The Volokh Conspiracy

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A good election night for marijuana legalization [Updated with a discussion of California Proposition] 47


The 2014 election was a successful one for marijuana legalization. Referendum initiatives legalizing recreational marijuana passed in Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia. Florida's legalization amendment (which was limited to medical marijuana) failed, but only because victory required a 60% supermajority (it got just over 57% percent). A medical marijuana initiative did pass in the Pacific island territory of Guam.

Coming on the heels of the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington in 2012, this is a further sign of pro-legalization momentum, and perhaps of dissatisfaction with the War on Drugs more generally— even among some conservatives.

For the moment, marijuana is still illegal under federal law. Legally speaking, state referenda cannot change that. The Obama administration's response to legalization in Colorado and Washington was not as aggressive as it could have been, but falls far short of abjuring federal marijuana prosecutions in those states. But as more states legalize, there will be further pressure on the federal government to cut back on its own War on Drugs, and possibly repeal the federal law criminalizing the sale and distribution of marijuana.

UPDATE: While it is not a legalization initiative as such, it important to note that California voters adopted Proposition 47, an referendum question that lowers the penalty for most types of drug possession to a misdemeanor. As Lauren Galik of the Reason Foundation emphasizes, it is significant that this measure passed by a large majority, with little organized opposition, and considerable support from conservatives, including former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

Obviously, the federal government can still prosecute such cases under federal drug laws, which provide for much higher penalties. But doing so would require a substantial commitment of federal resources that Washington may be unwilling to commit, especially given the looming federal budget crisis. At the very least, the lopsided success of Proposition 47 is a further indication that public and elite opinion is gradually turning against the War on Drugs.

UPDATE #2: It is perhaps only a minor milestone. But Guam's legalization of medical marijuana is the first such reform adopted by a US territory.