Recently Governor Phil Scott signed H.511 into law, making Vermont the ninth state to legalize marijuana, and the first to do so through a state legislature.
Vermont’s new law comes only weeks after Attorney General Sessions rescinded Obama-era guidance limiting federal interference with state marijuana programs. Whether Sessions likes it or not, the federal government cannot prevent states from legalizing marijuana. Even if he could stop them, it would be bad policy — and bad politics.
As a new report from the Drug Policy Alliance reveals, states are effectively controlling marijuana and protecting public safety and health through comprehensive regulations.
On Nov. 6, 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first two states — and first two jurisdictions in the world — to legalize marijuana for adult use. Two years later Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C. followed suit. In 2016 voters in four additional states — California, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada — also approved ballot measures legalizing marijuana.
Public attitudes toward marijuana are rapidly changing. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the American pubic now supports marijuana legalization, including a majority of Republicans. This shift may be, in part, a reflection of the success of state marijuana laws in the first eight states to legalize and D.C.
The report evaluates the impacts of marijuana legalization so far. It finds that marijuana-related arrests have plummeted, saving states millions of dollars and preventing the criminalization of several thousands of people. Youth marijuana use has not increased. There have been reductions in opioid overdose deaths and untreated opioid use disorders. And, DUI arrests for driving under the influence (of alcohol and other drugs) have declined.
States are filling their coffers with hundreds of millions of dollars in marijuana tax revenues and allocating them for social good. These new tax dollars are funding education, school construction, early literacy, bullying prevention, behavioral health, and alcohol and drug treatment. In addition, the legal marijuana industry is creating jobs.
It currently employs approximately 200,000 full and part-time workers across the country. These numbers are expected to climb as more state retail marijuana programs come online. For instance, California just started rolling out retail marijuana earlier this month.
Despite decades of prohibition, marijuana remains widely consumed and universally available. Marijuana criminalization and aggressive enforcement has been an enormous waste of money and has harmed individuals, communities, and the entire country.
With marijuana legalization success and overwhelming public support, the question is no longer whether to legalize marijuana, but how.
It is well established that marijuana enforcement has disparately harmed Black and Latinx individuals. Going forward, states that have legalized marijuana, as well as those considering doing so, should adopt policies focused on repairing the racially disproportionate harms of marijuana criminalization and enforcement.
This necessarily involves increasing equity and inclusion in the regulated marijuana market; reforming police practices pertaining to marijuana enforcement; decriminalizing marijuana for youth and young adults under age 21, so that a minor marijuana law violation no longer results in a young person getting entangled in the criminal justice system; and reinvesting marijuana tax revenues in the communities most harmed by marijuana criminalization.
By dramatically reducing marijuana arrests and convictions, and generating substantial tax revenues, states that have legalized marijuana are diminishing many of the worst harms of prohibition. But we should not stop at legalization alone. The time is now to support efforts by Congress and numerous states to not only legalize marijuana, but to advance policies that further repair the racially discriminatory harms of marijuana criminalization.