Four states and Washington, DC, have now legalized marijuana for recreational use, following the results of the 2014 midterm elections. Surveys show that this trend toward legalization will likely continue as relaxed marijuana policies grow more popular, particularly among younger voters.
But legalization isn't as simple as flipping a switch and letting everyone get stoned. By legalizing marijuana, states are effectively ushering in a new, multibillion-dollar industry. Setting up the regulations for that industry, as well as the rules for personal use and growing marijuana, can take a lot of time and debate. Here's a breakdown of the current issues surrounding marijuana legalization and what that debate means for anyone looking to get high without breaking the law.
1) Where is it legal to smoke and buy marijuana?
Right now, you can legally smoke and buy pot without a medical marijuana card in Colorado and Washington state, where the drug was legalized in 2012 through ballot initiatives. Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC, legalized pot in the 2014 midterm elections, but those measures still need to clear several procedural hurdles throughout the next few months before they take effect.
Legalization doesn't mean just anyone can get high and open a pot shop. Similar to most alcohol laws, only adults 21 and older are allowed to use, possess, and buy marijuana. And state, county, and city governments hold a lot of sway over regulations for pot vendors and growers — some cities and counties, even in Colorado and Washington state, still outright ban any pot shops from opening up within their borders. The measure in Washington, DC, also doesn't legalize sales, since ballot measures in the nation's capital can't negatively impact the budget. Still, Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser and the DC Council have indicated that they will set up a model for marijuana businesses. But the initiative first must clear a 60-day congressional review period, since Congress has final say over DC laws.
2) Is marijuana still illegal at the federal level?
Yes. Under the federal government's scheduling system, marijuana is considered a schedule 1 substance — a classification that means it's perceived to have a high potential for abuse and no medical value. Supporters of legalization consider marijuana's current schedule absurd. Advocates point to growing research supporting medical marijuana. And they argue marijuana in no way represents as big a threat to people, even drug abusers, as other schedule 1 substances like heroin and schedule 2 substances like cocaine. The federal government, in return, argues that there isn't enough evidence to prove marijuana has medical value. A 2006 Health and Human Services review of marijuana's schedule found several barriers to rescheduling it: no studies proved the drug's medical efficacy in controlled, large-scale clinical environments; no studies established adequate safety protocols for marijuana; and marijuana's full chemical structure has never been characterized and analyzed.
One reason there isn't enough scientific evidence to change marijuana's schedule 1 status might be, in fact, the drug's schedule 1 status. The DEA restricts how much marijuana can go to research. To obtain legal marijuana supplies for studies, researchers must get their studies approved by HHS, the FDA, and DEA. (This process didn't even exist until the late 1990s. Before then, it was nearly impossible to obtain marijuana for medical research.)
pot's schedule is a catch-22Changing marijuana's schedule, in other words, is a bit of a catch-22. There needs to be a certain level of scientific research proving marijuana has medical value, but the federal government's restrictions make it difficult to conduct that research.
As a result of the schedule and the legal restrictions tied to pot, it's technically still illegal under federal law to use, own, and buy marijuana — even in states where it's considered legal.
The Obama administration has generally taken a hands-off approach to states' legalization laws, allowing states to set up regulatory models for pot sales as long as state governments don't let state-legal pot fall into the hands of criminals or children, among other standards.
3) What are the arguments for legalizing pot?
Proponents of legalization argue that the prohibition of marijuana has categorically failed. Marijuana remains the most popular illicit drug in the US. At the same time, prohibition has created all sorts of perverse outcomes that legalization supporters see as more dangerous than weed itself.
Federal surveys show that marijuana use among teens and adults has remained relatively flat — and maybe even ticked up — during the past decade. Drug policy experts, such as University of Cincinnati historian Isaac Campos, generally agree that drug use is much more likely to fluctuate as a result of cultural shifts, fads, and changing demographics.
At the same time, maintaining prohibition costs all levels of government billions of dollars each year. The enforcement of marijuana laws is notoriously skewed against minorities: although black communities aren't more likely to use drugs or sell them, the American Civil Liberties Union found black Americans were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested than white Americans for marijuana possession in 2010.
The goal of legalization, advocates argue, is to eliminate the high costs and racially skewed arrests spurred by prohibition and allow adults to use a drug that's relatively safe, without fear of incarceration. And if problems do crop up with marijuana, legalization supporters say higher taxes, stricter regulations, and education efforts can keep the drug out of the hands of problematic users, particularly teens.
4) What are the arguments against legalized weed?
Opponents argue that the legalization of marijuana could lead to more pot use and abuse, particularly among teens. They also worry that a for-profit marijuana industry would have a financial incentive to market its product to the most problematic users. Since legalization is relatively new in the US, the best available data on the effects of relaxed marijuana laws comes from research on medical marijuana. A comprehensive study from researchers at the RAND Corporation found that policies that allow dispensaries, which sell pot to medical marijuana cardholders, correlate with increases in overall marijuana use and dependence for adults 21 and older — and rises in dependence among youth. The findings suggest that the commercialization of marijuana can lead to more access and use, particularly among adults. Mark Kleiman, a drug policy expert at UCLA who supports a much more regulated form of legalization, points out that for-profit marijuana businesses, such as dispensaries, have a strong financial incentive, similar to alcohol and tobacco companies, to market their product to the most problematic users. Since the heaviest users make up so much of the demand for pot, they tend to be the best customers.
Marijuana companies' "best customers are the problem users," Kleiman said in July. "They are an industry with a set of objectives that flatly contradicts public interest." One study of Colorado's pot market, conducted by the Marijuana Policy Group for the Colorado Department of Revenue, found the top 29.9 percent heaviest pot users in the state made up 87.1 percent of demand for the drug. For the marijuana industry, that makes the heaviest users the most lucrative customers.
