The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Oregon recently became the third state to legalize the sale of recreational marijuana. But unlike the massive national and international attention that greeted legalization in Colorado and Washington in 2012, Oregon's new policy has not attracted much public reaction:
What if we legalized marijuana and no one really cared?
That's the overwhelming feeling I get standing inside Zion Cannabis in downtown Portland as customers buy marijuana from the friendly staff five days after legalized marijuana legislation went into effect Oct. 1.
No muss, no fuss.
Oregon is the third American state to legalize recreational marijuana sales, following neighboring Washington, where legal pot debuted in the summer of 2014, and Colorado, where cannabis has been legal since Jan. 1, 2014. Hardly anyone is paying attention.
Alaska also recently legalized recreational marijuana—arguably attracting even less national attention than Oregon. Today, unlike in 2012, marijuana legalization seems relatively normal, as opposed to a sensational departure from longstanding policy. This is an important sign of progress for the cause of legalization.
Both elite and public support for legalization has grown rapidly in recent years. Survey data shows that support for legalization is inversely correlated with age, which implies that it will continue to grow as the process of generational replacement continues. Within the Millenial generation, even 63% of Republicans support legalizing marijuana. A number of conservative political leaders and policy analysts have also become more skeptical about the War on Drugs.
Experts expect that many more states will legalize marijuana in the next few years, most notably California, which is likely to pass a legalization referendum next year. In 2010, Californians only narrowly rejected Proposition 19, at which time I predicted that things were likely to be different in the near future.
Marijuana legalization is still opposed by an unlikely coalition of strong social conservatives and the United Nations. But it definitely has strong political momentum on its side.
To be completely clear, I do not claim that marijuana should be legalized merely because majority public opinion now supports it. Having written a book on political ignorance, I recognize that the fact that a policy enjoys majority support is at best only a weak consideration in its favor. But I do support legalization nonetheless because it will increase individual freedom, and mitigate some of the terrible harm caused by the War on Drugs. As conservative icon William F. Buckley put it in 1995, "it is outrageous to live in a society whose laws tolerate sending young people to life in prison because they grew, or distributed, a dozen ounces of marijuana."
Legalization advocates still have a long way to go before they can claim final victory. Even if many more states abolish their laws banning marijuana, the federal law banning remains in force. Even if it is not enforced very often, its very existence is a deterrent to investment in marijuana production and distribution. Enforcement could expand with a change in public opinion, or the election of a hostile presidential administration. So far, there has not been much in the way of a serious effort to repeal the federal law. Hopefully, that will change in the next few years.
Even if marijuana is fully legalized in the next few years, it will only be the start of the larger struggle to end the War on Drugs as a whole. Most of the enormous harm inflicted by that war is caused by the banning of other drugs. Although skepticism about the War on Drugs is growing on both left and right, as yet there is little public support for legalizing currently banned drugs other than marijuana.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the current wave of state-level marijuana legalization is not the end of the War on Drugs. It isn't even the beginning of the end. But hopefully it will turn out to be the end of the beginning of its demise.