Marijuana Legalization

By | Updated July 7, 2016 5:20 PM UTC

Americans have changed their minds about pot. In less than a generation, public opinion has turned against the drug laws that banned marijuana, a historic shift in attitudes away from prohibition and penalties. In four U.S. states and the District of Columbia, pot is now legal for recreational use, driving the debate about how it should best be regulated, consumed and taxed as it gains acceptance across the U.S. and in other countries.

The Situation

Nevada and Florida have referendums on legalizing weed scheduled for 2016, and proponents of medical or recreational legalization are working to add their issue to ballots in about a dozen other states including California — the largest state by population. Legal weed — joints and pot-laced consumables like chocolates and mints — generated an estimated $3 billion in sales in the U.S. in 2015. Voters in Washington and Colorado were the first to approve recreational use of marijuana in ballot measures in 2012, followed by Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia two years later. Though marijuana is still an illegal substance under U.S. federal law, the Justice Department said it won’t challenge the state statutes. Since 2013, a number of polls have shown that a majority of Americans think pot should be legal. In 1969 — the year of Woodstock — just 12 percent agreed, pointing to a generational shift that’s propelling acceptance of other trends like same-sex marriage. Marijuana hasn’t gained legitimacy everywhere in the U.S., however. Ohio voters in 2015 rejected a ballot measure to legalize it for medical and recreational use. Uruguay became the first country to legalize marijuana in 2013, defying an international drug treaty. The Latin American nation’s president urged bigger countries to reconsider their strategy in the drug war. Mexico's president said in April that he wanted to ease laws that punish marijuana consumers. Mayors in the Netherlands, which has tolerated pot smoking in its coffee shops since the 1970s, called on the Dutch government to start regulating growers and sellers, mirroring the U.S. approach.

Sources: Gallup, General Social Survey, Pew Research, AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research

The Background

Cannabis has been used since ancient times for its fiber in addition to its medicinal and mood-altering effects. It was effectively outlawed in the U.S. in the 1930s, at about the same time that a 13-year prohibition on alcohol was overturned through a constitutional amendment. Pot was demonized by the 1936 black-and-white cult film “Reefer Madness,” a cautionary tale of corrupted teens. Support for legalization in the U.S. grew after states began permitting medical use of the plant to treat pain and nausea in patients with AIDS and cancer. California was the first state to allow it in 1996 and now 25 do. About 620,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in the U.S. in 2014, more than those arrested for all violent crimes. Twenty U.S. states and several countries have passed laws decriminalizing possession, so that getting caught with a small amount is treated as a minor offense. Even with wider acceptance in the U.S., the clash of federal and state laws has created uncertainty over what’s legal and where. Federal authorities say they are considering whether to remove marijuana from the list of Schedule 1 drugs that includes heroin, LSD and Ecstasy. If that happens, banks will be more likely to provide accounts to the burgeoning pot industry.

The Argument

Advocates in the U.S. successfully compared pot with alcohol, arguing that legalization would allow for better monitoring of an industry that has long existed underground. It also provides tax revenue, and Colorado collected $135 million in state taxes and fees from 240 dispensaries in 2015. The growing number of Americans who acknowledge that they have smoked pot include President Barack Obama, who has spoken out about how poor and minority kids account for a disproportionate share of those punished for its use.  Critics say easing marijuana laws exposes children and teenagers to the drug and could lead to an increase in drugged driving. Chronic use of marijuana inhibits brain development, causes breathing problems and has been linked to mental illness, including worsening symptoms for those with schizophrenia, according to the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse

The Reference Shelf

  • Bloomberg Markets magazine discovered an investor frenzy for marijuana-related products.
  • A map of shops licensed to sell marijuana for recreational use in Denver.
  • U.S Justice Department memo from August 2013 on marijuana enforcement policy.
  • Details on the state of Washington’s implementation of legal marijuana use, and the same from Colorado.
  • Website of NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project, two advocacy groups for legalization.
  • U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse website on marijuana.
  • Bloomberg compiled a ranking of companies prospering from the marijuana business.

First published March 11, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Alison Vekshin in San Francisco at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Lisa Beyer at