This year could be a watershed year in the fight against marijuana prohibition, following the successful effort to legalize recreational use of the drug in Colorado and Washington four years ago and Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia in 2014. Activists have placed measures on the ballot to allow for non-medical usage in five more states next month: Arizona, Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada, and the biggest prize of all, California.
This raft of legalization measures comes as the tide of national opinion has turned against prohibition. As the graph below illustrates, there’s been a sharp increase in support in recent years compared to even just a decade ago, when only 36 percent of Americans were in favor. But now, Gallup’s most recent poll found a record 60 percent of the public in favor of making marijuana legal.
Should these measures pass in all five states, recreational marijuana could become legal for almost one quarter of the country’s population. These measures could even give Hillary Clinton and downballot Democrats a boost by drawing in droves of young, left-leaning voters who otherwise wouldn’t turn out.
Several recent polls give legalization a good shot at passing in all five states, but success isn’t guaranteed. Maine and California likely represent the best chance for success, especially since a previous California measure only failed by 8 percent in 2010, a low-turnout midterm election saw Republicans generally perform very well. Polls in both states have almost all found the measures succeeding, and many high-profile Democrats support it in California. Similarly, Nevada also appears poised to legalize pot, but there, the movement has faced vociferous opposition from Las Vegas casino mogul and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, who has put millions behind anti-marijuana efforts in multiple states.
Massachusetts appears to be tougher, despite its ostensible liberal leanings. While several polls have found legalization succeeding, the margins are relatively close, and many members of the state’s Democratic establishment strongly oppose it. Arizona will likely be the hardest of the five, with many polls showing legalization failing, but there, the state Democratic Party recently came out in support of legalization.
While legalization is where the true battleground lies, activists have put in place ballot initiatives to allow medicinal marijuana in three new states this year: Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota. (Twenty-one states currently allow marijuana usage for medical reasons.) They’re also pushing to dramatically expand existing medical access to the drug in Montana. Florida already did vote in favor of a medical-marijuana measure in 2014, which attracted 58 percent of the vote. However, the Sunshine State requires a 60 percent supermajority for ballot measures like this to pass into law.
Fortunately for activists, polling shows medicinal marijuana poised to easily succeed in Florida this time, thanks in part to higher presidential-year turnout. Passage will likely be more difficult in other states, but if Florida backs the measure, over 60 percent of the country will live in states where marijuana usage is legal at least for medicinal purposes.
Since younger voters overwhelmingly favor legalization, and they do so at much higher rates than older voters, public opinion will likely continue to trend in favor of more liberal marijuana laws in the coming years. With more states legalizing pot, political pressure on Congress will continue to build, and we could one day even see federal legislation to regulate and loosen prohibitions on the drug. For now, though, changes in our marijuana laws are most likely to come at the ballot box.