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The Future Of Legal Weed Is Bright. Here's Where It's Headed Next

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After a year of preparation, Colorado opened its doors to the legal marijuana business last week, serving thousands of customers and racking up more than $5 million in taxed and regulated sales in just seven days. It was a promising sign that recreational marijuana could be a lucrative industry for other states interested in scaling back harsh anti-pot laws and listening to voters, who have increasingly shown support for legalizing the drug.

(Scroll down to see if your state is likely to be one of the next to legalize.)

Taxed and regulated marijuana is already coming to Washington state, which along with Colorado passed a legalization measure at the polls during the 2012 general election. And now that the Justice Department set a precedent last year by allowing these first legal pot laws to go into effect, marijuana policy reformers in other states are looking more intently at the best way to proceed.

The momentum is on marijuana's side. While it now has the forces of capitalism behind it -- one study has predicted a $10 billion industry by 2018 and steps may soon be taken to further normalize the marijuana business -- legalization is also becoming widely accepted as a social justice issue. Advocates have become increasingly vocal, arguing that it makes no sense to continue treating pot as a Schedule I substance, considered by federal authorities alongside heroin and LSD. In a drug war-obsessed nation that already incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other in the world, around 750,000 people are arrested for marijuana each year, with more than 650,000 of them for possession alone.

For opponents who believe marijuana is damaging to the mind and body, these stats appear to be of less importance. And while supporters of marijuana continually cite the comparative effects of weed and alcohol, or counter anti-pot studies with emerging research that has supported the drug's therapeutic qualities, one thing remains certain: Scientific research into the effects of marijuana will continue to remain discouraged until the federal ban on the substance is lifted or relaxed.

While debates on marijuana's health effects should and will continue even beyond the next wave of legalizations, it's clear that the floodgates have already been broken. More states will legalize marijuana, and some will do it relatively soon. In states around the nation, pro-pot legislators bolstered by public opinion and the examples set by Colorado and Washington are putting the once-taboo issue before their colleagues, hoping to become the first state to legalize legislatively. Activists are also making the push, working to get the issue before voters as early as 2014 with well-funded campaigns in states even as unlikely as Florida.

Here's the likely road ahead for legal marijuana:

Alaska

Marijuana reformers in Alaska could make their state the next to legalize pot. After getting a ballot measure to tax, regulate and legalize weed for adult recreational use certified last summer, organizers this month delivered a petition with over 45,000 signatures. If at least 30,169 of those signatures are deemed valid, the state will vote on legalization in the primary election on Aug. 19, the earliest possible date of any of these states.

Pot has already been decriminalized and legalized for medical use in Alaska. A survey of Alaska voters taken last year by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling found that 54 percent supported legalizing marijuana.

Arizona

While hopes for a successful push on legal weed in 2014 may be dwindling, pro-pot organizers have expressed optimism that they'll have a strong campaign for the state ready ahead of 2016. A project is underway to gather the required 259,213 signatures needed by July in order to get the legalization issue on the 2014 ballot -- but without any financial backing, it's a monumental task. Activists with the influential Marijuana Policy Project say they're on board with a forthcoming ballot initiative to fully legalize the drug in 2016, when more voters will likely turn out for the general election. The group has also said that by then, they'll have had enough time to figure out which aspects of previous efforts have been successful in other states.

Cannabis was legalized in the state for medical use in 2010 by ballot initiative. A poll taken earlier this year found that 56 percent of Arizonans supported legalizing some amount of cannabis.

California

A statewide initiative to legalize marijuana failed in California in 2010, but reformers are hoping to find success in 2014 and beyond. Activists are currently circulating petitions to get the California Hemp Act 2014, a measure that would legalize marijuana both in its standard and non-psychoactive forms, on the ballot in 2014. They will need to collect more than 500,000 valid signatures by Feb. 24 to qualify for the ballot. While the momentum is certainly in favor of legalization in California, some prominent figures have urged organizers to wait until 2016, when demographics and voter turnout will be even more in their favor.

Cannabis has already been decriminalized and legalized for medical use in California. Multiple polls taken last year found a majority of Californians in favor of legalizing pot, with one longstanding poll showing such support for the first time in 45 years of surveying the issue.

Delaware

Delaware only recently took steps to begin implementing a system for medical marijuana, but activists with MPP believe the state Legislature could push forward on a broader legalization bill. Delaware also doesn't have citizen ballot initiatives, so any such effort will need to come from state lawmakers.

Hawaii

Lawmakers in Hawaii considered bills to both decriminalize and legalize marijuana last year -- and killed both before allowing them to reach a full vote. Activists don't have a citizen ballot initiative process to allow them to pursue legalization, so they're hoping the pro-pot momentum will carry over to lawmakers in the Aloha State this year and beyond.

Hawaii has already legalized cannabis for medical use, and lawmakers recently passed legislation to improve the system. A poll taken last year showed that 57 percent of Hawaiians supported legalization.

Maine

Bolstered by a November vote to legalize marijuana in Portland, Maine, pro-pot activists have announced the state as one of the top targets for legalization in upcoming election cycles. While initiatives to legalize through legislation have repeatedly failed votes in the state legislature, MPP has announced plans to help coordinate a grassroots campaign to get a legalization measure on the ballot (though probably not until 2016).

Cannabis has been decriminalized and approved for medical use across Maine. According to a PPP poll released last year, 48 percent of registered voters in Maine believe pot should be legal for recreational use.

