Last November, with voters in Colorado and Washington state leading the way, ballot initiatives legalizing, taxing, and regulating recreational marijuana use passed for the first time ever. In Colorado, legalization actually outperformed President Obama. An Oregon effort would almost certainly have prevailed, too, if proponents there hadn't overreached with toxic legislative language that scared off donors and earned ridicule from local media.
Now marijuana reform is popping up in state legislatures across the country. Once the pet project of a few fringe figures, it has attracted a new generation of politicians from both parties with credible national aspirations. Democrats like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, and Newark Mayor Cory Booker are staking out liberal stances on drug policy. Even some Republicans see an opportunity to capitalize on a constituency that shocked the pundit class with its financial and grassroots muscle -- not to mention sophisticated campaign tactics -- just a few months ago.
Of course, America has flirted with ending marijuana prohibition before, but an earlier wave of liberalization came crashing down just as the modern conservative movement began to crest. "We initially thought that within a few years we'd have the whole issue taken care of," says Keith Stroup, a co-founder of NORML, the legalization group founded in 1970. Eleven politically and geographically diverse states, including Alaska, New York, and Mississippi, decriminalized the drug after an official report from Richard Nixon's National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse found what a plurality of Americans now take for granted: it's no more harmful (and perhaps less so) than alcohol.
"We assumed that when social change like this begins to happen, that it probably accelerates and continues right on through," Stroup says. "Obviously, we were quite mistaken."
Instead, the 1980s heralded the modern War on Drugs, when federal expenditures on the project skyrocketed, First Lady Nancy Reagan dove in with her "Just Say No" campaign, and the imperative of disrupting the drug trade began to creep into American foreign policy. The national mood shifted so profoundly that one of President Reagan's own Supreme Court nominees, federal Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg, withdrew from consideration after it emerged that he had smoked pot in college and as a law professor in his 20s.
But for the first time in decades, legalization advocates see a light at the end of the tunnel again. "There's been a sea change," says Earl Blumenauer, the Democratic congressman from Oregon who, as a state legislator in 1973, helped push through America's first decriminalization law. "I'm absolutely convinced that in the next four or five years, it's going to pass the point of no return," he told me, after which the federal government is likely to decide to treat the drug more like alcohol, passing tax-and-regulate legislation after the states force its hand. While he's on the sanguine end of the spectrum, the fact remains that even if the states are the ones moving fastest on this issue, the tone in Washington has shifted, too.
"It's become a respected constituency," a once-pessimistic Democratic congressional aide whose boss backs reform told me of the legalization crowd. "If you're a member of Congress you can take a drug reform stance and it's not going to hurt you." This was perhaps best illustrated by pro-reform challenger Beto O'Rourke's primary victory over eight-term incumbent Democratic Rep. Silvestre Reyes last year, despite being savaged on the airwaves in the socially conservative south Texas district for being soft on crime. O'Rourke later won the general election and is now a member of the House.
Looking ahead, the fate of national drug policy rests more than anything else on the behavior of Obama's electorate, or the "coalition of the ascendant" -- young people, blacks, Hispanics, single women, and college-educated whites -- when he is no longer on the ballot. Despite presiding over more medical marijuana raids in his first term than George W. Bush did in two, Obama's emergence has arguably accelerated legalization by drawing these groups into the center of the political conversation. The demographic trends look promising to veterans of the cause, most of whom expect to be able to claim an effective national victory within the next decade as the older voters who remain the fiercest opponents of legalization die and young people who embrace it enthusiastically join the voter rolls.
The challenge for reformers is to keep the pressure on and pick away at the low-hanging fruit: states where popular opinion is already on their side, and where ballot measures are a viable option. Bypassing state legislatures, despite members' increased willingness to debate reform bills this year, remains the preferred plan of attack. Florida is one tempting prospect. A recent survey (conducted by Democratic Senator Bill Nelson's pollster on behalf of a legalization group), showed seven of 10 voters favoring a medical-marijuana constitutional amendment, but the state throws up hefty obstacles to qualifying for the ballot. Meanwhile, activists expect to get referenda on full legalization -- with tax-and-regulate language -- on the ballot in 2016 in states like Oregon, Maine, Alaska, and California that already have medical programs in place.
Legalization advocates are determined to achieve all of this without wasting resources on what they see as politically radioactive schemes that dent their credibility. Like the Tea Party movement on the right, which has doomed GOP Senate dreams for two consecutive election cycles now, they have occasionally demonstrated a propensity for overreach. The failed Oregon campaign would have effectively recast the state liquor board as a massive pot retailer, and the ballot initiative's preamble might have been plucked right out of Richard Linklater's 1993 high-school party flick Dazed and Confused, right down to its mention of George Washington growing hemp plants at Mount Vernon.
That debacle reflects the enduring presence of more extreme voices within a constituency that has historically kept one foot outside the traditional political channels. The man behind it was Paul Stanford, a medical-marijuana titan who NORML Executive Director Allen St. Pierre describes as having "a rap sheet longer than your arm." Stanford pleaded guilty to tax evasion in 2011, one of several scrapes with the IRS. Reformers are worried he'll try again in 2014, rather than waiting for the higher turnout that comes with a presidential race.
Advocates elsewhere (driven in large part by better fundraising) have muscled their way onto the agenda by forging alliances with respected local organizations, elected officials, and even religious leaders who vouch for the cause and help reduce its political toxicity. Rather than arguing for the right to get high, they have settled on a more pragmatic approach, framing the issue as one of redirecting scarce law-enforcement resources and capturing new revenue during a time of harsh austerity measures by local and state governments, even if some economists are skeptical legalized pot will prove to be a cash cow.