As I write this, 30 states have legalized marijuana for medicinal use and 9 for recreational, plus DC. 64% of Americans think it should be legalized on the federal level. Americans in Michigan, New Jersey, and North Dakota may find weed legalized in their states this year, and the Commonwealth legislature of the Northern Marianas just today passed a legalization bill which is on its way to be signed by the governor. Today, a majority of Americans have access to legal marijuana in one form or another.
Canada is now the second country in the world to have legal recreational marijuana. America’s closest ally (geographically, culturally, and economically) legalizing weed will have definite effects on the cultural, financial, and legislative momentum behind legalization in this country.
President Trump has explicitly and repeatedly voiced his support for legalizing weed on the federal level, most recently saying he’d back legislation in Congress to that end.
However, just yesterday reports surfaced of a new federal task force aimed at countering pro-marijuana messaging across the country:
The Marijuana Policy Coordination Committee reportedly has asked 14 federal agencies and the Drug Enforcement Administration to forward “data demonstrating the most significant negative trends” about marijuana and the threats it poses to the country.
What this means is uncertain yet. This could be just a symptom of bureaucratic impulse on autopilot — the MPCC is run by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which could merely be going through the motions that a semi-independent executive agency with a broad mandate pursues. The MPCC could be just another example of the unpredictability of the current POTUS; Trump seems to love keeping everyone guessing and refuses to be beholden to any previous positions he may have held. It could be that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an irrationally determined drug warrior who literally said that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” (an absurdly moralistic statement about a plant if there ever was one), is behind the formation of the MPCC.
Many people would point at republicans like Sessions in fact as the major obstacles towards marijuana legalization. From Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to House Rules Chair Pete Sessions (no relation to the AG) there are a number of high-profile republicans that are consistently against legalization and in positions to successfully stymie it. But this is not a partisan issue.
Democrats have been no sincere friend to the legalization movement either. President Obama made repeated condescending remarks about legalization, Hillary Clinton’s campaign was not supportive, and during Nancy Pelosi’s time as House speaker Democrats only allowed one floor vote on a republican medical cannabis amendment. (While republicans allowed annual votes in the four preceding years and after regaining control of the House in 2014 and 2015.)
As a personal anecdote and minor data point, I was campaign manager for a republican state house candidate in Alaska in 2014, the same year that recreational marijuana was also on the ballot. My conservative candidate was supportive, while the democratic, then-House Minority Leader held fundraisers against legalization. Alaskans voted for legalization and are now enjoying a robust recreational marijuana industry which is lowering prices while quality and availability is rising at the same time as the black market is losing its share of the pot business in the state.
The biggest roadblock to marijuana legalization on the federal level — at all levels for that matter — seems to be political inertia. Local candidates and party leaders have district races to win, districts that may have a majority opposed to legalization. Voter demographics play a part as well, for instance the majority of Hispanics are opposed to legalization, so anybody looking for votes among that population will likely not contradict their opinions, ditto for evangelical voters so democrat and republican politicians both have vested interests in opposing legalization.
I am confident that this is changing. Marijuana is now becoming a big business (worth almost $8 billion in 2017), employing a lot Americans and providing local coffers with substantial tax revenues. The governors and congressional delegations of states that have legalized it are pushing for federal accommodation for an industry of increasing economic and cultural importance to their constituents and state budgets. Democrats and Republicans (of the non-fringe variety, sorry Rand and Bernie) in Congress are increasingly vocal and aggressive in their pursuit of legalization. We’ve turned the corner on marijuana, it will be legal soon. The roadblocks are being washed away and even the populations staunchly opposed will not be able to prevent it for very much longer.