The Normalization Of Legalization

11/02/2016 08:51 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017
Marijuana plant
Marijuana plant

America is in the midst of a dramatic shift in public opinion, one which began at least a decade ago and shows no signs of reversing any time soon. The concept of fully legalizing marijuana for adult recreational use must now actually be considered the mainstream opinion in America. The latest nationwide poll (that I have seen) put national support for legalization at a whopping 60 percent -- higher than it has ever previously been. Next Tuesday, five more states will vote on the issue on their ballots. Two of those states are on the East Coast. One of the five is the most populous state in the country, with over 39 million people living in it -- fully one-eighth of the total US population. Polling is sketchy on the issue (it always is), but it certainly looks possible that recreational marijuana legalization has a good shot of winning, in all five states.

The concept of legalization has now been fully normalized. What I mean by that is that it is no longer considered some laughable proposition that deserves nothing more than ridicule and stoner jokes from the media. You don't hear a lot of Cheech and Chong jokes being made this election cycle, to put it another way (or Harold and Kumar jokes, for a younger generation). In fact, the media stories now mainly focus on the vast amounts of money to be made by legalization -- and not just for the people involved in the trade. Millions and millions of tax dollars are also at stake, which is something national journalists seem to take a lot more seriously.

I live in California, so my personal experience should be taken as only anecdotal. California actually became the first state (in recent times) to legalize medicinal marijuana, over 20 years ago. But then it also attempted to become the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, back in 2010, with Proposition 19. It failed. There were many reasons why it failed, chief among them was being placed on an "off-year" ballot (no presidential contest), which liberals are notorious for ignoring (2010 was also the "Year of the Tea Party," please remember). The California marijuana industry was split over Prop 19, with growers up in Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino counties (the fabled "Emerald Triangle" of Northern California) coming out against the idea. But one big reason why it failed is that the people against the proposition had better advertising. In fact, the loss in California became a case study for legalization advocates in other states for "what not to do." The anti-Prop 19 faction was headed by none other than Senator Dianne Feinstein. It was pretty well-funded, and the ads were pretty well-designed (mostly playing to suburban women's fears). The pro-Prop 19 side's ads weren't as prevalent, and were nowhere near as effective.

This time around, I haven't seen a single television ad either for or against Proposition 64. Now, again, this is purely anecdotal, and while I watch a fair amount of prime-time television (more than I am usually comfortable admitting), perhaps all the ads are running on channels or shows that I don't watch. It's certainly possible. But with less than a week to go, both sides seem rather quiet (there are some ads running on radio and the internet, I should mention, to be fair). Being biased in this matter, I am hoping that this means the pro side is confident of victory, while the anti side just couldn't raise any money for an effort doomed to fail. That's purely subjective, however, and might be utter fantasy. We'll certainly find out next week. And I have no way of knowing what the ads being run are like (and how many of them there are) in Nevada, Arizona, Maine, and Massachusetts -- the other four states who will be voting on the issue this year. Maybe their airwaves are being flooded with pro and con ads -- it's impossible for me to tell, living where I do.

The California legalization advocates certainly learned their lesson from the Prop 19 loss. First, they got unified -- they brought all the disparate groups together before they drafted their measure, to make sure that everyone's concerns were adequately dealt with, this time around. They also learned from the ads run against Prop 19, and addressed many of the concerns raised in those ads within the text of the measure itself. But the main reason Prop 64 might be successful where Prop 19 failed is the changing attitudes of the public at large.

Since 2010, four states have legalized recreational marijuana. Colorado and Washington state were first, followed by Oregon and Alaska (and Washington D.C.). Legalization is not some abstract concept anymore -- it already exists. And the skies have not fallen. All the fearmongering on the issue has been proven either laughably incorrect or (at the very least) misguided. Problems have indeed popped up, but (and this is crucial) because marijuana is now legal, state legislatures can tweak the law to actually address and correct those problems without rejecting legalization itself. Such legislative tweaks have, indeed, happened -- most of them with the full support of the marijuana industry (another crucial difference).

The states which have legalized recreational use have also seen a bonanza in windfall tax revenues. Tens of millions of dollars flowing into the state coffers is a powerful motivational force, to put this another way. Now, to be fair, these revenues in the early states might actually decrease over time, to some extent. Two factors are coming into play which might cause this reduction in tax revenues. The first is that prices will decrease over time. Legal marketplaces mean not paying a premium due to the illegal nature of the black market. Consumers are no longer paying for the "risk factor," to put this another way. As more people enter this marketplace, price wars are almost inevitable -- meaning lower prices for the consumer.

The second reason tax revenues might go down is really an extension of the first, beyond the state's borders. Colorado and Washington saw a boom in "marijuana tourism" when they became the first states where any adult could walk into a store, buy the marijuana product of his or her choice, and walk out with no fear of being arrested for doing so. This was a novelty, to be sure (at least, for those people who have never been to Amsterdam), and I even noted a few years ago that America has already seen its first "Bowl of Weed" Super Bowl, when the Seattle Seahawks played the Denver Broncos for the title. No matter which team won, I predicted, the celebrations would be a bit different than ever experienced before.

