A Quarter of the U.S. May Soon Live Where Weed is Legal

The 17 million people who already live in states where voters have legalized marijuana are on the vanguard of something huge.

A Quarter of U.S. May Soon Live Where Weed Is Legal

It's been a good couple of years for advocates for legalizing marijuana. Washington and Colorado took the historic step of legalizing the substance in 2012. Alaska and Oregon followed in 2014. Public opinion in support of legalization even tipped over the 50 percent line

So what's next? On the federal level, weed is still very much illegal and the Republican-led Congress isn't moving to change that any time soon. (In fact, they are moving in the opposite direction, taking action to block legalization from happening in Washington, D.C.)

But it's important to note that the federal level hasn't really been the primary battleground in this fight in years past, and that's not changing. Following the model pursued in states like Colorado, advocates have targeted at least 11 states for legalization by 2017. That would mean 86 million—86 million—people may be living in states with legalized marijuana in just a few years. 

It's a dynamic the Obama administration is grappling with on a regular basis. The Justice Department has attempted to split the difference by telling its attorneys and law enforcement agents to shift resources (and focus) away from states that have legalized the substance. Attorney General Eric Holder this week more or less called on Congress to start a robust debate on the issue. 

"This is something that would be well informed by having congressional hearings and congressional action informed by, you know, a policy determination that I think the administration would ultimately be glad to share," Holder said in response to a question about the issue during Nov. 17 remarks at the National Press Club in Washington. 

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Bloomberg Graphics

With federal changes unlikely, the focus remains on the states, and the pathways toward legalization vary. In Maine, a series of local initiatives have set the table for a state-wide push in 2016. In Rhode Island, advocates are blitzing state lawmakers for a legislative push. From Hawaii to New Hampshire, advocates—and their state-based polling—make clear that the residents who voted in four states (and the District of Columbia) to legalize marijuana will hardly be the last. That's something even President Barack Obama appears to recognize. 

"We're not going to spend a lot of resources trying to turn back decisions that have been made at the state level on this issue," Obama said during a YouTube interview last month. "My suspicion is that you're going to see other states start looking at this."

 

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