Medical marijuana has been legal in California for 20 years, and sanctioning its use more widely would surely exacerbate tensions with the Drug Enforcement Administration and Congress over enforcement of federal laws classifying cannabis as a drug. “Passing legalization in California will greatly accelerate our ability to end the federal prohibition,” Angell predicted in a phone interview on Thursday. Keith Stroup, the founder of pro-marijuana lobbying group NORML, said he believed victory in California would signal a point of no return for the legalization movement. “California is almost a nation-state,” he said. “Once we get California, other than to water down future proposals, I don’t think [opponents] will be able to defeat them.”
Congress in 2014 passed legislation barring the Justice Department from spending money to endorse federal laws against marijuana in states that have legalized the drug for medical purposes, and a federal appeals court in August upheld the congressional directive. An amendment to prohibit the Justice Department from prosecuting recreational marijuana use in states that have sanctioned it fell just nine votes short of passage in the Republican-controlled House. Before 2014, the Justice Department had continued launching raids on medical-marijuana dispensaries even in states where they’re legal, and while the feds don’t typically go after average users, the amendment would’ve prevented them from raiding shops and growers who are abiding by state laws.
Beyond California, slimmer majorities of voters are backing full legalization in Massachusetts, Arizona, and Maine. In Nevada, polls have been mixed, with one in September showing strong support for passage and a more recent survey suggesting voters are split. “I think we have a reasonable chance to run the table,” Stroup said.
Legalization advocates are trying to replicate their successes from 2012 and 2014, when voters sanctioned recreational marijuana use in Colorado, Alaska, Oregon, Washington state, and Washington D.C. But they are facing a better-organized opposition this year led by the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which has argued that the proposed laws are creating another “Big Tobacco,” but for marijuana. They say these laws are industry-backed initiatives that allow companies to market pot to children just like cigarette companies did for decades. “This is not about marijuana,” said Kevin Sabet, the president of SAM. He travels around the country warning that ballot measures legalizing marijuana are dangerously lax and written by an industry that wants to hook kids on pot lollipops and other “cannabis candy.” “This is about a small amount of people making a lot of money,” he said. “This is not about personal liberty.” That’s especially true, Sabet argued, in California, where medical marijuana is famously easy to obtain and where recreational use hasn’t been considered a felony for 40 years. The drive to legalize, then, is all about business.