Less than three years ago, Jerry Brown, the Governor of California stated his opposition to cannabis legalization by questioning if it possible to have a great state while it’s inhabitants are “getting stoned”. However, just like David Cameron, he was forced to acknowledge that public opinion was against him when on November 8, 2016, Proposition 64, also known as the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, passed by a vote of 57% to 43%, legalizing the sale and distribution of cannabis in both a dry and concentrated form. Since January 2018, adults over the age of 21 haven been allowed to possess up to one ounce of cannabis for recreational use and can grow up to six live plants individually or more with a commercial license.
Cannabis (also known as marijuana, weed, trees, or pot) is a psychoactive substance that has long been used medicinally and recreationally due to its capacity to alter perception, induce a mild sense of euphoria and increase appetite. Although it has consistently been America’s third-favourite recreational drug, after nicotine and alcohol, it has a complicated history not least due to its association with countercultural movements. It was originally made illegal on the federal level in 1937 after a seven-year campaign by Harry Jacob Anslinger. He was a fierce opponent of narcotic use who rose to prominence as the 1st commissioner for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. His testimony before the US Congress in 1937 speaks volumes about his racially charged rationale for prohibition: “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, the beatnik and hippie cultures experimented with cannabis, driving increased interest in the drug. Cannabis’ increased popularity became a political issue towards the end of the 1960s as Richard Nixon used the criminalization of cannabis to force the antiwar left on to the fringes of society. Former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman admitted as much when he stated that “we knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” What became known as the “war on drugs” was to reach its apotheosis during the Presidency of another Republican, Ronald Reagan. In the 1980s, while the number of arrests for all crimes had risen by 28%, the number of arrests for drug offenses rose 126%.
Cannabis’ chequered history shows how the road to legalization has been far from straightforward, not least because the case for criminalization has often been driven by cultural politics rather than evidence-based policy. Nevertheless, California, America’s richest and most populous state, has totally legalized the cultivation, sale, possession and consumption of cannabis. The Golden State is far from at the vanguard of drug policy reform. Indeed, cannabis is legal in the states of Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington as well as the in District of Columbia. Where Californian politicians are concerned, it has been the successful legalization of cannabis in Colorado and Washington that has proved most decisive. A report released by the Drug Policy Alliance revealed that in both states, cannabis usage rates in teenagers and young adults have remained stable post-legalization. Indeed, the 2015 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, a random sample of 17,000 middle and high school students in Colorado, found that the number of youth reporting that they had used marijuana in the last 30 days declined from 25% in 2009, three years prior to legalization, to 21.2% in 2015, more than two years after Colorado legalized marijuana. Incredibly, the report also concluded that “in Colorado and Washington the post-legalization traffic fatality rate has remained statistically consistent with pre-legalization levels, is lower in each state than it was a decade prior and is lower than the national rate.”
Spurred on by these positive outcomes, attitudes are undoubtedly changing. According to a 2016 poll conducted by the esteemed Pew Research Center, 57% of U.S. adults say the use of marijuana should be made legal, while ten years prior, the measure was supported by just 32%. I interviewed two California natives, both university students, for this piece. What came through was the generational dimension to the issue. They agreed that while “classmates are unlikely to judge because the perception has never been that negative in Los Angeles, old folks are split down the middle. Some are really into the idea and do it themselves, others see it as [equivalent to] cocaine”. Unsurprisingly, that legalization enjoys majority support nationally is down to younger voters who are both more likely to support legalization and less likely to oppose it.
However it would be remiss to ignore the political significance of the economic case for legalization. Governor Brown himself remains cautiously opposed to legalization but he is nevertheless keen to extol the economic benefits that California is projected to enjoy; the state is expected to raise $643 million from the sale and purchase of cannabis. While the prospect of such a massive windfall has attracted criticism from certain quarters who argue that the continued imposition of high taxes will ensure the continued flourishing of the state’s black market, it is ultimately legalization’s impact upon the public purse that will count most.
Besides, the price of cannabis is yet to rise as some feared it might. In a recent r/AskReddit thread addressing the new legislation, Californian Reddit users were generally in agreement that post-legalization, the market has represented a ‘buyer’s paradise’. And this is not the only positive. One of the students I interviewed admitted their preference for buying weed from legitimate dispensaries (the name for a shop where legal cannabis is sold) over black market dealers. They said that: “dispensaries feel like coffee shops or bakeries. They each contain mason jars full of weed that make it easy to determine the quality or strain of weed you are purchasing. Dispensary workers are college students or young people aged 21-25 and they are generally extremely pleasant people who make me feel very comfortable in a dispensary”. This experience appears to be typical across the state and it is obviously a world away from the back-alley or street corner drug deal of the imagination. Even the controversial presence of security guards (a legal requirement) does not appear to detract too much from what another interviewee referred to as a “nice clean establishment”.
Without wishing to be premature, cannabis legalization in the US has been a qualified success. It’s generating income for the state treasury, creating legal jobs, reducing incarceration rates and cutting off an important source of funding for criminal activity. Most importantly of all, usage rates are not up dramatically and where they are, they seem to have been accompanied by slight drops in opioid abuse. For now though, drug reform remains the preserve of those deep blue or purple states in which the republican party’s local ideology owes more to libertarianism than to the cultural conservatism that dominates the party at the federal level.
Whatever happens from here, if legalization prevails in California then it will be a significant development for global social policy even if prohibitionists like Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions remain in the white house. Not only does California have 40 million residents but it is home to the biggest media and technology conglomerates on the planet. If this goes well, it could go global.