Marijuana Legalization Nationwide: Will it Ever Happen?

marijuana plants growing in field
Marijuana plants | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

In some cases, marijuana legalization seems like it should be a game of dominos. If you get enough states to move in the right direction, the laws banning marijuana use should come tumbling down. In reality, previous years have shown us that legalization efforts are a bit more like chess: states like Oregon and Washington strategically allow recreational marijuana, while other states watch carefully to develop their own plans.

But as 2016 marches along, an analogy to dominos could become more likely. We’re continuing to see big strides toward widespread marijuana legalization, and it could be only a matter of time until the entire nation is seeing green. Of course, a few major steps still have to happen before that’s possible.

Where does legalization stand now, and what are some key linchpins that could open the doors to nationwide marijuana acceptance? Take a look at the updates, and what’s ahead for marijuana in the upcoming months.

Medical marijuana

Though marijuana legalization has seen a much greater push in the past few years, medical marijuana has been allowed in some parts of the country since 1996, when California became the first state to allow the use of cannabis to treat certain health conditions. Several states have since passed similar legislation, though the details vary by location. (Track that progress with these charts.)

As of mid-April, Pennsylvania took the tally to 24 states plus the District of Columbia that allow people to use marijuana for medical purposes. According to the Marijuana Policy Project, about 61% of Americans now live in a state that allows medical marijuana treatments for certain ailments, which can include cancer side effects, PTSD, and seizures caused by a number of long-term diseases.

Pennsylvania is the first state in 2016 to make marijuana moves, but it likely won’t be the last. After a crushing defeat of a full-legalization bill last November, Ohio is once again looking to pass legislation that supports marijuana legalization. USA Today credited the previous proposal loss to the fact that the ballot measure last year would have gone from completely prohibiting marijuana to allowing full adult use — both medical and recreational. The business model also concerned voters, who made their doubts known. The new legislation, which ABC News said is on an “aggressive schedule,” would allow licensed doctors to prescribe edibles, oils, and other marijuana byproducts. Moving to a medical marijuana distribution before full-scale legalization may be the key in a state where adoption is still somewhat slow.

Florida is expected to have a medical marijuana initiative on its ballots in November, and another five states may have ballot measures that would allow marijuana to be regulated similarly to alcohol, according to the Marijuana Policy Project. The MPP also breaks down current marijuana legislation by state, so you can read more about those proposals.

Recreational marijuana

man sniffing marijuana product
Smelling marijuana product | David Ryder/Getty Images

Recreational marijuana, or marijuana available for adults regardless of medical conditions, still holds at four states plus the District of Columbia. Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C. joined the ranks of Colorado and Washington in 2014, each state rolling out their processes on its own timeline.

Though we’ll need several more years to track economic trends, all evidence points to marijuana being a huge moneymaker for states. Marijuana sales are heavily taxed, especially for non-medical use, and state governments are some of the biggest recipients of that newfound legal cash flow. In its first month of recreation sales, Oregon netted $3.5 million. Washington brought in a reported $70 million over the course of its first year of sales, and Colorado won the rat race, receiving $135 million in 2015.

Those states might not be the only ones raking in the cash for long. Leafly, a leading marijuana retailer and marijuana news site, says full marijuana legalization is “almost a sure thing” in Nevada, California, Vermont, and Arizona by the end of 2016. Connecticut, Michigan, and Rhode Island could also see movement on the recreation front. Several other states, including Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Maine, Missouri, and Ohio also have projects in the works that could lead to full legalization this year, but Leafly isn’t as optimistic in those cases.

Federal marijuana laws

The one factor that could likely make almost every state fall like black-spotted white tiles is a federal change of heart in its marijuana laws. The federal government still considers marijuana to be a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it’s on the same level as heroin and isn’t deemed useful for anything — even medical research.

As states have begun changing their own laws one by one, the federal government has kept quiet. Not endorsing the actions, per se, but also not enforcing laws that could stop the whole thing from happening at all. A recent letter from the Drug Enforcement Agency indicates it is at least willing to allow medical research, though it does not indicate if or when the government will lift the Schedule 1 ruling.

Until that happens, the race toward marijuana legalization will likely be one that is won by the tortoise — slow and steady, state by state. It’s important to remember that not everyone is completely on board with legalization — there are plenty of Americans who will still say no to pro-marijuana initiatives of any kind.

Still, marijuana is one of the few topics that can still inspire bipartisan efforts in lawmakers. One such example is the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act, or CARERS Act. This bill, at the federal House of Representatives and the Senate, would decriminalize medical marijuana possession for people in states that have already approved medical marijuana laws. Among other things, it would protect patients and doctors operating in those states from any fear of federal punishment or interference. It’s not national legalization by any means, but it would offer more protections, likely prompting additional states to pass their own legalization efforts.

The diversity of lawmakers in their political ideologies and represented regions is notable, Brookings Institution senior fellow John Hudak points out. “In an era—and in a city—that is characterized by antipathy across parties, hyperpolarization, and seemingly unending gridlock, marijuana has an interesting effect on Congress: it brings lawmakers together,” Hudak wrote.

Marijuana legalization in all forms still has a long way to go before it becomes the norm. But when Congressmen in Washington can rally around a bill together, there just might be a chance that nationwide legalization is possible.

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