The United States of Pot Laws

Brandy Zadrozny
The United States of Pot Laws

More and more people in the U.S. are just saying yes to America’s favorite drug, and state legislatures are working hard to keep up with the budding demand.

In an April 2013 poll, Americans said for the first time in decades that marijuana should be legal. Other surveys followed, the most recent of which found that 58 percent of the people—an all-time high and double the support it received just 15 years ago—think it should be completely legal.

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As a result of this growing advocacy, laws that regulate marijuana use are changing, and quickly, leaving the federal government to figure out just how to deal with local governments that enact laws that conflict with national policy.

Twenty states have passed legislation to allow medical marijuana since California became the first to do so in 1996. Sixteen states have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. As for all-out legalization, both Colorado and Washington approved the recreational use of marijuana by adults in the 2012 election, and other states are positioned to follow suit.

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So to the burning question: in which states can law-abiding residents expect to get high next? The answer might be as simple as supply and demand.

According the the National Conference of State Legislatures, nine states and D.C. have introduced legislation to legalize recreational marijuana use by adults: Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. Similar moves are anticipated in Alaska, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin.

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Most of these states have some not-so-surprising thing in common: their residents are more likely to be regular marijuana users. Using the most recent data from the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration’s annual survey on drug use and polling data, it’s easy to see which states have the grassroots support needed to spawn legislative action.

Looking at marijuana use next to state laws, it’s clear that the larger the smoking population, the more progressive the laws surrounding the drug get. Of the 27 states and D.C. with some sort of marijuana law, 21 have a higher percentage of marijuana smokers than the national average, and the states with the most users—Rhode Island, Alaska, Vermont and Oregon, with over one and a half times the national average of around seven percent—have both legalized medical marijuana and decriminalized its usage. Conversely, of the 24 states with no progressive marijuana laws, 21 fall below the national average when it comes to percent of regular users.

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So who is most likely to be next?

Mark A.R. Kleiman, professor of Public Policy at UCLA who studies drug policy, told The Daily Beast that “everyone’s saying Alaska.” Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) agreed that the 49th state was the one to watch.

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Graham Boyd, policy expert and former Director of the ACLU Drug Reform Project, warned that “so much has to do with the campaign process: meetings, deadlines, polling, raising funds, that sort of thing.” He also says that ballot initiatives that measure the will of the people have a lot greater chance than bills that have to make it through state houses. Without that mechanism, he says, “it doesn’t matter if 90 percent of the voters support it. It only matters if half of the legislatures support it.”

Overall, the data seems to support that if you smoke it, the laws will come. Using marijuana use statistics, legislative action, and state-level polling as a guide, here are the states with the best chance of making it legal.

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1. Alaska

We’re sticking with the experts on this one. The Alaska Campaign to Regulate Marijuana recently submitted over 45,000 signatures to get legalization on the ballot in 2014. Not only does the Frontier State have more regular marijuana users than any other state except Rhode Island, it already allows for medical purposes and has laws decriminalizing its use. Fifty-four percent of Alaskans support legalization according to a 2013 poll.

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2. Oregon

Already-in-place medical and decriminalization laws, a 12 percent usage rate, and polls that report 57 percent support for legalization all bode well for Oregon in 2014. Though the process to get a measure on the ballot there is slower and the initiative still has hurdles to jump, Boyd calls the Oregon campaign strong and says it has a good chance in 2014. Though it’s not a presidential election year, 2014 should have a decent turnout as both marriage equality and the governor are up for a vote. Oregonians can also vote by mail, perhaps an attractive proposition to the pot-smoking crowd.

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3. Vermont

It’s the Green Mountain State, after all. The governor has come out in support of legalizing marijuana, and they decriminalized possession last year. And the herb has a huge following: almost 13 percent of Vermont residents report using in the last month. One-third of its college-age residents report using in the last year, more than any other state. Though strong public support exists, the fate of legalization here rests in the hands of the politicians, who Boyd notes, “are a lot slower to act than voters are.”

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Despite some of the harshest drug laws in the nation and a usage rate well below the national average, Missouri is one state that Boyd says might have a chance at legalization. Boyd calls the organization, Show-Me Cannabis, “an incredibly active and impressive group of people,” who are currently collecting signatures for a 2014 ballot initiative. A poll conducted by the group in 2013 reported that 54 percent of the people there would support a bill taxing, and regulating marijuana, once it was fully explained.

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