Just Facts: Marijuana Legalization Points to a 'Greener' America

Just Facts: Tuesday’s results are the continuation of a growing pile of victories in ballot initiatives for legalization supporters.

November 5, 2014
Marijuana reform

See our interactive map of state marijuana laws here.

Voters were high on the Republican ticket on Tuesday. The GOP took back control of the Senate, and will likely end up with 53 or 54 seats. The party gained in the House too, with CNN projecting at least 246 GOP seats, its biggest majority since World War II.

Meanwhile, though, voters were also keen on something else: marijuana legalization. Pro-legalization ballot measures passed in Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C.

The D.C. measure passed with flying colors, 69 percent to 31 percent. The votes in Alaska and Oregon were tighter, 52-48 and 55-45, respectively.

Tuesday’s results are the continuation of a growing pile of victories in ballot initiatives for legalization supporters. In 2012, Colorado and Washington passed pro-legalization measures, and Massachusetts Montana passed measures furthering medical marijuana. In 2010, Arizona adopted a medical marijuana measure through a ballot initiative. (But, of course, marijuana remains illegal under federal law.)

With Tuesday’s results, possession of marijuana for recreational use is now legal or on its way to becoming legal in Alaska, Colorado, D.C., Oregon, and Washington state. There are also provisions for medical use in many other states. 

Another medical marijuana initiative in Florida received 58 percent of the vote, but failed as it required 60 percent to pass.

The measures passed in Alaska, Oregon and D.C. go beyond medical marijuana. They allow possession and sale for recreational use. This puts marijuana in these places almost on par with alcohol or tobacco (there is still a limit on the amount of possession or sale allowable under law).

While not a marijuana measure, California’s Proposition 47 also passed. The measure reclassifies many nonviolent crimes — including drug possession — from felonies to misdemeanors. The measure does not reclassify low-level marijuana possession, which was already an infraction or a misdemeanor under California law.

The pros and cons of marijuana legalization are complex. But the passage of the marijuana measures may reflect a slowly growing public acceptance of the drug (a poll from the Pew Center shows that 54 percent of Americans favor marijuana legalization), the success of medical arguments for its legalization, or the desire for more state tax revenue. However, the measures also have profound criminal justice implications.

It’s common knowledge now that the U.S. is the world’s leading incarcerator. Over two million people are incarcerated in America’s prisons and jails. However, little evidence exists of incarceration’s effectiveness in reducing future crime, especially at the current astronomical levels. And incarceration is very expensive.

For many, a drug arrest is the front door to the criminal justice system. More than 1.2 million arrests were made for drug possession in 2012, according to the U.S Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. Over half of these are for marijuana. A drug arrest, jail time and a criminal record can depress future job prospects, harming individuals and families, and in many cases unnecessarily populating jails and prisons.

In addition to curtailing incarceration levels, marijuana legalization may address issues of equity in criminal justice. The case for legalization in D.C., for example, was made explicitly in this light. The Washington Post reports that 88 percent of people convicted of marijuana possession in D.C. were black. However, studies show that black and white people use the drug at similar rates. “The people of D.C. have voted in favor of ending racially-biased marijuana prohibition,” said Malik Burnett, policy manager of the Drug Policy Alliance, in a statement. The D.C. measure, however, like all D.C. law, is subject to congressional review. In 1998, D.C. passed a similar marijuana legalization measure, but the funds to enact it were blocked by Republicans in Congress.

There is a growing trend — slowly but surely — in favor of reducing criminal penalties and punishment for low-level marijuana possession. It is likely not a coincidence that this trend coincides with the national emerging bipartisan consensus that our world-historically high incarceration rates need to be addressed. 

(Photo: AP)