The 2016 election’s greatest victor is not yet clear, but President-elect Donald Trump and the cannabis legalization movement, at the very least, are top contenders for the title.
While Trump pulled off a come-from-behind victory few anticipated, the marijuana movement continued its definitive march forward with eight mostly decisive wins in nine high-profile races that spanned the entire country. And while most of the pot industry favored Trump’s opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton, the president-elect has repeatedly said that he will leave the 420-legal states alone — a campaign promise that, if honored, is likely setting the stage for eventual federal legalization.
But before we gaze too far into the unknown future, let’s address just how significant this historic present truly is for the full-steam-ahead legalization movement.
Nobody expected Election Day to yield such overwhelmingly positive results for legal cannabis — which went four for four in medical contests (Florida, Arkansas, North Dakota and Montana) and four for five on recreational measures (California, Massachusetts, Nevada and Maine, with Arizona being the only failed proposition).
The opposition didn’t anticipate taking such a historic beating. The myriad polls got especially murky in predicting the closest of contests. And even the pro-legalization forces were surprised by the definitive margins and quick calls in some of the successful states.
“I thought we may have had a shot, but I was surprised by the overwhelming percentage,” Rilie Ray Morgan, a financial planner who headed the medical legalization effort in North Dakota, told the Associated Press after the proposal passed convincingly.
Morgan and his neighbors serve as a telling metaphor for modern marijuana. Trump easily took North Dakota with 64 percent of the vote — the same margin by which medical marijuana passed in the state. In fact, Trump secured only 894 more votes than the state’s medical marijuana-legalizing Measure 5. And medical cannabis was legalized in this deep-red state not by a plucky, big-city, anti-establishment twentysomething but by a professional, mid-60s financial planner who lives and works in Fargo, population 118,000.
America’s ever-growing belief in marijuana as medicine is no secret, as national polling has been trending that direction for years. And now the same polls from the world’s most trusted agencies are showing that an overwhelming number of Americans want recreational cannabis to be legal. When Gallup first asked Americans about legal cannabis in 1969 — the question being, “Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal, or not?” — 12 percent answered yes.
In 2016, 60 percent of Americans answered affirmatively.
And this is where we turn our gaze to the future of American drug policy, because this momentum — which truly gained steam with Colorado and Washington’s historic votes to legalize adult-use pot in 2012 — is undeniable and unquestionably a movement of the people.
So what’s next for legalization?
First, we’ll see a focus on the movement’s recent wins — perhaps most notably in California, Florida and Massachusetts.
California has long been the world’s most important hub for 420 culture and cannabis cultivation, even before the monumental passage of Proposition 215 in 1996, which made the state the first in the U.S. to legalize medical pot.
California Lieutenant Gov. Gavin Newsom, a favored gubernatorial candidate in the state in 2018, strongly supported the cannabis-legalizing Prop 64 there and will likely lead other politicos through the extensive regulatory process to come. With its ideal growing climate and extensive history with the plant, look to California eventually making a play for legal, interstate commerce in the weed sector — supplying America (and beyond) with almonds, pinot noir, avocados, pistachios and cannabis.
Massachusetts will evolve into a major player because of its population base and proximity to other East Coast hubs, as the Bay State and Maine will soon become the first localities to sell adult-use marijuana in the eastern United States. Florida, as the U.S.’s fourth-most populous state and the grayest state in the nation with 19 percent of its population over 65, will inevitably evolve into an medical marijuana juggernaut.
It helps that Florida residents are open to medical marijuana. After a 2014 initiative barely failed, Amendment 2 passed this Election Day with more than 71 percent support.
Next, the cannabis industry is already focused on the work ahead in D.C. Their work starts in Congress, which recently became more marijuana-friendly with the election of several leaders who support drug reform policies. The push will continue in the White House, where a President Trump has previously supported the legal states’ experiments — but where a potential cabinet involving anti-pot N.J. Gov. Chris Christie and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani could complicate things.
And finally, the country’s top legalization activists — organizations including the Drug Policy Alliance, the Marijuana Policy Project, Americans for Safe Access, the National Cannabis Industry Association and others — are already looking toward the mid-term elections in 2018 and the next presidential election year in 2020.
Once this election’s measures fall into place, nearly a quarter of Americans will live in a state that allows the recreational use of cannabis. Given how votes in 2012, 2014 and 2016 have gone, just imagine what that number will look like in 2020.