Pandemic and Anti-Racism Protests Could Boost Marijuana Legalization
Stacy Pearson, who lives in Phoenix, didn’t know how many of her fellow Arizonans would want a pro-marijuana sign. Four years ago, 51% of voters in the state rejected a ballot measure allowing adults to sell and use small amounts of pot.
But Pearson, who is leading this year’s effort to legalize marijuana in the state, said she was surprised. “We ran out of street signs twice,” she said, first an initial order of 500 signs and then a second order of 2,500.
Advocates for legal adult marijuana use hope to expand pot sales to four more states this year, with recreational ballot measures in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota . Mississippi and South Dakota will also vote to allow the sale of medical marijuana to patients.
The pandemic and nationwide protests against racism and police brutality have strengthened the case for legalizing taxation and fairness this year, supporters say. Not only has the coronavirus caused a global recession and drained state budgets, but voters may be more willing to view legal pot as a matter of social justice.
A big advantage in fundraising and growing national support for legalization are also boosting campaigns. But opponents argue that marijuana sales provide relatively limited tax revenue and pose public health risks, such as a potential increase in addiction and drug-impaired driving.
In New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has called for legalization “an incredibly smart thing to do” and said tax pot could help fill the state’s multi-billion dollar fiscal hole. New Jersey’s ballot initiative does not specify how marijuana tax revenue would be spent.
Other states’ initiatives would set aside money for everything from public lands to public schools. The 16% excise tax on marijuana sales under the Arizona measure, for example, would fund community colleges, police and fire departments, highways, drug prevention programs and efforts to reduce the state’s prison population.
Proponents of recreational pot say allowing all adults to possess small amounts of marijuana would free up police to focus on more serious crimes and reduce clashes between minority residents and law enforcement.
“We’re stopping 32,000 unnecessary police interactions that disproportionately affect communities of color,” said Axel Owen, who manages New Jersey’s legalization campaign, citing a 2016 report on marijuana possession arrests by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
Nationally, support for legalization is growing. Eleven states now allow the sale of marijuana for recreational use and 23 states allow the sale of marijuana to patients with certain medical conditions. Two-thirds of Americans say marijuana use should be legal, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center (The Pew Charitable Trusts funds the center and Stateline).
In a sign of changing attitudes toward mind-altering plants and drug policy, an Oregon ballot measure before voters this year would allow people to consume psychedelic mushrooms in controlled environments and a another would reduce criminal penalties for possession of drugs such as heroin and cocaine. , and use marijuana tax revenue to fund drug treatment.
Washington, DC, voters will also decide to make enforcement of laws against mushroom consumption a low priority. A handful of cities, including Denver and Ann Arbor, Michigan, have already decriminalized psychedelic mushrooms.
Marijuana legalization campaigns are outpacing their opponents, with help from national marijuana advocacy groups, cannabis companies and civil rights groups such as the ACLU. One of New Jersey’s biggest campaign donors is Scotts Miracle-Gro, a gardening supply company that sells hydroponic equipment to marijuana growers.
But opponents of legalization hope none of the measures will pass. Support for marijuana legalization follows partisan lines, according to the Pew Research Center poll: 78% of Democrats support legalization, compared to 55% of Republicans. And the rise of the legal pot market has not ended debates over whether marijuana regulation is good for public safety.
“We view marijuana use as a danger to public health,” said Luke Niforatos, executive vice president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an Alexandria, Va.-based group that helps anti-legalization campaigns. “We see commercialization as one of the main reasons why this is a public health harm.”
Scientists from the National Institute of Drug Abuse say marijuana sold today is more potent than it was before and could pose a health risk to young people and pregnant women, noted Niforatos. Smoking and ingesting marijuana poses heart health risks, according to a study published in January in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology find.
Opponents of legalization also point out that marijuana taxes bring in relatively little money to state budgets.
The New Jersey measure would impose the state’s 6.625% sales tax on retail pot sales and allow lawmakers to let local governments impose additional taxes. The state tax could raise $126 million a year, according to Legislature tax analysts.
The estimate is low compared to New Jersey’s budget hole, not to mention the state’s more than $32 billion budget. “It’s like dropping a feather in the Atlantic Ocean,” said Gregg Edwards, executive director of the Don’t Let New Jersey Go to Pot campaign.
And allowing people to buy and use small amounts of marijuana, while it will reduce marijuana arrests, isn’t likely to end the racial disparities in policing marijuana crimes that remain in the US. books. The ACLU found that black Americans are disproportionately arrested for weed-related crimes — like teenage possession of weed or public consumption of weed — even in states that allow the sale of weed. drug.
Opposing campaigns also claim that recreational legalization of pot may lead to increased rates of marijuana addiction, especially among teens and children, and driving under the influence of drugs.
They cite a 2019 study led by Magdalena Cerdá, director of the Center for Opioid Epidemiology and Policy at NYU Langone Health, which found a 25% increase in marijuana addiction among adolescents in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and in Washington after the start of recreational pot sales, compared to with other states.
The statistic alarmed some medical professionals. “We are particularly concerned about the exposure to cannabis of our teenage population and our young adults,” said Dr. Debra Koss, president of the New Jersey Psychiatric Association, which opposes legalization.
But Cerdá warned that the 25% increase was small – representing an increase in dependency rates from 2.18% to 2.72% – and requires further study. “You should take it with a grain of salt, as long as it’s a small increase,” she said.
Her team’s strongest finding, she said, was that adults are more likely to use and become addicted to marijuana once they can buy the drug legally.
Investigations by Colorado state agencies do not show significant change in recent high school marijuana use since voters legalized recreational use in 2012, noted Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for legalization and helps lead the Montana and South Dakota campaigns.
The rate of hospital patients in Colorado who use or are dependent on marijuana has also remained stable since then.
Opponents of legalization also cite an American Automobile Association (AAA) road safety foundation report who found after Washington state legalized sales, twice as many drivers involved in fatal crashes in the state had marijuana in their blood. AAA opposes the legalization of marijuana.
Marijuana advocates are also skeptical of this study. The AAA study did not explore whether drivers with the cannabis compound tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, in their blood were to blame for the crashes, and the study authors acknowledged that the relationship between blood levels of THC and impaired faculties is unclear.
“In our view, there is no clear link between marijuana legalization and impaired driving,” Schweich said.
The bottom line, Pearson said, is that people use marijuana no matter what the law says — so states may as well start regulating it. “We explain to voters that the choice is simple: do you want to sell marijuana in a taxed and regulated environment, or not?”
Support for marijuana legalization is so strong in New Jersey that advocates are focused on reminding voters to turn in their ballots because the ballot question is printed on the back. “The more people who turn in their ballots,” Owen said, “the more likely we are to win.”
In Arizona, Mississippi, Montana and South Dakota, the outcome is less certain, with pro and anti-legalization campaigns saying they have a chance.
Regardless of the outcome, Schweich said the Marijuana Policy Project and other groups will continue to push federal lawmakers to make it legal for all Americans to buy and sell small amounts of the plant.
“There is going to be very strong pressure for federal reform, regardless of what happens with ballot initiatives, or the presidency, or the Senate, or the House,” he said. “We have an absurd situation where we have this glaring conflict between state and federal laws, and it’s getting more and more untenable every year.”