'Tipping Point'? Voters Bring Sweeping Wins for Marijuana
"It's safe to say that no other reform was approved by so many citizens on so many ballots this year"
On a dismal election night, voters in four lucky states found something progressive to celebrate—recreational marijuana legalization.
California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada all voted to make it legal for adults over 21 to smoke weed, a sweeping mandate that many expect will prompt a legislative domino effect throughout the country.
Nowhere is that felt more strongly than in the politically influential state of California. Advocates have long said that if legalization passed there, other states would be likely to follow suit. Both California and Nevada's wins also help strengthen a West Coast "marijuana bloc," as the New York Times put it, joining Alaska, Washington, Colorado, and Oregon in making recreational use legal in their states and throughout the region.
Arizona, the final state considering full legalization, narrowly rejected its ballot measure. Medical marijuana remains legal in the state, however.
"Marijuana reform won big across America on Election Day—indeed it's safe to say that no other reform was approved by so many citizens on so many ballots this year," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), although he also cautioned that the election of Donald Trump threatens the advances made on Tuesday.
"The momentum for ending marijuana prohibition took a great leap forward with the victories in California and elsewhere, but the federal government retains the power to hobble much of what we've accomplished. The progress we've made, and the values that underlie our struggle—freedom, compassion, reason, and justice —will be very much at risk when Donald Trump enters the White House," he said.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) expressed a more optimistic view, telling the Times on Tuesday that the sweep would help pressure the federal government to lift the nationwide ban on marijuana and allow each state to make its own regulations. "The new administration is not going to want to continue this toxic and nonproductive war on drugs," he said.
Many other campaigners were also joyous. Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, said Wednesday, "Last night's results send a simple message—the tipping point has come. Voters have spoken clearly in states across the country. More than 16 million voters, including in two of the three most populated states in the nation, chose legal, regulated cannabis programs that promote safety, boost the economy, help sick patients, and address social injustices."
Indeed, the push for legalization in California was rooted in large part on the impact the measure would have on criminal justice reform in the state. One provision allows for individuals serving sentences for convictions that are made legal under Proposition 64 to appeal for resentencing. It also stipulates that anyone under 18 who is convicted of use or possession would not be sent to jail.
"With its carefully crafted provisions for helping to heal the damage caused by the war on marijuana to poor communities and people of color, Prop. 64 represents the new gold standard for how to legalize marijuana responsibly," said Lynne Lyman, DPA's California state director. "This not only protects youth from accessing marijuana products, it also protects them from being harmed by the criminal justice system."
Lauren Mendelsohn, who chairs the board of directors of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, told the Times, "I think of this victory in California as a major victory. It shows the whole country that prohibition is not the answer to the marijuana question."
Meanwhile, victories in Maine and Massachusetts mean that neighboring East Coast states may soon put legalization on their ballots, too. As New York State Assembly chair Richard Gottfried told WAMC before the election, "if Massachusetts moves forward with recreational use, that will help bring the day sooner when New York will do the same, and I think that would be a good thing."