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How Marijuana Won the Election

Weed did well at the polls, but the national picture is a murky one as Donald Trump—not necessarily a traditional drug warrior but very much a law-and-order guy—makes his way to the White House.

On Tuesday night, even as Democrats recoiled in horror at the election of Donald Trump, American voters in several states loudly rejected marijuana prohibition. California, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Maine all passed referenda legalizing recreational use. And Florida, North Dakota Arkansas and Montana passed medical use laws. Twenty-eight states are now set to allow medical weed, and some 75 million people will soon live in states where recreational use is legal—nearly a quarter of the US population.

But even though President Obama recently told Bill Maher the broader trend toward legal bud means ongoing federal marijuana enforcement may no longer be "tenable," Trump's ascent makes progress far from certain. Sure, the ballot initiatives are great news for drug policy reformers at the state level, who suffered only one significant loss, in Arizona. But the national picture is a murky one as Trump—not necessarily a traditional drug warrior but very much a law-and-order type—makes his way to the White House.

Trump said during the campaign that he's OK with medical marijuana and will leave recreational use decisions to the states. But true to form, the man has made some contradictory statements about the subject, both supporting legalization but also saying Colorado's approach is "bad" and that the state has "got a lot of problems" because of legal weed.

To make matters a bit more alarming, some of Trump's closest advisors like Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie—both reportedly in the running for the attorney general gig—have long histories of favoring tough drug policy. This suggests the famously insular Trump might be swayed to reverse the current laissez-faire approach taken by federal enforcement agencies. If that happens, the prospects for state recreational marijuana businesses—and for a quick move to national legalization—would be dim.

Still, even in the face of all the uncertainty looming around a Trump presidency, based on America's lengthy drug war history and the effects of recent legal changes, a few developments seem virtually certain.

First, legalizing recreational marijuana use is unlikely to result in disaster or in a massive increase in marijuana-related harm. No such effects have been convincingly demonstrated in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, DC, or Alaska. In Colorado, for example, use by young people has remained consistent with the national level since legalization. The top public health official in the state, in fact, told the Boston Globe that no major problems have yet emerged. That seems to be the (initial) consensus among most other states as well, even if there have been some mildly alarming trends like an increase in people accused of driving stoned and (some) more calls to poison control centers (though no deaths).

Indeed, in the country as a whole, despite the rising accessibility of both medical and recreational marijuana and increased rates of use in the past month by adults, cannabis use disorder doesn't seem to be spiraling out of control. Though the data only runs up until 2014, which is just one years after the first recreational laws went into effect, a study conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that marijuana addiction rates were steady, not rising.

Moreover, no state or country that has liberalized marijuana laws either through decriminalization or outright legalization has experienced anything like the nightmare scenarios predicted by prohibitionists. You know, like massive rises in teen drug use and addiction (including to harder drugs through a "gateway" effect), declines in productivity and intelligence, increases in mental illness or deadly car crashes. Both Holland, which "tolerates" illegal sales in regulated coffee shops and Portugal, which decriminalizes possession of all drugs—but didn't legalize sales of any—report generally positive or unremarkable results from policies that have been in place for years now.

While doctors may fear that hidden, harmful effects of marijuana will emerge under legalization, the US government has already spent millions of dollars over decades searching for them—to no avail. There could be hidden harms from "dabbing" by smoking concentrated THC, but it is impossible to overdose by smoking ordinary weed, and even heavy marijuana smoking isn't generally associated with lung cancer and marijuana use rates are not convincingly associated with schizophrenia rates.


Check out our Weediquette segment on kids with diseases who use weed.


In fact, increasing data shows that marijuana is linked with reduced rates of opioid overdose death and reduced rates of opioid use for pain—both of which could be critical benefits of increasing access to both medical and recreational marijuana. If even just a few people switch entirely from opioids to marijuana or reduce opioid use by substituting marijuana, lives could potentially be saved and addictions avoided or rendered less dangerous.

If Hillary Clinton had won the electoral college as polls suggested she would, chances are that the end game for marijuana prohibition was in the offing. After all, her supporters appear to have heavily favored legalization, and continuing to spend billions of dollars a year to incarcerate people in some states for what they can legally do in others is not exactly a fiscally responsible use of taxpayer dollars. Reversing marijuana prohibition alone could mean eliminating 28 percent of state and federal spending on drug law enforcement—nearly $14 billion annually. And doing that would likely put pressure on the entire apparatus of the drug war, given that it is hard to understand why it is sensible to lock people up for possession of some addictive drugs but not others.

What Trump will do in light of his repeated calls for "law and order" and cracking down on crime is much harder to say. But if the man has an eye on winning a second term in 2020, he may not want to make weed his law enforcement priority. In most states where medical or recreational marijuana was on the ballot—including California (56%), Florida (71%), Massachusetts (54%), Nevada (54%) and Maine (50%)—the initiatives got a significantly larger percentage of the vote than he did.

Follow Maia Szalavitz on Twitter.