Maryland

Lawmakers in Maryland have submitted bills both to legalize and decriminalize marijuana, though neither of them has advanced to a vote. Similar bills are expected in the current legislative session, though they haven't been introduced yet. The president of Maryland's state Senate has said he supports marijuana legalization, though Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has been much more reserved, saying recently that he's not even comfortable with decriminalization. A Democratic candidate for the state's upcoming gubernatorial election has already submitted a proposal to legalize marijuana. Maryland's system only allows for referenda on already-passed legislation, so the state will have to rely on state lawmakers for action on marijuana.

Maryland has already passed legislation legalizing cannabis for medical use. A poll taken last year showed a majority of Maryland voters in support of legalizing marijuana.

Massachusetts

The deep-blue New England state is being eyed as a prime opportunity for legalization, with marijuana reform advocates pointing to high margins of support for previous pro-pot initiatives. Last November, marijuana reform group Bay State Repeal laid the initial groundwork in order to begin coordinating a campaign to legalize pot via ballot initiative in 2016.

Massachusetts has decriminalized cannabis, and just last November passed a ballot measure legalizing it for medical use. A February 2013 PPP poll found that 58 percent of the state's residents would be in favor of legalizing, taxing and regulating cannabis.

Montana

Montana has had a checkered history with marijuana laws. Voters passed an initiative legalizing cannabis for medical use in 2004, but opponents have since taken various steps to amend the measure or repeal it all together. Reform advocates remain hopeful that voters will support full legalization, with MPP announcing plans to support a statewide effort to legalize at the ballot in 2016. Pot reformers wasted no time following the 2012 election, filing a ballot question aiming to put the issue before voters in 2014. Little progress appears to have been made toward that effort.

There are no recent statewide surveys to gauge current support for pot legalization, though previous polls have showed a majority of Montana voters supporting the decriminalization of marijuana.

Nevada

Marijuana advocates in Nevada have yet to mount a large-scale effort to get legalization on the ballot in an upcoming election, as most organizers in the state and at the national level see 2016 as their best chance for a push. The liberal bent of the state makes it a popular target for reformers, but nobody has yet to lobby for more immediate or aggressive action.

Nevada has legalized medical cannabis, and last year the state passed a measure establishing a dispensary system to help increase access for sick citizens. According to a recent poll, 56 percent of Nevadans would favor legalizing cannabis for recreational use if the money raised went to fund education.

New York

Marijuana advocates have expressed hope that New York could become the third state to legalize marijuana, and perhaps the first to do it through legislation. Last month, a state senator unveiled a proposal to fully legalize and tax marijuana in the state. While many remain skeptical that the bill will pass muster, especially considering New York has yet to even legalize cannabis for medical use, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently came out in favor of efforts to loosen marijuana laws. The governor is also set to announce an executive action to give seriously ill patients access to marijuana. New York has no system for citizen ballot initiatives.

New York has already decriminalized cannabis possession, though harsh penalties still exist for anybody found using it in a public place or showing it in public view -- a loophole that pot reformers claim has been abused by law enforcement. A 2013 poll showed 82 percent of New Yorkers in support of medical marijuana statewide, though there doesn't appear to be recent data for legalizing pot for recreational use.

Oregon

Marijuana legalization advocates in Oregon are approaching the issue from two sides, both pushing for a ballot initiative and lobbying state lawmakers for legislative action. An earlier legalization effort, which was poorly coordinated and widely mocked inside the state, failed in 2012. Organizers knew there was plenty of room for improvement, and they believe they've found it with New Approach Oregon, a group supported by high-profile national donors that is seeking to see their legalization measure put into law. Two more legalization initiatives are also being pushed by Paul Stanford, a prominent marijuana business owner.

Oregon has already decriminalized cannabis and legalized it for medical use. According to a poll taken in May, 57 percent of likely voters in Oregon support a proposal to tax, regulate and legalize marijuana for recreational use.

Rhode Island

Marijuana advocates have high hopes that Rhode Island will be one of the first in the next round of states to legalize. Because it has no citizen-initiated ballot process, Rob Kampia, the executive director of MPP, said last year that lawmakers in the state could undertake the effort. Gov. Lincoln Chafee (D) has appeared less eager for the push, though pot reformers are confident there will be another push this year. The state Legislature did consider a bill on the matter last session, and while lawmakers debated the legislation and invited witnesses to testify on its merits, they never held a vote.

Rhode Island recently decriminalized marijuana and passed legalized medical cannabis around 2007. A PPP poll taken in January found that 52 percent of voters in the state support legalizing pot for recreational use.

Washington, D.C.

Yes, we know that D.C. isn't a state. It's already taxed without representation, so it certainly doesn't need your snark about it. But anyways, marijuana activists in the District are set to submit a legalization ballot initiative that would go before voters in November. Bills to fully legalize have been submitted in the D.C. Council in the past, but have not gone to a vote.

D.C. has already legalized cannabis for medical use and is expected to approve a bill to decriminalize the substance. A 2013 survey found that 63 percent of the District's residents supported legalizing marijuana.

Vermont

Vermont has made strides to scale back marijuana prohibition over the past few years, with a successful measure to decriminalize and a separate bill to establish a system of dispensaries for the state's medical cannabis patients. Observers have seen the state's strong support for the recent reelection of Gov. Peter Shumlin (D), an advocate for marijuana reform, as a sign that voters are ready to legalize. Another Northeastern state without a citizen-initiated ballot process, Vermont will have to rely on this push coming from state lawmakers. While a legalization bill was passed last year, it didn't receive a vote. A Democratic state senator has already submitted another similar piece of legislation this year.

Polls have consistently shown Vermonters to be supportive of efforts to scale back prohibition of marijuana.

This post has been updated to include new information about the campaign for legalization in Alaska.

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