After decades of tremendously costly repression, pot is finally going mainstream in the United States. A number of statewide legalization measures, an increasingly relaxed attitude in Washington and a shift in the national mood led to a number of critical gains for the normalization of marijuana nationally. Legalization seems to be hitting a tipping point, and like gay marriage is likely to gather steam on the state level and gain widespread cultural acceptance in coming years.
How did this happen? Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, contends that there are several sources for this sea change that became so evident over the past year.
There has been a generational shift in the population that commands the major institutions that govern our society (Baby Boomers have a more positive experience with marijuana than the World War II generation). The success of the introduction of medical marijuana at the state level in the 1990s paved the way for widespread acceptance. Since the mid-2000s, state-level politicians have been desperate for new sources of tax revenue (and are eager to drop militarized policies that drain it), and their temptations have grown.
In recent years, there's been a general cultural turn away from the War on Drugs as the public started to catch on to its failures. This has been enhanced by the arrival of the Internet, which has provided a forum for a rational counterculture to combat government-sponsored advertising against marijuana use on television.
All these factors have contributed in some way to marijuana's path toward mainstream legitimacy. Here are the key developments from a busy year for legal weed advocates:
1. Support for marijuana legalization surpassed 50% for the first time ever.
Polling by CNN/ORC shows that in the 1970s, close to a third of Americans supported legalizing marijuana. This sentiment dwindled over the course of the 1980s, tracking closely with the escalation of the War on Drugs. Since hitting its nadir in 1990, legalization has grown in popularity at a somewhat steady pace, and as of 2014 finally commands a majority of the public.
2. Recreational marijuana became legal in two more states.
In November, Alaska and Oregon joined Colorado and Washington as states that allow the consumption, sale and taxation of marijuana. Nineteen states allow marijuana for medical purposes, and 14 have decriminalized it. The legalization movement has gained significant momentum in recent years; expect the map above to sprout considerable amounts of green in the next decade.
3. The nation's capital legalized weed, too.
In November, a ballot measure legalizing the possession and cultivation of moderate amounts of marijuana passed in Washington, D.C. Unlike the initiatives passed in Alaska and Oregon, D.C.'s legalization doesn't include a tax-and-regulate model, but the city government is looking to put forward some legislation on the matter in 2015. This case of legalization is particular interest for drug policy observers, because the clash between local and federal laws on marijuana simply can't be ignored in the nation's capital. Congress could potentially interfere with D.C.'s marijuana policies in the coming year, although earlier attempts by Republicans on the Hill to do so failed.
4. Major cities benefit from decriminalization experiments.
Just one month after decriminalizing small portions of marijuana for personal use, Philadelphia saw a nearly-80% drop in marijuana arrests. That decrease has very concrete effects — every Philadelphian who isn't being chased by a police officer for taking a substance safer than alcohol is a Philadelphian without a criminal record and brighter prospects of getting a student loan, securing a job or joining the armed services. Meanwhile, police agencies are able to focus their limited resources on more pressing matters.
In November, New York City's mayor announced that the city's residents will no longer be arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Drug policy observers are keen to see the results.
5. Colorado's marijuana law has been a huge success.
Colorado's recent introduction of marijuana is already bringing in more than $30 million of taxable revenue a month and hasn't fulfilled any of the naysayers' fears of rampant crime. That being said, there have been a few fatalities associated with edible marijuana products, which have prompted advocates to devote resources to educating the public on the nuances of responsible consumption.
6. A U.S. senator supported marijuana legalization for the first time in history.
In October, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley became the first U.S. senator to publicly support marijuana legalization. He did so in an interview with Talking Points Memo in the run-up to the midterm elections, which included a ballot measure for fully legalizing marijuana in his home state. The ballot measure passed.
7. Members of Congress are pushing veterans to have access to medical marijuana.
Currently, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs bans its physicians from recommending or, when possible, prescribing medical marijuana to its patients. Given the American medical community's increasing support for marijuana as an effective method for treating post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain and a host of other conditions, a bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers co-sponsored a bill that challenges this ban.
While the bill is unlikely to garner substantial support, having a congressman remind people that nobody has ever overdosed on marijuana is a big deal and represents progress for a place that has served as the front line of the failed War on Drugs.
8. The Department of Justice expressed optimism about legal marijuana.
Outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder described himself as "cautiously optimistic" about Colorado and Washington's introduction of legal marijuana this year. In 2013, the Obama administration released a memo declaring that the Department of Justice wouldn't challenge state laws on marijuana legalization as long as they hew to certain rules regarding the sale and distribution of the drug, such as ensuring minors don't have access to it.
All in all, 2014 was a huge year in the history of the movement for legalized marijuana. And that's great news for pro-pot advocates and regular people alike.