IN A COUNTRY WHERE AN 18 year old can buy an assault rifle and where overdoses from prescription pain killers are at an all-time high, the consumption, possession, sale, production, and shipment of cannabis are still illegal under US federal law. Most commonly known by the Mexican-Spanish slang marijuana, the substance is all but ubiquitous in contemporary American society, with nearly half of Americans saying they’ve tried cannabis. Luckily for free spirits and critically ill Americans alike, the federal government has allowed that if a state passes a law to legalize medical or legal cannabis, they can do so under the condition that regulatory measures are also introduced.
With the Obama presidency came a shift in the legal climate. In 2009 Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder declared “It will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana, but we will not tolerate drug traffickers who hide behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal.”
What does legalization look like?
It’s now completely legal to purchase and consume cannabis for recreational use in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. The foreign spectator of the green revolution need not be surprised: the American west has always maintained a strong tradition of upholding Libertarian values and pragmatism while honoring the union and the rule of law.
Colorado, was the first state to legalize recreational pot in 2014, and any observer of the emerging market can’t help but see green. Mile High state dispensaries’ sales clocked in around $700 million dollars in 2014, and rose to over $950 million in 2015. Conveniently for the state economy, a 10% special cannabis tax and the ubiquitous 2.9% sales tax are applied to every sale. Also, licenses to grow, sell, and produce in the industry come with significant fees paid to the state. Tax and fees collected in 2014 amounted to over $76 million in 2014 and $135 million in 2015.
Coloradoans can rejoice in knowing their tax dollars are being put to good use: Annually, the first $40 million of the cannabis tax is dedicated to reinvestment in the public school infrastructure. Revenue from taxation is being directed towards marijuana education and prevention programs, bullying prevention programs, drop-out prevention school grants, youth mentoring services, substance abuse treatment, and impaired-driving enforcement training for peace officers.
Creating an economy out of thin air has helped push Colorado down to only a 6% unemployment rate, one of the lowest in the country, and has added an estimated 200,000 jobs in 2015 alone.
Legalization doesn’t just belong to the hippies, and it doesn’t look the same everywhere
The details vary from state to state but there are some common threads to most of the recreational laws — a minimum age of 21, not driving/flying while high, limits on the amounts an individual can possess, etc. For example, in Oregon, you can buy seeds and plants for personal cultivation whereas any form of ganja gardening is illegal in both Colorado and Washington.
Retail dispensaries have emerged in style with no shortage of product varieties and brands. If you are envisioning a dark, seedy backroom bodega reminiscent of a Frank Miller film, think again. The modern urban dispensary is marked by unique and thoughtfully curated tones. Hardwood floors, subtly integrated colors, warm music and soft light all indicate that the store owners acknowledge the importance of the vibe.
Outside of ‘Uncle Ike’s’ dispensary in Seattle, I saw an impressively wide sampling of Seattle’s demographic going in an out. Men in suits, hipsters, middle aged moms, senior citizens, Hispanics, Asian Americans — anything goes.
At the ground level of consumption, the free market is unfolding in true American fashion. Flowers (buds), concentrates, edibles, infused coconut oils, and cannabutter are just a few examples of products for sale the can get you legally stoned. For the consumer who is trying to avoid the harsh health effects of smoke inhalation, concentrates and edibles are a great way to get stoned and not cough up a lung.
THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in Cannabis, is easily extracted through the plant’s essential oils. These extraction methods have allowed for a medley of THC-infused products, which are legally obligated to be labeled with the percentage of THC it contains. The average cannabis flower contains 15%-20% THC.
What will politicians and voters do about legalization in the future?
So what does the future hold for Cannabis? The election will undoubtedly have an impact on the state of legal cannabis. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee has expressed support for increasing research on the medical benefits of marijuana, and for removing Cannabis from Schedule 1 drug classification, therein reducing penalties for possession and cultivation. Cannabis critics have expressed doubt of her sincerity, citing her traditional support for pharmaceutical companies who stand to lose profits from legalization.
Regardless of Hillary’s perceived sincerity, the Democratic National Committee has announced a sincere commitment to Cannabis reform in the 2016 platform. Democrats want to do away with criminal penalties, accelerate medical research of the plant, and embrace the boom that legalization offers.
In an amazing pro-cannabis proclamation, the party announced: “We believe that the states should be laboratories of democracy on the issue of marijuana, and those states that want to decriminalize marijuana should be able to do so. We support policies that will allow more research to be done on marijuana, as well as reforming our laws to allow legal marijuana businesses to exist without uncertainty. And we recognize our current marijuana laws have had an unacceptable disparate impact, with arrest rates for marijuana possession among African-Americans far outstripping arrest rates among whites despite similar usage rates.”
In recent times, Republicans have enjoyed ties to businesses benefitting from the illegality of cannabis. Their connections to the industrial prison complex, run by private companies and filled with low level drug offenders — made possible largely by Reagan’s War on Drugs — has long been a part of the Republican agenda. Donald Trump, while not a traditional conservative, has traditionally held an ethics-free, pro-business platform.
In 1990 he publicly supported legalization but has recently taken a step back, “>giving a classic Trump non-answer that was nonetheless promising: “In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state. … Marijuana is such a big thing. I think medical should happen — right? Don’t we agree? I think so. And then I really believe we should leave it up to the states.”
More and more American voters are being given the power to decide their states’ position on legal cannabis. Measures to legalize cannabis will be on the ballots this November in California, Arizona, and Nevada. The latest polling numbers indicate that up to 60% of California voters are in favor of legalization. This isn’t to say the ballot measure isn’t receiving a less-than-stellar reception from establishment groups ranging from the police, prison guards unions, the alcohol industry, big pharma, and already-established medical growers.
We are entering a new era in the country’s relationship with Cannabis. Given the successes of Washington and Colorado, the implications of growth in California, the world’s 6th biggest economy, are significant. Nevada, the state with the highest unemployment in the lower 48, could stand from an opportunity to create more jobs in spaces from agriculture to lab testing to retail. Cannabis, a plant which has been honored and appreciated for thousands of years is giving the USA a chance to grow together, so why fight it?