Sales of recreational marijuana begin today in Washington state, bringing to two the number of states where adults are allowed to legally buy pot whether or not they have a medical condition (real or feigned) for which it might be helpful. The experience of Washington and Colorado is going to accelerate the acceptance of legalization, and make it more likely to pass elsewhere.
Don’t be surprised if within a decade we saw legal pot in half the states.
That’s true even though even though there have been problems in Colorado and there will be problems in Washington as well. Indeed, an accelerating trend in legalization may take place partly because of those problems. We’re getting two different case studies in how to go about legalizing, and every state that considers it from this point forward will be able to learn from what they did right and what they did wrong.
Meanwhile, those who oppose legalization are going to continue to be undermined by the hyperbole in their own arguments, a problem that has existed as long as there has been a debate about illegal drugs. When the head of the DEA can’t bring herself to admit that crack and heroin might be worse for a person to use than pot, it makes it harder for the millions of Americans who have been exposed to the latter to take seriously the case being made by anti-legalization advocates. As the years pass and more and more of the older generations who had little exposure to pot die off, the proportion of Americans who view it as something evil and terrifying will grow smaller and smaller.
In Colorado, the sky has not fallen since people started buying recreational cannabis six months ago. The predicted increase in crime didn’t materialize, and there is no evidence that Coloradans are dropping out of school and leaving their jobs en masse to get high and play video games all day. While tax revenues from the new recreational system haven’t been as high as some predicted (in part because the state still has lots of medical marijuana stores operating), thousands of new jobs have been created in the nascent industry.
However, we’re already learning things that can and should be applied in other states. For instance, when a new crop of people began trying cannabis in Colorado, a lot of them found edibles appealing. But since there wasn’t a strict system for labeling and packaging that would let people know exactly what they’re getting and make it easier to keep the products away from children, some people have gotten sick, including some kids who got their hands on their parents’ edibles. In Washington, despite the fact that they’ve had a year and a half to prepare, they’ve only licensed a few shops and growers, so there isn’t going to be much legal pot available — meaning the black market is going to persist, at least for a while.
Any state considering its own legal cannabis regime will be watching these two states closely, to figure out where the potholes are and how to avoid them. But (depending on how things go in Washington) it’s going to be very difficult for legalization opponents to argue that the two states have suffered outright disaster, particularly the kind of disaster the anti-drug forces warned about. So when new states join the debate, the discussion may well focus more on specifics, like how products should be labeled and how an existing medical marijuana system should be integrated with a new recreational commerce system. That kind of debate assumes that the problems are solvable if you fashion your policies with enough care.
In 2016, we could see anywhere from a half-dozen to a dozen initiatives on the ballot in various (mostly liberal) states legalizing cannabis in one way or another. The most important of these is California, with its population of 38 million and an already permissive attitude toward marijuana. This is a debate that’s only going to accelerate in the next few years, and if the anti-legalization advocates don’t find a way to cast off their old habit of arguing with frying eggs and apocalyptic warnings that don’t come true, they’ll find themselves increasingly marginalized.