Californians Legalize Marijuana in Vote That Could Echo Nationally

 In Legalization, Medical Marijuana, National News, Recreational Marijuana

SAN FRANCISCO — California, Massachusetts and Nevada legalized marijuana on Tuesday in what advocates said was a reflection of the country’s changing attitude toward the drug.

Leading up to the election, recreational marijuana use was legal in four states: Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, along with Washington, D.C.

With the addition of California, Massachusetts and Nevada, the percentage of Americans living in states where marijuana use is legal for adults rose above 20 percent, from 5 percent.

Representative Earl Blumenauer, Democrat of Oregon and a supporter of legalization, said Tuesday’s votes would add to the pressure on the federal government to treat cannabis like alcohol, allowing each state to decide on its own regulations.

“The new administration is not going to want to continue this toxic and nonproductive war on drugs,” Mr. Blumenauer said.

The federal government’s ban on the drug precludes the interstate sale of cannabis, even among the states that have approved its use. But Tuesday’s votes created a marijuana bloc stretching down the West Coast, and Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor of California, said he saw an opportunity for the states where recreational marijuana is now legal to “coordinate and collaborate” on the issue, including applying pressure in Washington to relax the federal ban.

A Gallup poll in October found nationwide support for legalization at 60 percent, the highest level in the 47 years the organization has tracked the issue.

Support is rising even though some public health experts warn that there have been insufficient studies of the drug’s effects and that law enforcement agencies lack reliable tests and protocols to determine whether a driver is impaired by marijuana.

Supporters in California portrayed legalization as both a social justice and a criminal justice issue, saying the measure would help redress the disproportionate numbers of arrests and convictions among minorities for drug crimes.

“I think of this victory in California as a major victory,” said Lauren Mendelsohn, the chairwoman of the board of directors of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a group that has campaigned against the government’s war on drugs. “It shows the whole country that prohibition is not the answer to the marijuana question.”

Ms. Mendelsohn spoke at a celebration in Oakland for the passage of Proposition 64, as California’s legalization measure was known.

Supporters of legalization in California vastly outspent opponents.

As of Nov. 6, pro-legalization committees in the state had raised around $23 million, according to the California secretary of state’s office. Chief among the backers were marijuana companies and tech entrepreneurs, including Sean Parker, a founder of the file-sharing service Napster and a former president of Facebook, who was the single largest donor to the campaign. The anti-legalization campaign had spent less than $2 million in California.

Kevin Sabet, the president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, one of the country’s major funders against marijuana legalization initiatives, attributed the imbalance in campaign spending to investments by marijuana companies hoping to profit if the industry was legalized.

“There’s a lot of money to be made if marijuana is legal, not a lot of money to be made if it remains illegal,” he said.

Opponents of legalization say the adoption of medical marijuana laws in more than 25 states has led to a popular perception that cannabis is good for you. They have called for more studies on the drug’s long-term effects, particularly on the developing brains of young people.

“There is likely medical promise in the marijuana plant, but that is different than saying smoked marijuana is medicine,” Mr. Sabet said. “We wouldn’t smoke the opium plant to get the beneficial effects of morphine.”

A bill to legalize marijuana in Vermont, supported by Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, failed earlier this year. But in Massachusetts, public support for legalization rose during the fall, even with bipartisan opposition from the state’s top elected officials — including Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, and Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat — and an organized anti-legalization campaign.

Lawmakers in Rhode Island were watching Massachusetts closely, and they are expected to take up a legalization measure of their own now that one has passed there.

Two other states — Arizona and Maine — were voting on recreational marijuana legalization Tuesday. Arizona voted against the measure. In Maine, a state with a libertarian streak that began decriminalizing marijuana decades ago, the referendum on legalization drew scant funded opposition.


Photo credit: Hilary Swift for The New York Times

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