THE BLOG
07/28/2014 05:36 pm ET Updated Sep 27, 2014

Marijuana's Tipping Point?

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Has marijuana legalization reached the tipping point, where positive change is now all but inevitable? That question might have been seen as wildly optimistic even just last week, but over the weekend the respected New York Times editorial board fully endorsed legalizing recreational marijuana at the federal level, in a piece aptly entitled: "Repeal Prohibition, Again." This has already shifted the debate so dramatically that some are now comparing it to the impact of Walter Cronkite coming out against the Vietnam War (after which, President Lyndon Johnson famously said: "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America"). While I'm cautiously optimistic and certainly think it will further the conversation, I have to say I think it might be just a little too early to declare this moment in time to be marijuana's tipping point. I think we're fast approaching that moment, but I don't think we've gotten there quite yet.

The Times editorial is certainly a positive contribution to the marijuana legalization debate. Even more so, as the current editorial will just be the first of a reported six-part series of editorials which examine the issue from more than one angle. That, right there, is a measure of respect that has been sorely lacking in most of rest of the media. It guarantees that various facets of the federal "War On Weed" will be examined, which should provoke a more in-depth level of political conversation than before. A conversation which has been, up until now, mostly only conducted by activists and mostly only at a local level (such as changing one state's laws). Yesterday's political talking-head television shows were forced to confront the issue, although for the most part this was nothing more than a competition by the pundits as to who could come up with the wittiest bon mot, rather than any sort of serious discussion of the issue.

The Times editorial series is going to force the political conversation to move beyond the "Rocky Mountain high" and "munchies" jokes, though. Sure, it's fun to crack wise about stoners and weed culture, but after these cheap laughs get stale the seriousness of the subject is still going to need to be addressed. Most average Americans are unaware (to pick just one easy example) that the federal government considers marijuana to be more dangerous than crystal methamphetamine. That is a pretty indefensible stance to take, but it is exactly the way the federal government has treated marijuana for the past four decades. Which is why this conversation is long overdue.

The federal government still considers marijuana to have "no accepted medical value," even as the number of states which have legalized medical marijuana climbs. Almost half of the United States now allow medicinal marijuana, and that number rises to over 30 if you add in states which have legalized some specific form(s) of marijuana product for medicinal use (differing states have differing restrictions). So why does the federal government refuse to accept this widespread medicinal use? It has become an untenable (and laughable) legal position to take.

The voters in two states have already openly defied the federal government, by legalizing recreational marijuana for adult use. Two more states may follow, later this year. Four states isn't much, but many other states are waiting until the 2016 election to put marijuana legalization on the ballot (since the electorate in a presidential election year should be much more favorable for such measures). Perhaps a tipping point will be reached after Oregon and Alaska follow the lead of Washington and Colorado, or perhaps we will get there in 2016 if five or ten more states join in the movement.

In the realm of federal law, perhaps the tipping point will be when marijuana is moved from the ridiculous "Schedule I" designation it currently has (the part about "no accepted medical value"). Attorney General Eric Holder has evolved considerably on the issue of marijuana law in the past year or so, and has even said he'd be open to changing the Schedule I designation, but he also indicated it would be better if Congress approved this change. However, according to the Controlled Substances Act (the law that created the schedules), Holder himself can reclassify anything on the list, with no more authority necessary than his own signature. Perhaps if Congress refuses to act, Holder (or his boss, President Obama) will make this necessary change on his own. That, more than a Times editorial, might more accurately be called marijuana's tipping point.

The Times goes further, though, and essentially calls not just for rescheduling marijuana, but de-scheduling it entirely. After all, alcohol and tobacco aren't on any "dangerous controlled substance" list -- they are treated differently by the federal government. What the Times is calling for won't fully happen until marijuana is legally treated the same as alcohol, and added to the responsibility of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Such a sweeping change, however, isn't likely until well after the political tipping point has been reached (to put this another way: the politicians are probably not going to lead on this issue, they're going to follow).

Depending on how you define "tipping point," we admittedly might already be there. Public opinion polls show -- for the first time -- that a slim majority of the American public is ready to legalize all marijuana use for adults. It was voted into being in two states already, and they've both now fully implemented their new laws. Chances are pretty good that it'll pass in Oregon and Alaska this year as well (also in Washington D.C., barring any political shenanigans from the House of Representatives).

In a very short time, marijuana activists have gone from being cautiously optimistic that change is coming to being almost expectant that change is not only possible but actually probable (if not downright inevitable). I, for one, am not quite there yet. Eric Holder still has a lot left to do to rein in the federal anti-weed culture, especially over at the Drug Enforcement Agency (and among certain federal prosecutors).

By 2016, it is going to be interesting to see how national politicians react, on both sides of the aisle. Democrats, especially, since the issue is fast gaining political heft. When Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton duked it out for the Democratic nomination in 2008, remember, neither one of them endorsed gay marriage equality. They felt it was too politically risky to go that far out on a limb. In 2016 it is inconceivable that the Democratic presidential nominee will not fully support marriage equality. That's a fast transition. But in 2016, will any of the Democratic candidates fully support what the Times has now called for: the end of marijuana Prohibition? Or will they be too timid, and try to couch their answer in "well, I'm kind of for medicinal marijuana..." language? Will Democratic candidates be challenged on the issue from left and right? Rand Paul may stake out a claim to be the most pot-friendly candidate in the race -- which may eat into the Democrats' natural advantage with younger voters. A Democratic candidate might be forced to come out as pro-pot, just to shore up a key part of the Democratic base.

Such a nebulous concept of a tipping point can be debated endlessly. Some might say the real tipping point was the vote in Colorado and Washington in 2012. Some might identify Holder's change of heart last year as the real tipping point in the federal War On Weed. Perhaps I'm being too pessimistic when I say I'm waiting for further action from Holder, or more states to jump on the bandwagon -- why I think the tipping point will likely happen sometime in 2015 or 2016, in other words. A tipping point, for me, means that from that point onward the movement acquires such rapid downhill momentum that nothing can stop it. To give an example, I identified what I saw as the tipping point on gay marriage before the Supreme Court ruled last year on the Proposition 8 and DOMA cases -- because I thought that no matter which way they ruled, change was still inevitable at that point.

Marijuana legalization may suffer some setbacks, however. So far, the experiment in Colorado and Washington seem to be going quite well, and the sky has not noticeably fallen in either state. Other states are jealously eyeing the massive tax receipts the two states are pulling in, and are also paying close attention to the boost it has given their tourist industries. But that's not to say it's going to pass everywhere it gets onto the ballot, or that unforeseen problems may indeed develop which perhaps might require different rules or regulations.

Maybe we are at a tipping point. Maybe the Times editorial series is going to drag the discussion of legalizing marijuana out of the realm of cheap comedy and give it that "what serious people think" respectability (which is so necessary for the inside-the-Beltway punditocracy to offer their thoughts on any subject, sad to say). The thing about tipping points is that after they are reached, things start happening very quickly. Think about it: the Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage happened only a little over a year ago. Within another year (or two, at most), the Supreme Court will issue another ruling which will make it the law of the land in every state -- it's almost inconceivable to think otherwise, at this point. That is blinding speed, in the political world. Could marijuana legalization happen as fast? Yes, it could -- and the Times article certainly will move the debate a giant step forward. But somehow I just can't believe that we've arrived at the tipping point. Call me pessimistic (or realistic) if you will, but while I do think that point is fast approaching, I just don't think we're quite there yet.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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