Things are looking up for marijuana reform. With weed already in legal in two states, another two legalized it in November, as did voters in Washington, D.C.
But the biggest news may be yet to come. Legalization votes are likely in several more states in 2016, including California, the largest in the country. Perhaps more important, though, the country will elect a new president, and the choice could determine the course of reform for many years to come.
Most cannabis reform happens at the state level. It has been that way for the past 20 years, and it will be that way for some time.
Still, what the federal government does could shape the future of reform – successful or failed – for decades. Our next president could be the pivot that determines how long prohibition survives.
The presumptive front-runner, Democrat Hillary Clinton, is relatively friendly to cannabis reform. She recently said she supports medical marijuana and, though she hasn’t supported legalization publicly, she hasn’t staked out a position against it, either.
No other major Democratic candidate has laid claim to legalization as an issue, either. And no GOP hopeful has taken a position on legalization as a national issue, though at least one has fought it on his home turf.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, long considered a leading contender for the Republican nomination in 2016, has vowed to prevent legalization in that state. Medical marijuana has been legal in New Jersey since before Christie took office, but he has tried to block its implementation at every step.
Most other candidates have opted to leave the issue alone. If 2012 is any guide, they may all choose to stay quiet and let voters do what they want to do. But 2016 will not be 2012.
Legalization is no longer just an “experiment.” It’s now a viable model for states that want to turn the page on prohibition, incarceration, and organized crime. And it will be harder for national candidates to ignore.
The next president will play two important roles in regard to weed: pushing for or against reform on the federal level and choosing whether to interfere with states that legalize.
A president who supports reform could prod Congress to reclassify marijuana under federal law, or even legalize it completely. But at the other extreme, a president who opposes reform could use the weight of the DEA and other federal agencies to squash legal cannabis markets in the states.
By the time we choose our next president, recreational weed will be legal in four states. Dozens more states have legalized some form of medical marijuana. Seventy percent of the American population now lives in places with some level of cannabis reform.
That reality will face every candidate running for national office in 2016, especially the presidential contenders. The outcome of the campaign will either advance the cause or set it back by years.