In Marijuana Policy, States Lead the Way

This November’s election could be a decisive turning point in the struggle to end U.S. marijuana prohibition. ​It’s been a long time coming.

As recently as the 90s, every major political faction was squarely in favor of prohibition. Only drug-addled hippies and libertarians thought otherwise. With just a few honorable exceptions, every significant public intellectual supported prohibition too. We libertarians walked a lonely road, patiently pointing out prohibition’s high costs and doubtful benefits. In some ways we’re still alone, because we certainly wouldn’t stop with marijuana. But let’s consider what progress we’ve made.

In November’s election, five states – Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada – may each legalize recreational marijuana for adults. State-level opinion polling is notoriously unreliable, but so far it’s favorable in Maine and Nevada​, and overwhelmingly favorable in California. It’s unfavorable in Arizona and Massachusetts, though the Massachusetts poll only asked a generic marijuana legalization question and did not reference the specific initiative. If recent history is any guide, things look good for this November: Of the seven legalization initiatives offered to voters since 2012, five have passed, in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Washington DC.

Things look especially good in California, which is poised to be a nationwide gamechanger. ​​California’s Proposition 64 is up by almost a 2:1 margin​, and​ the Los Angeles Times predict​s​ passage as well. If ​Prop 64​ does pass, the statewide implementation of a generous recreational pot regime – in the nation’s most populous state – is sure to have some significant economic and regulatory effects.​ It could hardly do otherwise.​

Some nationwide economic effects of legalization have already been seen. Marijuana prices nationwide have flattened or declined as new large-scale suppliers have come online. Seasonal price fluctuations seem to be disappearing as growers increasingly work in the open. And still-illegal Mexican growers have had to abandon marijuana because they can’t compete with the domestic ​free market, small as it​ still​ is.

And again, California is no ordinary state; already it produces more marijuana than Mexico – and by one estimate it​s medical marijuana regime​ grows nearly half the total legal U.S. production. And​ that’s ​before the near-certain growth of the industry in a recreational regime.

All this suggests that when California goes fully legal, the federal ​government ​will ​have to react somehow. ​The DEA has​ been reluctant to reschedule cannabis so far, but already many activists are dismissing the DEA’s Schedule I classification as irrelevant. Rob Kampia of the Marijuana Policy Project writes:

State and federal laws are simply two coexistent systems. But 99 percent of all marijuana arrests are made under state and local laws, not federal law. There simply aren’t enough DEA agents and other federal enforcers to wage an inclusive war on marijuana users, and the federal government cannot require states to enforce federal law on behalf of the federal government…

So we don’t really care whether marijuana is in Schedule I or II. In fact, my organization and other advocates of marijuana legalization don’t desire rescheduling, but rather the removal of federal penalties for marijuana and, furthermore, an explicit recognition that states should be able to determine their own policies without federal interference.

As more and more states legalize, that Schedule I classification looks more and more ridiculous.​ Soon the federal government may have to decide whether to follow the states – and the will of the people – or whether to crack down on legalization. But as time goes on, cracking down looks more and more illegitimate, and inaction looks more and more like a joke. Something’s got to give.