At the same time, Kleiman cautions that it's still too early to know whether marijuana legalization in Colorado and other states will lead to such problems. To date, Colorado's retail pot shops are simply too small, particularly compared to the burgeoning medical marijuana industry in the state, to produce the kind of low prices and mass production that's prevalent for alcohol and tobacco.
"We're seeing the expected level of marketing irresponsibility from the vendors, but they don't have much to sell at the moment," Kleiman said. "When they've got something to sell, we'll see how aggressive they get."
There are some signs that the industry is changing. California-based Aquarius Cannabis, for example, plans to work with marijuana farmers around the country to help them standardize, brand, and market their product. Aquarius CEO Michael Davis Lawyer even compared his company's approach to what Philip Morris did for tobacco. "It's a similar model," Lawyer said in October. "They went to farmers who were growing a commodity tobacco crop and said, 'If you grow these seeds and grow them this way, we'll ensure that you have a market for these products at a price that's higher than what you're getting today.'"
5) Is marijuana legalization getting more popular?Marijuana legalization in the US has quickly grown from less than 40 percent support to 58 percent over the past decade, according to Gallup.
The strongest support comes from younger voters, according to the Pew Research Center.
But strong support among the electorate hasn't driven politicians to back legalization. The problem, experts on social movements explained, is that legalization doesn't have the right political incentives attached to it just yet. Politicians generally need a concerted movement "that will give [them] time and money and networks [they] can't get otherwise," Daniel Schlozman, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University, said in October. "Without that kind of preference intensity, if you're [Sen.] Bernie Sanders, you're going to want to talk about social democracy, and if you're [Sen.] Elizabeth Warren, you're going to want to talk about the banks. There's no particular reason for you to dilute your core efforts to move the party."
6) What's the difference between legalization, decriminalization, and medical marijuana?
There's no set definition for what counts as legalization, decriminalization, and even medical marijuana. But here's a quick overview of how most people use the three terms:
Marijuana legalization: Legalization is generally taken to represent the removal of all government-enforced penalties for possessing and using marijuana. In most — but not all — cases, legalization also paves the way to the legal sale and home-growing of marijuana.
Marijuana decriminalization: Decriminalization only eliminates the criminal penalties, such as extended prison time, for limited possession of marijuana, but some lesser penalties remain. Those caught possessing or selling an amount within decriminalized limits are still fined, usually a few hundred dollars. States with stricter decriminalization laws also attach some jail time, particularly to trafficking. And those caught with large amounts of marijuana, even in places where the drug is decriminalized, still face criminal penalties.
Medical marijuana: Medical marijuana is pot that's used for medicinal instead of recreational purposes — to treat medical conditions such as pain, nausea and loss of appetite, Parkinson's disease, inflammatory bowel disease, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis. But medical marijuana laws greatly vary from place to place. The District of Columbia, for example, makes it very difficult for patients to obtain a medical marijuana card without demonstrating to a certified primary physician that they really need pot for medical purposes. In some parts of California, meanwhile, it's so easy to obtain a medical marijuana card that supporters and opponents alike see it as de facto legalization.
7) Is marijuana bad for your health?For adults 25 and older, marijuana is seen by many as safer than some legal drugs. Alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs kill thousands each year, while marijuana has never led to a reported fatal overdose. Studies have also failed to conclusively link marijuana to lung disease or psychosis and schizophrenia, despite concerns raised by critics.
For teenagers, marijuana-associated health concerns are much more serious. A lot of research has associated teen marijuana use with a range of bad consequences, including cognitive deficiencies and worse education outcomes. The question for researchers is whether these correlations are cause-and-effect. There's at least one reason to believe the relationship is causal: researchers know marijuana interacts with receptors in the brain that peak during adolescence and are particularly sensitive to outside exposure. Some of this development continues into the mid-20s, which means even young adults may be at risk to the detriments of pot use.
Other researchers argue that the studies in this field only prove correlation, not causation. One study, for instance, found the correlation between marijuana use and lower IQ scores nearly vanished after controlling for socioeconomic variables. Ole Rogeberg, the study's author, wrote in an email that his findings suggest the issue goes much farther than just marijuana use. Still, researchers and even advocates of legalization agree children and teens should stay away from the drug. The medical consensus seems to be that teen marijuana use is dangerous to some extent, but the level of risk isn't clear.
8) How is marijuana legalization going in Colorado and Washington state?
Washington state's marijuana shops have barely taken off, largely thanks to a marijuana shortage in the state. But retail marijuana stores in Colorado have been going strong for more than 10 months and so far report few problems. In Colorado, state surveys show teen marijuana use continued to decline after the state legalized possession in December 2012 — although numbers for 2014, the first year of retail sales, aren't available. Revenue from sales has generally increased each month, and, in Denver — the Colorado city with the most marijuana shops — serious violent and property crimes, despite warnings from law enforcement, are actually down from 2013.
One major problem did emerge after the beginning of sales: marijuana edibles, which are riskier to consume than other marijuana goods and could be inadvertently marketed to children. Colorado officials are working to tighten regulations for edibles, including better labeling and packaging.
Still, even the Obama administration, which officially opposes legalization, suggested legalization is going fine. US Attorney General Eric Holder, the head of the Justice Department, has said that he's "cautiously optimistic" about how legalization is turning out in Colorado and Washington state.
9) Which states could legalize pot next?
By 2017, the Marijuana Policy Project, a coalition of marijuana legalization advocates, aims to pass several more state-level laws that would regulate marijuana in the same way as alcohol. Some campaigns will target ballot initiatives — in Arizona (2016), California (2016), Maine (2016), and Nevada (2016). Others will go through state legislatures, where supporters will lobby for legalization in Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.