Voters in nine states will decide next month whether to relax their laws governing medical or recreational marijuana use, with California potentially the most significant market.
Four states — Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, plus the District of Columbia — have already legalized recreational marijuana, and 25 states permit medical use. But this election has the potential to dramatically shift the conversation because so many Americans live in those nine states where relaxation measures are being considered. California and its approximately 40 million residents represent a potential tipping point for a country where marijuana remains completely illegal at the federal level. California, Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada are considering legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana in this election, while voters in Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota are considering whether to permit medical use for certain conditions, like cancer or chronic pain.
Although the presidential campaign continues to dominate headlines across the country, these marijuana ballot measures could have far-reaching consequences for our society. What are the costs and opportunities? What are the realities of devil-is-in-the-detail marijuana regulation and taxation? And what are the potential social consequences?
To help answer those questions, USA TODAY convened a panel of experts to appear on Capital Download, a weekly video newsmaker series.
The three panelists included:
• Jeff Zinsmeister, executive vice president of SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana). As a State Department official, he worked on anti-drug and corruption programs with Mexico. SAM generally opposes marijuana legalization, but seeks alternative approaches to connect drug users with treatment, and opposes demonization of consumers, instead focusing its concern on the parallels between the tobacco and marijuana industries.
• Evan Nison, a member of the board of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). He heads the group's New Jersey branch, and he's been working on the issue since he was a student at Ithaca College. Nison also works with Whoopi Goldberg on her Whoopi & Maya women-focused medical marijuana products company.
• John Kagia, executive vice president of industry analytics for New Frontier Data, which doesn’t take a position on marijuana legalization but uses data to offer perspective on how the industry is unfolding.
A new poll released Wednesday by Pew Research Center shows a growing majority of Americans support ending marijuana prohibition: 57% of adults think marijuana use should be legal, up from 53% last year and 32% in 2006. Analysts say the marijuana market could be worth nearly $8 billion by 2020, and entrepreneurs are rushing to fund greenhouses, invest in growing and harvesting technology, and create social media platforms to connect buyers with cannabis recommendations.
Kagia said Colorado’s legalization efforts — the Centennial State was the first to develop a fully functioning cannabis marketplace — offer helpful examples of what other states might experience. Colorado last year saw about 250,000 pounds of legal cannabis sold through licensed stores, he said.
“There has been a substitution, a transition from the illicit market to the legal market by cannabis consumers in Colorado, and the numbers bear it out. These are astonishing numbers, and these are going through the legal channels,” he said. “These are products that are being sold and consumed within the state, by and large. If there has been expansion of the illicit market it is because within the umbrella of the legal apparatus, and particularly part because the markets around Colorado are still illegal, it makes it easy to create diversion and outflows from the state into other markets where it remains illegal but you can do it under the auspices of pseudo-legal production. But it is not that the legal market has been ineffective in capturing those customers.”
Zinsmeister said states should be cautious about chasing the tax dollars generated by legal marijuana sales. He said many marijuana regulations favor a Big Business approach, rather than simply making it legal for people to possess small amounts for personal use, drawing parallels with the tobacco industry.
“I don’t think anybody here on this panel would say that the tobacco industry is a good thing, that long-term tobacco use is a social net positive. It’s like studying a business and only looking at the income side of the balance sheet,” he said. “If you look at the costs of the two legal addictive substances that we currently have, alcohol and tobacco, there is absolutely no doubt that the costs outweigh the revenues by a factor of 10. And I think there’s no reason to believe the same thing won’t be true with marijuana.”
At this point, Nison countered, state and federal-level politicians need to recognize they’re out of step with the majority of Americans who think they ought to have legal access to marijuana. He said next month’s election may irrevocably change the way marijuana is perceived, regulated and marginalized in this country.
“We do have an historic amount of initiatives on the ballot, which signals the trends that are happening. I think we’ll almost for sure get California, which is going to be huge. I think we’ll get Maine, which will be the first legal state on the East Coast, which I love. I think Nevada is going to be close, Arizona is going to be tough. I think at this time next month, marijuana legalization will have made significant progress,” he said. “There’s been billions of dollars spent demonizing cannabis, and now we’re starting the veil sort of be lifted up.”