While it’s true that marijuana, like any drug, can be harmful and abused, it is also true that we can and should have smarter policies about it, based on pragmatically reducing harm rather than moralizing, overreacting and locking people up.
I started speaking out on marijuana when I realized that it was easier for me than for other people — I had a public platform and no concern about being re-elected or fired over marijuana. It seemed like a matter of good citizenship. And as I started sharing what I had learned from my European travels, I became more active in the cause.
Things are changing quickly in the US. Since the 1990s, more than 35 states have legalized marijuana for medical use, and since 2012, 18 states have made it legal for adults to consume marijuana for enjoyment. I was a co-sponsor, leading funder and spokesperson for a 2012 bill in my home state, Washington, which joined Colorado that same year as the first to legalize pot for recreational use.
Progress has been steady in the last 10 years. At first it was the more progressive states that legalized through their initiative process. The next two were Oregon and Alaska in 2014, then California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada in 2016, Michigan and Illinois in 2018, and four more in 2020. In just the last few months, legislatures in five more states, including New York and New Mexico, have legalized.
While opponents painted a gloomy picture of what legalizing recreational marijuana would do to society, many supporters predicted only upsides. But there was a lot that people didn’t know. Would teen use increase? Would road safety suffer? Would there be a “gateway effect,” with more people abusing hard drugs after trying pot? Would society become one big hempfest?
And the mystique of sharing something illegal has lost its appeal. Pot is now used by Mom and Dad. And Grandma’s rubbing it on her elbows.
Consider, too, that the underground trade in marijuana has over decades resulted in huge numbers of arrests and imprisonments, costing taxpayers billions of dollars, diverting limited law enforcement resources away from more serious challenges, and contributing to the United States’ disastrous mass incarceration problem.
While not legalizing marijuana outright, these laws would bring several important changes to enable states to deal with marijuana more reasonably. The common-sense changes include removing marijuana from the Schedule I list of the most dangerous and highly regulated drugs, allowing cannabis businesses to use the federally overseen banking system, and expungement–which would clear the records of people convicted of non-violent marijuana offenses, thus restoring their right to vote.
The MORE Act was approved by the US House of Representatives in 2020, and is expected to do so again this session, while the SAFE Banking Act has already been passed by the House and is now awaiting action in the Senate.
On July 1 Virginia becomes the first state in the South to legalize recreational marijuana. On that day Keith Stroup, who founded NORML 50 years ago — in the same year Nixon declared war on marijuana — will legally exercise a civil liberty in the privacy of his own home; an act that he had done illegally and with regularity and can now do legally and with great joy: He will roll a joint and smoke it.
A previous version of this article incorrectly listed cocaine as a Schedule I drug. It is categorized as a Schedule II drug.