Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton was not the only big surprise produced by yesterday’s elections. Even those of us who were rooting for the nine marijuana initiatives on state ballots this year did not expect so many of them to pass. Yesterday voters made marijuana legal for recreational use in four states (California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada) and approved or expanded medical access in four more (Arkansas, Florida, Montana, and North Dakota). The only loss was in Arizona, where voters who very narrowly approved medical use in 2010 declined to take the further step of making marijuana legal just for fun.
The margins of victory were also surprising. After falling short just two years ago, a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana got 71 percent of the vote in Florida, 11 points more than the supermajority it needed. In California, where legalization lost by seven points in 2010, the yeas beat the nays by almost 12 points. The difference in Nevada was more than eight points, which was especially delightful in the home state of casino impresario Sheldon Adelson, who provided 97 percent of the $3.5 million raised by the opposition campaign and spent another $140 million on the Las Vegas Review-Journal, a longtime opponent of marijuana prohibition that switched sides under its new ownership. In North Dakota, where the last known survey on the question found that 47 percent of likely voters thought marijuana should be legal for medical use, an initiative allowing patients with “debilitating medical conditions” to obtain cannabis from “compassion centers” seemed like a good idea to 64 percent of the electorate.
The consequences of this nearly complete sweep were dramatic. Prior to yesterday, four states with a combined population of 17 million (Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington) were willing to allow cannabis consumption without a doctor’s note. Now the number of pot-tolerant states has doubled, while their population has nearly quadrupled and now includes one in five Americans. The long overdue conversion of California, which by itself accounts for 12 percent of the country’s population and 15 percent of its economic output, carries special political and cultural weight. We now have a continuous weed-friendly zone on the West Coast and the first two oases of tolerance in the East. Yesterday’s elections also gave us the first two medical marijuana states in the South and increased the number of states with such laws from 25 to 28, meaning states that refuse to let patients have whatever relief cannabis can give them are now in the minority.
These changes reflect growing popular support for legalizing marijuana, which according to Gallup hit a record level of 60 percent this year. That trend, in turn, reflects wide and growing familiarity with a plant that Americans generally have found to be much less scary than their government portrayed it. The next step is for that government to go beyond the uncertain forbearance the Obama administration has offered by actively accommodating states that have rejected marijuana prohibition. Among other things, that means changing federal law so that it no longer threatens or obstructs state-legal marijuana businesses, as legislators such as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) have been urging for years.
President-Elect Trump (God help us) has suggested he is open to such accommodation. While personally frowning on legal pot (and disavowing his previous support for legalizing all drugs), Trump says marijuana policy “should be a state issue,” which also happens to be what the Constitution requires. “Trump has clearly and repeatedly pledged to respect state marijuana laws,” says Marijuana Majority Chairman Tom Angell, “and we fully expect him to follow through on those promises, not only because it is the right thing to do but also because these reforms are broadly supported by a growing majority of voters. Reversing course and going against the tide of history would present huge political problems that the new administration does not need.”