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2015 Was a Huge Year for Weed — and 2016 Will Be Even Bigger

The bud business is booming in several states, and next year's election could move the US even closer to legalizing marijuana nationwide.
Photo by Luis Eduardo Noriega/EPA

There's an old adage in American politics: "As Ohio goes, so goes the nation." While it might hold true for presidential campaigns — the last candidate to reach the White House without winning the state was John F. Kennedy in 1960 — stoners in the US can only hope that the saying doesn't apply to marijuana legalization.

In November, a whopping 64 percent of Ohio voters rejected Issue 3, a ballot initiative that would have legalized recreational cannabis for adults 21 and over. The result was the opposite the national trend: 58 percent of Americans now say weed should be legal, an all-time peak in public support for the right to get high.


The fatal flaw in Ohio's proposal was that it would have created the world's first marijuana oligopoly by granting exclusive rights to grow the state's legal weed to a handful of wealthy backers, including NBA legend Oscar Robertson, former boy-band member Nick Lachey, and a descendent of President William Howard Taft. Much like an overly potent pot brownie, the prospect of a select few reaping all of the profits from legalization was simply too much for the state's voters to stomach.

While Ohioans decided to pass on grass, ongoing experiments with legalization in other states and countries have continued with varying degrees of success. In Colorado and Washington, the first two states to embrace recreational marijuana, the bud business is booming. Washington now averages more than $2.3 million worth of legal weed sales per day, and generated nearly $65 million worth of taxes in the 2015 fiscal year. Colorado is now selling $100 million worth of weed per month, and has banked about $60 million worth of marijuana revenue so far in the 2015-16 fiscal year.

Related: Cops Say Marijuana 'Shatter' Is Dangerous — Others Say It Just Gets You Really High

Oregon was one of the first states to legalize medical marijuana in 1998, and its new recreational law took effect in July to great fanfare. Lured in part by the false promises of a guy named Pork Chop, who had pledged to give away 420 pounds of weed for free, thousands of people lined up on a bridge in the heart of Portland to await the stroke of midnight on July 1 when the new pot rules became official. That night's mass public smokeout was followed by another legal weed bonanza a few days later, with various growers and vendors gathering to showcase the power of a new industry valued at as much as $2.7 billion nationwide. When Oregon's first recreational pot shops opened in October, they sold an estimated $11 million worth of pot in the first week.


Washington, DC residents voted overwhelmingly to legalize weed last year, and the district's law took effect in February, allowing adults to possess up to two ounces or grow up to three plants. Due to obstruction by Congress, however, DC still doesn't have a system to regulate and tax the sale of the drug, meaning that while it's now technically legal for adults to toke in the nation's capital, the city is missing out on the tax windfall that other green municipalities are enjoying.

Altogether, 23 states and the nation's capital now allow some form of legal cannabis. While opponents of legalization have claimed that it will cause kids to become listless potheads and eventually lead them to harder drugs, the latest survey data indicates that teen marijuana use has remained steady, and that hard drug use among teens is on the decline. Violent crime and property crime have also decreased in Colorado since the state's pot law was enacted.

Related: Legally Grown Pot Still Has a Toxic Pesticide Problem

From a criminal justice standpoint, it seems that the biggest flaw with legalization and decriminalization policies is that minorities are still disproportionately arrested for petty pot possession. In New York, where people caught with less than 25 grams are now supposed to be ticketed instead of arrested, 86 percent of the city's lowest-level pot arrests in 2015 involved African-Americans and Latinos. Marijuana-related arrests have plummeted by 95 percent in Colorado, but the state's black residents are still more likely to get busted than their white neighbors, according to data from the Drug Policy Alliance.


Critics of legalization have also claimed that weed is now spilling out of states where it's legal and into places where prohibition is still strictly enforced. That appears to be true — VICE News spoke earlier this year with dealers and growers in Oregon and Washington who described taking advantage of the lucrative out-of-state market for their product. Nebraska and Oklahoma have sued Colorado over this side effect of legalization, and the case is pending before the Supreme Court. The US Solicitor General — one of the federal government's top lawyers — recently urged the court not to hear the case.

Watch the VICE News documentary Inside America's Billion-Dollar Weed Business: The Grass Is Greener:

Internationally, Chile had its first state-sanctioned medical marijuana harvest this year, Colombia's president signed a decree legalizing the production and sale of medical marijuana, and Uruguay continued slowly down the path to full legalization it began in 2013. Canada elected new prime minister who has promised to legalize recreational weed. Mexico's Supreme Court also made marijuana legal — but only for four individuals involved in a single court case. Mexican cartels, meanwhile, have continued to import tons of weed to the US, and there's some evidence to suggest that the country's narcos are trying to grow higher-quality product to satisfy the increasingly refined tastes of American consumers.


Most drug policy experts agree that the only way to fully eliminate the black market for cannabis is to repeal prohibition entirely — and, despite the no vote in Ohio, the US could be on the cusp of doing just that. Nevada will vote on legalization in 2016, and in California a ballot initiative backed by Napster founder Sean Parker and several major advocacy groups is also expected to go before voters. A variety of legalization efforts are also underway in 16 other states, including Michigan, Florida, and Massachusetts.

Related: How America's Legal Weed Is Changing the Black Market and Influencing Mexican Cartels

Perhaps more significantly, the next US president could work to move marijuana out of the restrictive Schedule I category of controlled substances (where it is currently classified alongside heroin, LSD, and other hard drugs), or back legislation to make weed legal in all 50 states. Among the Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton has called for making marijuana a Schedule II drug, while Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders want to remove it from the schedule entirely.

Among the Republican candidates for president, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush, who admitted to sparking up 40 years ago when he was in high school, have all said that they would keep letting states decide on the issue, while Rand Paul has long expressed his support for full-blown legalization. Ben Carson has said he would "intensify" the war on drugs, and Carly Fiorina has said she's opposed to legal weed because of her daughter's struggle with alcohol and prescription drug abuse. Marco Rubio supports limited medical use, but opposes legalization. Chris Christie has vowed to roll back state-level legalization if he is elected.

Of course, in order to dictate the future of legal weed in the US, these presidential candidates will first have to win the general election — and in order to do that, they probably need to prevail in Ohio.

Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton