The Atlantic: Marijuana’s Moment

Article by Russell Berman, The Atlantic


Recreational marijuana users can now legally light up a joint in states representing about 5 percent of the U.S. population. By the time Americans wake up on November 9, that percentage could be swelling to more than one-quarter.

Measures to legalize and regulate the sale of cannabis are on the ballot in California, Arizona, Massachusetts, Maine, and Nevada, and recent polls show the “yes” vote is winning in all five states. Approval would mark the biggest advance yet for advocates in the decades-long fight over legalizing marijuana—one that they believe could ultimately force the federal government to end its prohibition of the drug.

“On November 8, you can safely say we’ve reached the tipping point if these go our way,” said Tom Angell, founder of the group Marijuana Majority. The most important battleground is California, where advocates expect voters to approve personal use of pot six years after they defeated a similar measure. Support for Proposition 64 is polling at nearly 60 percent, and the measure has drawn support from leading politicians and newspapers that opposed it in 2010, including Democratic Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom. The leading candidate for California’s open Senate seat, Kamala Harris, predicted Wednesday that voters would approve the law, although as the state’s attorney general she can’t formally take a position.

Medical marijuana has been legal in California for 20 years, and sanctioning its use more widely would surely exacerbate tensions with the Drug Enforcement Administration and Congress over enforcement of federal laws classifying cannabis as a drug. “Passing legalization in California will greatly accelerate our ability to end the federal prohibition,” Angell predicted in a phone interview on Thursday. Keith Stroup, the founder of pro-marijuana lobbying group NORML, said he believed victory in California would signal a point of no return for the legalization movement. “California is almost a nation-state,” he said. “Once we get California, other than to water down future proposals, I don’t think [opponents] will be able to defeat them.”

Congress in 2014 passed legislation barring the Justice Department from spending money to endorse federal laws against marijuana in states that have legalized the drug for medical purposes, and a federal appeals court in August upheld the congressional directive. An amendment to prohibit the Justice Department from prosecuting recreational marijuana use in states that have sanctioned it fell just nine votes short of passage in the Republican-controlled House. Before 2014, the Justice Department had continued launching raids on medical-marijuana dispensaries even in states where they’re legal, and while the feds don’t typically go after average users, the amendment would’ve prevented them from raiding shops and growers who are abiding by state laws.

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