s success at the ballot box so far will lead to more success.
There are, of course, still major barriers to full legalization nationwide. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, including in states that have legalized it under their own statutes. International treaties prohibit countries from legalizing marijuana for recreational uses (although with Canada, Mexico, and Uruguay moving to legalize, it doesn’t seem like anyone really cares). Most of the US population still lives in a state that hasn’t legalized, and it will take a lot of time and effort in legislatures and ballot boxes to change that.
But it’s now very clear where the trends are heading. It might take several more years to become national reality, but marijuana legalization is here to stay.