The current battle over marijuana decriminalization is beginning to gain attention from the general public, as well as state and federal officials. No longer the platform of fringe activist groups, medical marijuana is now legal in 18 states and the District of Columbia.
But it’s not only those suffering from chronic illnesses who have access to legal marijuana; Colorado and Washington have both completely decriminalized possession of marijuana (up to certain thresholds), setting a precedent for state-level action on an potentially federal issue, reports the Washington Post.
The tension between opposing state and federal efforts may soon come to a head. A recent Pew Research poll indicates that a majority of Americans believe marijuana should be legalized. It appears that America may be approaching a watershed moment, one that can trace its roots back to the fraught Prohibition era of the 1920s.
The first medical marijuana bill in the U.S. was passed by California voters in 1996. The proposition was created in response to a growing body of scientific studies suggesting that THC, the primary psychoactive component in marijuana, may help relieve the symptoms of nausea, anxiety, glaucoma, and a host of symptoms associated with certain cancers and HIV/AIDS. While voters backed this initial proposition and the 17 other state-level initiatives to follow, the issue of medical marijuana remains complicated due to the federal government’s policy that physicians may not legally proscribe Schedule 1 drugs.
The substances classified as Schedule 1 are considered dangerous and have no medical uses, according to the federal government. They include heroin, LSD and yes, marijuana. In early 2013, a federal appeals panel denied the reclassification of marijuana, disappointing legalization advocates who hoped for greater leniency in federal enforcement of marijuana laws. What remains is an ongoing tension between medical and decriminalized marijuana states, and federal agents who’ve recently been told by the Obama administration that enforcement is not a priority.
The Washington Posts reported in April that acceptance of recreational and medical marijuana is up from just 17 percent in 1991 to a whopping 52 percent. The shift is mainly due to younger voters who are less likely to view marijuana usage as a moral failing or otherwise social stigma. Groups like NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) are also very active in keeping voters informed. Proverbial “stoner” movies and shows are becoming more mainstream, with cable and Direct TV specials making guys like Harold and Kumar, along with Michael Kelso (Ashton Kutcher) household names.
Public favor for marijuana decriminalization continues to grow, much like the major societal shifts that allowed prohibition to be repealed in the early 1930s. Americans began to see the futility of a law that many people were disobeying, as well as the senseless crime that resulted from driving a popular pursuit underground to the unregulated world of the black market. History has shown that prohibition was not successful as a major public health initiative, and actually helped boost the unsavory social conditions that it was trying to eliminate.
Time will tell if the government and the American public will work together to once again decriminalize this substance, but the cultural shift necessary for such a change seems to have already occurred.