Marijuana legalization under the new Congress is likely to continue its current path — slow and steady, but sure, experts say.
“The next Congress will see another slate of pro-cannabis reform bills introduced — more like reintroduced — ranging from legalization to medical access to industrial hemp to banking regulations to sentencing,” said Allen St. Pierre, executive director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “However, like in this Congress, the prospects of these bills actually passing both houses of Congress are practically non-existent.”
Despite a steady stream of state laws approving marijuana for medical and sometimes recreational use, the drug is still illegal under federal law. But that could change if reformers win in the right places, St. Pierre said.
“Where is the tipping point in America for cannabis legalization? A bellwether state legalizing cannabis, most notably California,” he said.
Marijuana legalization may follow a similar track as same-sex marriage, according to Dr. Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science and international affairs and director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington.
I would anticipate the most effective strategy for the legalization folks is to focus on other ballots.Dr. Stephen Farnsworth
If advocates continue on the path they’re going, Farnsworth said, the movement could grow.
“The strategy for marijuana legalization is to stick with what’s working,” he said. “Voter referenda seem to be a very appealing scenario for getting support. I would anticipate the most effective strategy for the legalization folks is to focus on other ballots — and to do it in states that have a significant culture of independence or libertarianism or both. I think of Maine as a compelling test state.”
Farnsworth added that Congress may not be too keen to take up the matter just yet, because it could divide Republicans at a time when they’ve just gained control of both chambers.
“I think the Republican Party is increasingly split on marijuana legalization,” he said. “Obviously, there’s the remnants of Reagan’s ‘just say no’ in the party, but there’s also a growing enthusiasm for more libertarianism.”
Michael Collins, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, pointed out that his organization has worked with both major parties on marijuana reform.
“We passed legislation on the House side with 49 Republicans,” Collins said. “For us, the fact that Republicans have taken control of the Senate doesn’t really change anything.”
America is reaching a point where supporting marijuana reform isn’t so damning to a politician’s career, Collins added.
“The New York Times coming out in favor of ending federal prohibition kind of gives politicians an idea where the public is on this,” he said.
In 2013, Gallup reported that a majority of Americans supported legalizing the drug — for the first time since the organization began tracking the topic in 1969. A record 58 percent of Americans responded in favor of legalization.
Legalization still has majority support in 2014, according to Gallup, but it’s down to 51 percent of Americans.
St. Pierre emphasized the importance of winning over female voters — specifically, mothers.
Some opponents of legalization have raised concerns about children using the drug, Collins said, but he stressed that regulating marijuana could actually prevent children from using it.
“Under prohibition, kids have access to marijuana on every street corner in America,” he said. “We’re trying to reduce marijuana use among children and get it off the black market.”
Though Congress has yet to directly address the matter, voters in the nation’s capital recently approved small-scale growing and possession of cannabis plants — a move that could have consequences beyond the nation’s borders, according to Collins.
“It sends a message internationally to other countries that have been subject to the drug war with the U.S.,” he said. “There is an opportunity to reform their drug laws without U.S. intervention.”
Collins added that Congress’ inaction on marijuana might not be about the issue itself, but the difficulty of the legislative process in general.
“It’s very hard to get anything passed, any big standalone piece of legislation,” he said.
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