California is looking like a shoo-in
In the delightfully dated late-’90s pot comedy Half-Baked, Jon Stewart played a so-called enhancement smoker, always asking smokers if they’d experienced mundane things (like the back of a $20 bill) “on weed.” Now, Stewart is an established political graybeard, and the rest of us are likely to find out in only a matter of days what huge new numbers of our fellow Americans—not to mention vast stretches of the economy—are like under the influence.
Yes, the pro-pot movement is on a roll, and 2016 could be its biggest year yet. In 2014, marijuana legalization was approved by voters in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., building on groundbreaking successes two years earlier in Colorado and Washington state. Thanks to ballot measures in Maine and Massachusetts, we could see New England join the Pacific Northwest and the Mountain West as green zones.
But the big news this year is that ballot approval in Arizona, Nevada, and California would link up legal pot’s hot spots into something rapidly taking shape as a truly national market. As hip as Seattle, Portland, and Denver may be, widespread recreational use in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas would be a game changer. Combine that with, say, Boston’s ready accessibility to New Yorkers and it’s easy to see how other state dominos connecting pot-friendly areas could fall one after the next. Already, voters from Arkansas and Florida in the south to Montana and North Dakota in the high plains will vote this week on medical pot referenda.
It’s a wave that has taken decades to gather such force and credibility. Reaching back to 1972, the year Hunter Thompson immortalized in fear and loathing, over 50 ballot measures touching marijuana regulation went before voters in 16 different states. And things got off to an inauspicious start. In 1972, California voters sank the first recreational weed initiative, and that form of use has remained illegal ever since. But the issue never really went away. Within a couple decades, talk had turned to clearing the way for medicinal pot, and in 1996, California’s Prop 215 did just that. Although the medical marijuana industry swiftly geared up, the absurdity of a regime that issued select permits for an illegal recreational drug, kept pot advocates pushing for general legalization.
WHO SUPPORTS LEGALIZATION
In 2010, California voters declined the offer, shooting down that year’s Prop 19. But this time, supporters of Prop 64 boast a sizable lead in the polls, and they’ve got a critical mass of establishment support on their side—from Silicon Valley to Sacramento. True believers, such as former Facebook chief Sean Parker, have dropped big bucks on the bud bid (almost $9 million came from Parker himself.) Ambitious officials, meanwhile, have sensed an opportunity to act progressively without taking on too much risk or political disfavor. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has made Prop. 64 a branding hallmark in his early-bird campaign to replace Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018, distinguishing himself from old-school Democrats, like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who want to keep pot illegal, while syncing himself up with the California’s libertarian-minded Republicans, who have favored looser marijuana laws for generations.
Outside California, of course, different players dominate the debate over legal weed. But the general contours of the controversy are the same. According to Pew Research Center, Popular opinion—“57% of U.S. adults say the use of marijuana should be made legal, while 37% say it should be illegal”—has shifted smoothly and dramatically in an increasingly pot-friendly direction. “ Pew also recently observed that “A decade ago, opinion on legalizing marijuana was nearly the reverse—just 32% favored legalization, while 60% were opposed.” Today, disagreement is largely over the practical consequences of full-bore legalization, which can’t be fully known until after the fact and over time, and will likely vary from place to place and subculture to subculture.
WHO’S AGAINST LEGALIZATION
Perhaps that’s part of the reason why, in bellwether California, not as much money—less than $3 million— has flowed toward opposing Prop. 64. Yet the cast of critics is even more interesting and revealing than the faces lined up in support of legal California green. Naturally enough, the state’s peace officers and hospital associations don’t like the idea. There’s also a host of municipalities scrambling to set up local pot bans, which would remain entirely legal under Prop. 64.
But a coalition of traditional progressives has also emerged to question the triumphalism surrounding legalization. Prop. 215 coauthor Dennis Peron is against it. Some environmentalists have also expressed grave concerns that marijuana cultivation is sucking up too much of the West Coast’s tenuous water supply. Pot plants are thirsty. And some of the poorer California communities that have thrown open their arms to cultivators, like Desert Hot Springs, are also among the state’s driest. Even some California pot farmers aren’t on board. As much as they’d benefit from lawful legitimacy, they fear the steep price of institutionalized pot: lower profit margins, higher costs and taxes, and daunting competition from big conglomerates and corporate players capable of buying and selling for big discounts at scale.
In other states without a long tradition of small cultivation under a partial legal umbrella, the debate around legalization has centered around a different issue: risks to kids. For years, opponents have insisted that, despite built-in safeguards and limits, recreational pot will wind up in the hands of ever more residents under the age of 21.
WHO WILL LIKELY PASS LEGALIZATION MEASURES
Even with the massive uncertainty still swirling around much of national politics, many pot watchers feel like they have a pretty good handle on what’s going to happen on Election Day. With California an apparent shoo-in, they’re feeling expansive; initiatives in Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada are all pegged for passage—with only Arizona upside down in public support. Medical pot seems poised for some setbacks, however (except in Florida). But the likes of Arkansas and North Dakota won’t chart the country’s course for marijuana law (sorry, small states). Big cities rule the culture and the markets. If celebratory voters can blaze up this week in Boston, Vegas, Miami, and LA, it’s hard to see how a great recreational cloud won’t soon stretch from sea to shining sea.