Marijuana prohibition is entering its 78th year. Colorado’s marijuana law went into effect at the beginning of last year in the wake of changing attitudes. Compared to 1969, when only 12% supported legalizing pot, today a majority of Americans support legalizing recreational use of the drug.
It is legal to purchase marijuana in four states — Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington — as well as in the District of Columbia. Prior to the legalization, all of these states had already reduced the penalties for possession and use of small amounts of the drug or introduced policies permitting medical marijuana use. To identify the states most likely to legalize marijuana next, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the 11 states where by law residents in possession of small amounts of the drug are not punishable by jail time, and medical marijuana use is permitted.
A large share of U.S. states, including all 11 on this list, have decriminalized marijuana at some point. The widely-referenced, but confusing term actually means a different thing depending on where it is being used. Not to be confused with legalization, states that have decriminalized marijuana have in some way reduced the penalties for for those caught with the substance. In most cases, this means the state will no longer prosecute or jail those caught with small amounts of the drug for personal use. In some cases, getting caught with a few grams of marijuana is as serious as a traffic infraction.
Other states that have decriminalized, however, still have relatively harsh penalties for possession. In Nevada, for example, the state no longer can assign jail time for those caught with a small amount of the drug, but violators can still be arrested, fined heavily, and charged with a misdemeanor.
Various moral and practical arguments have helped to catalyze the growing trend of legalization and decriminalization of marijuana. The potential tax revenue, job creation, and reduction of the burden of offenders on state prison systems, for example, have likely been a motivating factor behind the bills to regulate and legalize the drug in many of the states on our list. In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., Allen St. Pierre, executive director at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), argued that legalizing marijuana “would generate revenue where we now hemorrhage out billions and billions of dollars.”
However, according to Morgan Fox, communications manager at the Marijuana Policy Project, the most significant force in getting bills and referendums on the table is public support within the states. In most of the 11 states that may soon legalize marijuana, recent polls have been conducted showing a majority of residents support some form of legalization. In Connecticut, 63% of those surveyed in a March 2015 Quinnipiac University poll said they were in favor of legalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana for adults.
St. Pierre argued that the current prohibition laws are inconsistent. “If alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and pharmaceutical products can be legally sold to adults in this country, it’s hard to understand the constitutional economic or for that matter moral arguments put forward on why marijuana can’t be within that same ambit of choices for adults.”
One factor that may be driving high public support for legalization in these states is the a high number of users. Of the 11 states that appear next in line to legalize marijuana, nine surpass the nationwide rate of marijuana users. In 2012 and 2013, an estimated average of 12.3% of Americans 12 and older smoked marijuana. In Rhode Island, one of the states on our list, more than 20% had.
St. Pierre also noted that the marijuana legalization issue is unique in that Americans’ political persuasions favor legalization of marijuana. Support for reform can be found among liberals, but also among conservatives, particularly those with libertarian-leaning beliefs. “It’s hard to make an argument against legalization in a free-market society such as ours,” said St. Pierre.
Still, according to Gallup, less than one-third of conservative Americans think cannabis should be legalized, in contrast with overwhelmingly strong support from liberals and a strong majority of moderates. Nearly all of the next states expected to legalize marijuana are liberal-leaning states.
To identify the next states to legalize marijuana, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed states where possession of small amounts of marijuana is not punishable by jail and also where medical marijuana is currently legal based on data from The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). We also considered marijuana-related arrests per 100,000 residents through 2012 provided by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. In addition, we considered the estimated proportion of residents 12 and older who had used marijuana some time in the past year, based on annualized data from 2012 and 2013, from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Public opinion polls were provided by the Marijuana Policy Project based on the most recent available survey. All data on current enforcement policies and penalties were provided by NORML.
These are the states where marijuana is most likely to be legalized.