Marijuana Legalization’s Inevitability

It's seemingly just a matter of time before recreational use is allowed throughout the United States.

With 17 states and the District of Columbia now allowing recreational use of pot, Vox’s German Lopez declares “Marijuana legalization has won.” Even though it remains illegal at the federal level, it’s hard to disagree.

The US is nearing a tipping point of sorts on marijuana legalization: Almost half the country — about 43 percent of the population — now lives in a state where marijuana is legal to consume just for fun.

The past two months alone have seen a burst of activity as four states across the US legalized marijuana for recreational use: New JerseyNew YorkVirginia, and, on Monday, New Mexico.

It’s a massive shift that took place over just a few years. A decade ago, no states allowed marijuana for recreational use; the first states to legalize cannabis in 2012, Colorado and Washington, did so through voter-driven initiatives. Now, 17 states and Washington, DC, have legalized marijuana (although DC doesn’t yet allow sales), with five enacting their laws through legislatures, showing even typically cautious politicians are embracing the issue.

At this point, the question of nationwide marijuana legalization is more a matter of when, not if. At least two-thirds of the American public support the change, based on various public opinion surveys in recent years. Of the 15 states where marijuana legalization has been on the ballot since 2012, it was approved in 13 — including Republican-dominated Alaska, Montana, and South Dakota (although South Dakota’s measure is currently held up in the courts). In the 2020 election, the legalization initiative in swing state Arizona got nearly 300,000 more votes than either Joe Biden or Donald Trump.

Legalization has also created a big new industry in very populous states, including California and (soon) New York, and that industry is going to push to continue expanding. One of the US’s neighbors, Canada, has already legalized pot, and the other, Mexico, is likely to legalize it soon, creating an international market that would love to tap into US consumers.

The turnaround in public opinion has been relatively quick:

(Kudos, by the way, to whomever titled the graph.)

The article contains some speculation as to what accounts for the change in attitude. Regardless, Lopez notes, nothing bad happened when the early states legalized recreational use. Predicted increases in teen use, hospitalizations, crime, and driving while impaired simply didn’t materialize.

Meanwhile, legal weed has become a big business:

There are also major forces that will continue to support legalization and encourage its expansion. The US marijuana industry is now valued at more than $18 billion, supporting the equivalent of over 300,000 full-time jobs, more than the total number of electrical engineers or dentists, according to the 2021 Leafly Jobs Report.

This is simply a big industry now, for better or worse. Any politician moving to shut it down risks incurring the wrath of hundreds of thousands of people losing their jobs. And because it’s a promising industry, there’s a strong economic incentive — between additional jobs and tax revenue — for more states to embrace legalization.

Not to mention that this major new industry can now use its economic weight to directly back legalization measures, providing much-needed funding to help get them across the finish line. In this way, marijuana legalization’s success at the ballot box so far will lead to more success.

One suspects that legalization will be slowest to come in the Bible Belt but, even my former home state of Alabama looks set to legalize medical use. Ultimately, the desire to tax a product that’s already in wide use will break the logjam.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Just like with sports betting and gambling in general, the anticipated tax revenue will ultimately be the biggest driver of the movement for legal weed.

  2. DaveD says:

    I’ve been of the opinion that if pot was a three day drug it would have been legalized years ago. They fact they can detect use for weeks and months after use makes so much money for the prison system on parole violations and the probation system.

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Misery has legalized medical marijuana and an individual is allowed to grow and possess 6 plants (iirc). My rather conservative step daughter and her rather conservative husband are growing their own.

    It’s all over but for the munchies.

  4. KM says:

    MJ hysteria is a social backlash issue against a concept that doesn’t really exist anymore – that only social undesirables and “bad people” smoke weed. Hippies aren’t a thing anymore, conservatives and “hippie” and “liberal” are not interchangeable. Many governments have used it to crack down on groups they want to oppose and villainize. Unfortunately for them, the percentage of people who’ve smoked or are cool with it have grown with each generation and now the largest voting block is made of people who’s youth was formed around weed acceptance.

    It makes money. It’s as harmless as a drug regularly taken can be, both medically and physically. It’s a job creator, a home grown American-based business that also takes power away from cartels and gangs. It takes power away from the militarized police to inflict injustice and helps ease the strain on our legal system. It helps with the opioid crisis by offering an alternative to dangerously addictive pain meds. It just makes good business sense and any politician that gets in the way of Big Business is at risk.

  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    It’s all over but for the munchies.

    And the lives ruined and the families destroyed by the government’s thuggish and wasted efforts to suppress it. How many jobs lost? How many years of prison time? How many billions of dollars pissed away?

    Yet another example of the American tendency to go with brutality first, despite the fact that legalization has been the obviously right thing to do for decades. Yet another case of damage done by conservatives (of both parties) who insisted on ignoring the liberal voices of reason. See also: prohibition, civil rights, voting rights, rock and roll, long hair, ‘women’s lib’, hip hop, co-habitation and pre-marital sex, birth control, gays and the current victims of conservative violence against basic freedom: trans folk.

    Conservatism, American style:

    1) Pick a victim.
    2) Fuck him up.
    3) Soften
    4) Embrace
    5) Deny steps 1 and 2 ever happened
    6) Pick a new victim

    Note to John Boehner, Max Boot, Jennifer Rubin, et al: it wasn’t all Trump. For as long as I’ve been alive American conservatism has been nothing but greed, lies, stupidity and brutality. And they never admit they were wrong, never repent the damage done, and never learn not to do it again.

