Where has the last year gone? For many of us, it seems only yesterday that we celebrated the holidays and sang Auld Lang Syne with friends and family to say goodbye to 2015 and welcome in 2016. Funny how those years appear to speed-by as we get older.
As we think back over 2016, let’s try for a moment to set aside the reality that the most consequential event of 2016 was the presidential election, which left the country badly divided over the direction our country should be headed, and with an incoming president who is overwhelmingly disliked by a majority of the American public, and who won nearly three million fewer votes than his opponent. We can thank our founding fathers for the electoral college that permits such a strikingly undemocratic result.
But the presidential election was certainly not the only big story of 2016, nor should we permit the year to be defined only by the election.
2016 has been an enormously important year for the marijuana legalization movement and we must not permit presidential politics to totally overshadow the importance of political gains we made this year, moving the country ever closer to ending marijuana prohibition and legalizing the responsible use of marijuana.
Specifically, four new states fully legalized the recreational use of marijuana by adults (bringing the total to eight states and the District of Columbia, comprising an estimated 22 percent of the country’s population); and four additional states legalized the medical use of marijuana, including Arkansas, Montana, North Dakota and Florida, in parts of the country that have heretofore been less receptive to legalizing marijuana for any reason.
The sky has not fallen with legalization
If one takes a moment to stand back and look at our harsh marijuana policy over the last 80 years, the breadth and scope of our victories at the ballot box in 2016 is breathtaking. Following eight decades of criminal prohibition, during which more than 26 million Americans were arrested on marijuana charges, and many states treated marijuana offenses more harshly than they treat violent crimes, we have finally exploded the myth that marijuana prohibition is a necessary, if unpopular policy, and that if we ended marijuana prohibition the sky would fall. Smokers would sit home all day getting stoned; adolescent marijuana smoking would skyrocket; and millions of impaired drivers would make our roads unsafe.
In fact, as legalization was implemented in the first couple of states, we saw that the policy worked as intended, eliminating the vast majority of marijuana arrests with few, if any, unintended consequences. We demonstrated with actual data from Colorado and Washington that legalizing marijuana works well as a public policy option, far better than prohibition.
Neither state has seen an increase in adolescent use; there has been no significant increase in impaired driving; and marijuana smokers continue to go to work and support their families, limiting their marijuana smoking to the end of the day, when they relax with friends or family.
The public has increasingly embraced the legalization of marijuana, with the most current national surveys finding approximately 60 percent of the entire adult population nationwide now favor full marijuana legalization. Americans are not pro-pot, but they are adamantly anti-prohibition, having seen for themselves the enormous damage done to so many otherwise law-abiding citizens simply because they prefer to smoke a joint when they relax at the end of the day, just as tens of millions of Americans enjoy a glass of wine or a bottle of beer.
That’s an honest, quantifiable measure of the progress we have made at the grass-roots level, and even a potentially hostile incoming administration cannot significantly alter that reality. They may still have their heads stuck in the sands of prohibition, but the American voters do not.
Celebrate the victories, don't mourn the divisive presidential election
So as we gather with family and friends for Hanukah or Christmas, or simply as a holiday break from our usual routine, let’s not allow the divisive presidential election to cast a pall over our lives that precludes our enjoying the good things in life. Never in the history of this country have we moved marijuana policy so dramatically in the direction of personal freedom and liberty in one year, and we should all take a moment to ponder the significance of that achievement – perhaps by sharing a joint with our family and friends – during the upcoming holidays.
And then let’s all get back to work in the new year to protect these hard-won victories against the forces of ignorance - including some in the incoming administration – who would try to reverse the course of history. There will always be a few voices stuck in the past, trying to hold back reforms, and slow our political progress; but they should never again have the political power to treat those of us who smoke marijuana responsibly as criminals. Our time has finally come, and we will not be denied.
Keith Stroup is a Washington, DC public-interest attorney who founded NORML in 1970, and currently serves on the organization’s Board of Directors and acts as Legal Counsel.
Banner image: Pro-legalization supporters in San Diego celebrate the passage of Proposition 64 on Election Night. (Sebastian Montes photo)