With more States poised to loosen marijuana laws, and ten years after Colorado and Washington embraced legalization, the movement looks unstoppable
If you dread the prospect of the upcoming midterm elections, you may need a little something to take the edge off. Fortunately, ballots this November feature not only Democratic control freaks and Republican headcases, but also opportunities to loosen marijuana laws. From Nebraska to Florida, Americans have their pick not just of major-party losers, but also of potentially winning proposals to reduce legal restrictions on marijuana use for recreational purposes.
“Marijuana legalization measures are on the 2022 ballot in Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota, and South Dakota,” handy electoral resource BallotPedia reports. “As of June 2022, 19 states and Washington, D.C., had legalized the possession and personal use of marijuana for recreational purposes, and 37 states and D.C. had legalized marijuana for medical purposes.”
The first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use were Colorado and Washington, when voters approved ballot measures 10 years ago, in 2012. The most recent was Rhode Island, through legislation signed in May of this year. Depending on how voters decide, more jurisdictions could join the ranks of those where marijuana is at least somewhat legally available, as opposed to offered by underground entrepreneurs who service willing customers in defiance of presumptuous and intrusive laws.
Whether ballot-box decisions regarding marijuana laws result in functioning, above-board markets is another matter; U.S. states have a history of passing nominal legalization measures that are so burdened with rules and high taxes that the illicit market remains more attractive for buyers and sellers alike. But the end of prohibition is in sight across the country as more states liberalize their laws and leave prohibitionists in the dust. That means not just easier access to a popular intoxicant, but also fewer lives disrupted by confrontations between police and the public.
In all five states where voters will decide marijuana measures this year, explicit recreational use is on the ballot. A similar measure was postponed in Oklahoma after the state government dragged its feet in verifying signatures, while a medical-use measure failed to make the ballot in Nebraska. Prospects are good for several of the measures going before voters: the Arkansas proposal enjoys 58 percent support, the Maryland measure has 59 percent support, and the Missouri proposal has 62 percent support. There’s apparently been no polling on the matter in North Dakota, while a July poll in South Dakota had the measure underwater with voters.
Overall, Americans have moved to embrace marijuana legalization over the last few decades. Favored by only 12 percent of those surveyed by Gallup in 1969, dumping prohibition became a majority preference at the national level just as Colorado and Washington were changing their laws. As of last year, 68 percent of respondents favor legalization.
Regular marijuana use remains a decidedly minority taste, but has actually grown to exceed tobacco in terms of popularity over the years.
“Some 16 percent of Americans say they currently smoke marijuana, while a total of 48 percent say they have tried it at some point in their lifetime,” Gallup noted last month. “Cigarette smoking incidence has dropped steadily over the decades, from a high of 45 percent in the mid-1950s. Today, a new low of 11 percent of American adults report being smokers.”
So, the surge in support for legalization, to the point where it’s the position taken by two-thirds of Americans, seems to represent massive growth in tolerance for what others choose to do rather than a desire by enthusiasts to make it easier to use the intoxicant themselves. People are now less interested in trying to stop others from consuming marijuana, even if they don’t care to use the stuff.
That said, none of the measures on which voters will decide simply get government out of the way and let individuals decide how to consume, produce, buy, and sell marijuana as free individuals; that would be far too sensible. Instead, the measures generally allow for restricted commerce, caps on the amount people can possess, and limited homegrow.
The Arkansas proposal, for instance, allows adults over 21 to possess up to one ounce of marijuana, permits existing medical marijuana dispensaries to sell recreational product, and allows for an additional 40 licenses vendors to be chosen by lottery. That’s not encouraging given that burdensome rules and taxes have already hobbled legalization efforts elsewhere.
“The state has taxed marijuana three separate times as it travels from farm to consumer. Many counties and cities impose their own taxes, at varying levels, on top of the state levies,” The Washington Post reported in August of California’s byzantine system which favors large corporate operations with the ability to navigate regulations. “California’s cannabis taxes come on top of licensing fees and regulatory permits, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars annually for growers, burying those who used to work without regulation in red tape and state invoices.”
The result is that legal products are often uncompetitive with what’s sold by underground vendors.
“Far from being eradicated, the black market is booming in plain sight, luring customers away from aboveboard retailers with their cheaper—if untested and unregulated—product,” the Los Angeles Times noted this month.
Other states seem determined to repeat errors made elsewhere.
“Since June 1, the New York’s Cannabis Control Board has issued 162 recreational cultivation licenses,” Bloomberg Tax observed in August. “Those fortunate enough to obtain one of New York’s recreational cannabis licenses will be forced to contend with a gauntlet of state and local taxes.”
New York also gives preference in license applications to those with marijuana convictions. Motivated by equity concerns, it’s a regulatory barrier intended to mold the market into a form preferred by lawmakers but guaranteed to keep many established dealers in the thriving illicit economy where participants do as they please.
Then again, even politicians can sometimes learn. Oregon eased some regulatory hurdles, California is eliminating the marijuana cultivation tax, and Washington reduced restrictions on who can get licenses. Economic reality functions with little regard for the desires of politicians; eventually, they’re forced to ease restrictions to match what buyers and sellers are willing to tolerate.
So, keep an eye on electoral results in November. Whatever else happens, there’s likely to be somewhat eased access to legal marijuana to either help your celebrations or else ease the pain.