Opinion polls and eager voters have been showing for some time now that Americans are increasingly open to legalizing marijuana on the federal level. A Gallup poll released Oct. 25, 2017, showed that 64 percent of U.S. citizens now support legalization — the highest in 50 years.
Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia already have approved medical marijuana on a local level, and eight states (and D.C.) have fully legalized it for recreational or personal use. Only four states in the union — Texas, Idaho, South Dakota and Kansas — don't have some law on the books that allows for the use of some form of marijuana (including cannabis oil) in one way or another.
When it comes to the U.S. federal government, though, pot is still considered bad stuff. It's still listed as a Schedule I drug, the worst among all illegal drugs, along with heroin, LSD and ecstasy. And if you're waiting for the feds to change that ... well, it'll probably be awhile. But things are changing.
"The biggest thing we have working against us is rapidly changing," Justin Strekal, the political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), says, "and that's just simply the demographics of the Americans who support the ongoing prohibition."
A Matter of Time?
Strekal is talking about the mostly white, mostly older crowd in many states — and in Congress, where any change to the Controlled Substances Act must take place — that is keeping the federal prohibition in place. Despite the findings of that recent Gallup poll, a solidly entrenched political class is not letting go.
The Republicans now in control in Washington are clearly anti-pot, especially some of the gatekeepers in charge of key Congressional committees. Those include House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, too, is firm in his stance. "We've got to reestablish first a view that you should say no. People should say no to drug use," he said in a speech to the Heritage Foundation on Oct. 25. "This whole country needs to be not so lackadaisical about drugs ... Much of the addiction starts with marijuana. It's not a harmless drug."
Many disagree with Sessions, including younger members of his own party making the laws in Congress and, if you believe the new Gallup poll, Republican voters. For the first time, the majority of Republicans — 51 percent — say they're for legalization.
And so here we are: Marijuana possession and use is illegal under federal law, and many want to keep it that way. But it's perfectly legal and has been widely accepted — in fact, it's a booming business — in a majority of U.S. states.
Still, what's the big deal? If it's OK on a state-by-state basis, who needs Washington's blessing? State's rights, right?
"We could get all 50 states to legalize it, and that'd be great," NORML's Strekal says, "but as long as the federal government still has the power to knock on your door and put you in jail, then they still have the power. That's still a prohibition."
Pushing for Change
The drive to remove marijuana from the federal no-no list has the support of millions, though sometimes for very disparate reasons.
Many believe, and a lot of science backs this up, that cannabis has legitimate medicinal value. Others simply want it for recreational use and point to research that says marijuana is much safer than booze.
Others see decriminalization of marijuana as a civil rights matter. In August 2017, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, introduced a far-reaching bill that not only would remove marijuana from Schedule 1 purgatory, but also would try to reverse the debilitating effects that criminalizing the drug has had on many during America's so-called War on Drugs. The bill calls for federal funds to go to states that change drug laws that unfairly impact poor people or people of color, and provides for judicial reviews for those in jail for marijuana offenses.
According to the ACLU, more than 8 million drug arrests were made between 2001-2010, putting hundreds of thousands into the criminal justice system. African-Americans were almost four times more likely to be arrested than whites for marijuana offenses, though blacks and whites use marijuana at roughly the same rate, the ACLU says.
"Descheduling marijuana and applying that change retroactively to people currently serving time for marijuana offenses is a necessary step in correcting this unjust system," Booker said in a statement at the release of his Marijuana Justice Act. "States have so far led the way in reforming our criminal justice system and it's about time the federal government catches up and begins to assert leadership."
Follow the Money
And then there are the businessmen. Sales of legal marijuana through September 2017 have surpassed more than $1 billion in both Washington state and Colorado. California's medical marijuana business was worth more than $2 billion in 2016, and when legal recreational use fully kicks in — voters approved it by ballot in 2016 and it becomes fully legalized in January 2018 — it could reach more than $5 billion a year, according to a study by the University of California, Davis.
That's good for the states' bottom line, too. Estimates are that California alone could pull in more than $1 billion a year in tax revenue from marijuana sales and regulation.
In all, according to the Tax Foundation, an independent tax policy research organization, "a mature marijuana industry could generate up to $28 billion in tax revenues for federal, state and local governments, including $7 billion in federal revenue: $5.5 billion from business taxes and $1.5 billion from income and payroll taxes."
Plenty of opposition to the movement still exists, not only from Congress and the current Trump administration, but from organizations like Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), which likens the ballooning marijuana industry to Big Tobacco, warning about the effect a hungry industry (perhaps to be swallowed up by Big Tobacco) will have on the nation's youth.
Given that pushback, the prohibition against marijuana on the federal level may not be lifted anytime soon, and almost certainly not under this administration. But at this point, with the polls and the voters speaking loud and clear, it's probably just a matter of time.