But that novelty has already been somewhat diluted, and it may be diluted in a much larger way if all five of this year's ballot initiatives pass. Right now, a marijuana tourist has four states to choose from, geographically clumped rather close together. They're all either Mountain West or West Coast states, after all. If the measures in California, Nevada, and Arizona pass, then a large portion of the entire West will have legalized weed (including every state which touches the Pacific Ocean except Hawai'i). Tourists will have a lot more destinations to choose from. Want to get stoned and gamble? Go to Las Vegas, and visit the smoke shop. Want to surf while high? California's beaches await. You'll even be able to see the Grand Canyon after smoking a joint -- what could be more American than that?

With this expansion will come ramped-up competition, though. With more destinations to choose from, the effect of marijuana tourism will be diluted further in Colorado and Washington. States will be in direct competition with each other's marketplaces. This has already happened to some extent on the Oregon/Washington border, with some residents choosing to drive to the neighboring state for cheaper prices for the same quality product. Throw California's enormous potential market into that mix and we could see price wars developing all over the West Coast. For the moment, however, each marketplace will remain somewhat isolated, as none of the measures currently allow for interstate commerce (i.e., growers being able to choose which state to sell their product in). That dynamic won't change until federal laws relax. More on this in a moment.

The really big news next Tuesday, however, might be the legalization of recreational marijuana in two East Coast states. Washington D.C. has already done so, but because Congress gets to veto District laws they don't like, implementation has been rather schizophrenic, to say the least. But if two New England states decide to fully legalize, then real marijuana tourism becomes possible for tens of millions of East Coast residents -- without even having to cross a time zone. That will be a dramatic shift, and it will mean politicians won't be able to dismiss legalization as some wacky "Left Coast" anomaly. When "Come see the fall foliage -- including the buds!" advertising beings, to entice people to Massachusetts and Maine, the dynamic will shift in a major way -- hitting much closer to home for the rest of the Eastern Seaboard. When other states (Vermont, I am looking in your direction...) see the tax benefits Maine and Massachusetts are reaping, they may decide it's time to jump on board the legalization bandwagon.

If California votes to legalize -- even if the other four states don't, for some reason -- then it may signal the end of the federal War On Weed. The horse will have left the barn, so squabbling over what lock to install on the barn door is going to appear pretty silly, to stretch a Western metaphor a bit. If all five states pass legalization, then fully one-fourth of all Americans will live in states with legal weed. Half of the United States have already legalized medical marijuana. Throughout all of this, federal law has not changed one iota. President Obama's two attorneys general have reprioritized the Justice Department's guidelines on the marijuana trade, but this liberalization could be abruptly changed by the next person to run the Justice Department. The laws themselves have to change, in order to reflect the new reality.

It is beyond incomprehensible for the federal government to continue their Prohibition-inspired War On Weed legal framework when one in four Americans lives where those laws are being blatantly ignored on a daily basis. Indeed, this is the biggest issue where liberals agree with the "states' rights" argument, because they are arguing that the individual states should decide their policies, and the federal government should just throw in the towel and admit defeat. Usually it is conservatives making this particular argument (on a number of separate issues), just to state the obvious. The next president is going to be forced to deal with the War On Weed, even if the national media has completely fallen down on the job of pressing the two major candidates on how they would do so if elected president. Even in Congress, most Democrats are pretty timid on the issue, because the memory of how hard they were slammed during the 1980s and 1990s on the "law and order" issue still resonates. This is going to have to go through a rather abrupt sea-change, in the same way that gay marriage attitudes were forced to "evolve" among Democrats, over the past eight years.

Legalizing marijuana use for all adults and controlling it in much the same way alcohol sales are currently controlled is no longer some wild-eyed radical concept. It's no longer just some stoner hippies who advocate this sane and reasonable policy change. The issue has become mainstream. Six out of every ten Americans already support it. It is almost becoming uncontroversial, if the lack of energy the anti side is showing in California is any indicator. The fearmongering no longer holds much water, since we now have living proof that the sky has not actually fallen in Colorado and the other three states with legal marijuana markets. Countering apocalyptic predictions is now fairly easy for the pro side to do: "Well, that hasn't actually happened in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, or Washington." Even the law-and-order types are getting to the point where they're throwing up their hands and saying: "If the stoners want to pay taxes and we can free up police resources to fight serious crime, then why not?"

Why should the government waste so much time and money fighting weed growers, when there is an obvious opioid and heroin crisis raging? If the voters want legal weed, then what is the big deal? So far the federal government has played the part of King Canute, ordering the tide to stop advancing. They're going to be just about as successful as he was, in the end. Of course, changing many of the federal laws requires action by Congress -- which is rare, these days. Doing nothing and continuing to ignore the public's growing acceptance of legal weed may continue for years to come.

Even if Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada all fully legalize marijuana next Tuesday, we may not reach a tipping point in terms of national politics. There are still plenty of Democrats fighting the tide (including Senator Feinstein, who is once again leading the anti-legalization effort in California). But in seeing this year's national news media coverage of the issue, one thing becomes crystal clear. Attitudes are changing, fast. Legalization is no longer the radical idea it was, as recently as 2010 (in California, no less -- a liberal bastion if ever there was one). It has been mainstreamed. Public opinion is going to continue to change in a big way if more and more states join this movement. In fact, we are already at the point where the concept of legalization has become downright normal. Once the normalization of legalization further sinks in with the public, the arc of history will have already bent. Now all we need are for the politicians in D.C. to realize it. The people are leading, and we're still waiting for most of our political "leaders" to follow.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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