Marijuana Legalization

By | Updated Feb 23, 2017 11:07 PM UTC

Americans have changed their minds about weed. 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. Eight U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized pot for recreational use, permitting a fifth of Americans to consume weed freely in their home states. Meanwhile, legalization is gaining acceptance in other countries.

The Situation

In November referendums to legalize weed for recreational use, voters in Massachusetts, Nevada, Maine and California — the largest state by population — said yes. Voters in Arizona turned down the measure. A majority of states have legalized its medical use, including three in November. President Donald Trump could muddy the outlook, however. Trump has said states should determine their own weed rules, but Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, on Feb. 23 said he expects to see greater enforcement of laws prohibiting recreational use. (Federal law bans marijuana for all uses.) He said the issue rests with the Justice Department, where Attorney General Jeff Sessions could change the current policy, dating to 2013, of not interfering with legalization measures. Legal weed generated an estimated $3 billion in sales in the U.S. in 2015. 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 2016 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. About 620,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in the U.S. in 2014, more than those arrested for all violent crimes. Twenty-one 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 in August denied a petition to remove marijuana from the list of Schedule 1 drugs that includes heroin, LSD and Ecstasy. They did, however, agree to allow additional research into the drug's medical benefits, proof of which could help get it reclassified. Weed's presence on the Schedule 1 list deters banks from providing accounts to the burgeoning pot industry.

The Argument

Legalization advocates make the case that cannabis is safer than alcohol. They argue that making weed legal 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 Trump's predecessor, 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. The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that chronic use of marijuana inhibits brain development, causes breathing problems and has been linked to mental illness, including worsening symptoms for those with schizophrenia. 

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 writers of this QuickTake:

Jennifer Kaplan in New York at

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