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.