  6. inhumans99 says:

    I am not a smoker/vaper/person who eats edibles so I am not one to usually comment in posts where the subject is Mary Jane, but I was watching a you tube where a couple guys from St. Vincent were talking about how they were preparing to evacuate and they were in a rush to cover/save their Marijuana plants. I love how they realized towards the end they were on camera and basically said hey man, we need a means to make some money to eat, etc., in the hopes that anyone watching would understand. Trust me boys, we understand and I think it is cool that it might be less of a stigma in the fairly near future to mention you have a connection to marijuana on camera.

    Anyway, that is my contribution to this thread. It makes sense that many islanders would be concerned about marijuana as it is definitely a cash crop for them.

  7. mattbernius says:

    Yes, it will be legalized, but not soon enough for people who will continue to be arrested, jailed, prosecuted, and ultimately picking up records that will follow them for years (and potentially be hard to automatically erase) for low-level crimes for years to come (unless there’s a big move at the Federal* level).

    The other big challenge with this slow rollout and the continued issues at the federal level is that it essentially makes it really difficult (depending on a given state’s statutes) for smaller businesses to enter into the market due to bank’s and insurance group’s fears to support businesses in this space. That means that it’s especially difficult for folks within communities most impacted by the war on drugs to actually take advantage of the business development opportunities brought by legalization.

  8. Moosebreath says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    “Note to John Boehner, Max Boot, Jennifer Rubin, et al: it wasn’t all Trump.”

    Not disagreeing about Rubin, and I don’t read Boot enough, but in Boehner’s case, he clearly is pointing out how bad the Republicans (including Ted Cruz and Michelle Bachmann) were long before Trump threw his Depends in the ring.

  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @mattbernius: That means that it’s especially difficult for folks within communities most impacted by the war on drugs to actually take advantage of the business development opportunities brought by legalization.

    Huh, almost like it was designed that way.

  10. mattbernius says:


    (unless there’s a big move at the Federal* level)

    Oops forgot to explain the asterisk. Biden was announced that former New Jersey AG Anne Milgram was named to lead the DEA. She was supportive of legalization of Marijuana in NJ. I had a chance to meet her at an event and she’s super smart. If I was choosing someone to smooth the way for legalization, she’s the type of person I’d put in that position.

  11. @mattbernius:

    This is a good sign

  12. Kathy says:

    It’s a bit like watching a bad movie with a plot telegraphing the ending from the first scene onward. We all know how it will end, but not exactly how we’ll get there.

    So, which state will be the first to decriminalize/legalize some other drug, like heroin or cocaine? Maybe LSD or mushrooms will go first.

  13. Teve says:

    @Kathy: Oregon decriminalized small amounts of every drug. That happened almost 2.5 months ago and mysteriously the state hasn’t imploded as I bet the religious right predicted.

  14. Kathy says:


    I’d no idea. Good for them.

    [..]and mysteriously the state hasn’t imploded as I bet the religious right predicted.

    Hm. They rejected the Orange Ass, didn’t they? 😀

  15. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “Predicted increases in teen use…simply didn’t materialize.”

    Wow! It’s almost like it’s easier to control what teens consume when it’s not sold on a black market. Someone should do a study of that or something.

  16. grumpy realist says:

    Forget where I read it, but someone once pointed out that the problem with most drugs wasn’t that they were drugs, but that they were purified drugs. Replace heroin with poppy seeds, cocaine with chewing the coca leaf, and any other purified drug with its dried-vegetable-precursor and you avoid most of the problems.

    My own complaint about marijuana is that a lot of dopers seem to, well, just remain dopers and never actually get their lives together. But that is more of a mental habits issue than a legalisation issue. And I’m enough of a libertarian (or cynical) to think that if you want to trash your life and waste it floating on clouds of dreams, better you than me. Just don’t ask me to pay for your UBI.

  17. mattbernius says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    This is a good sign

    I’m hoping… though given my prognostication record, I wouldn’t put money down on legalization just yet.

    (BTW, welcome back! I hope things are as well as can be right now).

  18. Kathy says:

    @grumpy realist:

    I’ve read something similar in a book called Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari.

    He doesn’t go into detail, but mentions that back when you could get heroin and heroin preparations at any drugstore, the doses of the active ingredient were very small.

  19. Teve says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Replace heroin with poppy seeds,

    …and you’d get no noticeable narcotic effect. You want the milky resin from the seed pod.

  20. JohnSF says:

    It’s interesting to compare how entrenched, by contrast, the anti-legalisation position is in the UK.
    Every time some reformer tries to raise the issue, the tabloid and tory press go ballistic.
    Polling indicates that only about 25% reject reform, with about 40% being mildly in favour of legalisation.
    But the thing is, the 40% are not much bothered about the issue, whereas the 25% are.

    There is a lot of overlap of the profiles of the quarter of “antis” and with Brexiteers: older, less educated; on the Conservative inclined side the classic Con/UKIP party-switching headbangers, who will make MP’s lives a misery on an issue; on the Labour inclined side the older “white upper working class” Labour are desperate to hang on to or regain in the “red wall” marginals Conservatives gained at the last election.

    The combination of voter opinion profiles and press hysteria make reform a non-starter; the Liberal Democrats (and Greens) are pro, but Labour leadership won’t touch it with a bargepole.

    The stupidity of it is that unofficially the police generally operate a de-facto decriminalized attitude to simple possession (except when they don’t) but the criminal supply chain makes it the money spinner for the gangs and their turf wars that plague poorer communities.
    Legalisation would knock the bottom out of the criminal economy.