Altered States: Where Will Marijuana Be Legal Next?

Jan 24, 2014 at 1:55 PM ET

Marijuana had a good week in America.

In a huge shift in federal policy, Attorney General Eric Holder announced yesterday that state-sanctioned marijuana businesses will have access to banking services, something that’s been crippling medical and recreational retailers for years. Up until now, you could own a pot business in a state where it was legal to do so, but no financial institution would touch you for fear of prosecution. This meant a lot of cash in a lot of mattresses.

A few days before that, President Obama told The New Yorker that he doesn’t think weed is “more dangerous than alcohol.” There were about 16,993 other words in that profile, but that’s the bit that made headlines.

And, in a move entirely shocking to anybody who knows who they are, both Texas Governor Rick Perry and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal gave atypical answers when asked for their thoughts on the state of marijuana legalization. Perry said he supports decriminalization, while Jindal said he could accept medical marijuana if it’s tightly controlled. These are the Republican governors of very red states. The Florida Supreme Court has just approved medical marijuana as a ballot initiative for the state’s November elections this year.

Meanwhile, in also-red Georgia, a GOP lawmaker who claims he has never smoked marijuana is going to introduce a bill to legalize cannabidiol oil for medicinal purposes. He says his impetus was a visit to a 4-year-old girl with a seizure disorder who could benefit from such treatment.

I had the pleasure of breaking the news about Perry and Jindal over the phone yesterday to Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. NORML is the nation’s oldest pro-marijuana reform group. St. Pierre hadn’t heard about their comments yet because he’d been on the phone with other reporters all afternoon; it’s a busy time for marijuana reform, and he’s a busy man.

“They’re clearly responding to public sentiment,” he says. “Eighty-five percent of the public want medical marijuana. If you are a politician not listening to 85 percent of the public, you are a schmuck.”

Even though stringently conservative Republican governors dipping their toes in bong water is big news, it doesn’t necessarily mean legislative reform will be coming to Louisiana or Texas anytime soon. So what states are actually the most likely to join the ranks of Washington and Colorado this year?

We asked St. Pierre to handicap the states he thinks are next up to legalize either medical or recreational marijuana. Medicinal pot is currently legal in 22 states and the District of Columbia.

This year both Oregon and Alaska have qualified to put legalization on the ballot, and St. Pierre thinks chances of success are pretty high, given the resources and supportive polling data in both states. Reformers also have about a week to decide whether they want to try to legalize in California in 2014, which could have up to three competing bills of various degrees. If not this year, then definitely 2016.

“Looking out to 2016, if Oregon does not vote to legalize marijuana this time around, it’ll be on the ballot with California, Massachusetts and Maine,” St. Pierre says. “Those are all states that are primed for the initial process to legalize.”

He says a state usually has to have “four bites at the apple—it usually takes between four and seven years in the legislation process.” Some states are more stubborn than others: Missouri has been debating medical marijuana since the 1990s and has yet to legalize it.

Of the seven states with medical marijuana bills pending, NORML is putting their money on Minnesota. The Midwestern state actually already passed a bill, but then-Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed it.

The first year that states offered legislation to legalize marijuana was 2008, and in 2013, 10 states had legalization bills on the table. “That’s a pretty good increase, from two to 10,” says St. Pierre. NORML estimates that 15 states will introduce bills this year. Even Alabama is getting on board—it’s not likely to pass, but introducing is the first step.

St. Pierre pegs the change in public opinion on marijuana to a few different things. According to Gallup, in addition to the 85 percent of Americans who support legalizing medical marijuana, 73 percent support decriminalizing it, and 58 percent support full legalization. In 40 years, that support number has gone from 10 to nearly 60 percent.

The reasons:

1. Baby boomers are now in charge of our media, corporations and government, “like Mr. Choom-Gang-smoking-marijuana President” Obama.

2. The Interwebs. “If you asked me to mail a postcard to all of NORML’s network in the 1980s, we’d be bankrupt. We can now push information out to millions of people at no cost.”

3. The progress of medical marijuana, which was ignited in 1996 when California voted for it.

4. The economy. “When we’re fat and happy, and the states are loaded with money. We can look at the costs of marijuana prohibition and say that’s no big deal. But today’s baby boomers who run the country aren’t prioritizing arresting people for marijuana. They prioritize other things with their limited budgets.”

The sea change in media has certainly been a big help—one need only look to conservative Democratic Senator Harry Reid citing Sanjay Gupta’s CNN weed special as partial reason for his evolution. St. Pierre calls CNN the “Cannabis News Network” now, because they’ve figured out that more marijuana coverage means more viewers and more money.

“Nancy Grace tonight is going to have marijuana on her show for the seventh night out of the last eight nights,” he says. “And she’s crazy. She’s completely nuts against marijuana. But every night, she asks us to come on…so more people will watch her stupid show. She hates marijuana, but she loves money more.”

With Colorado already raking in millions upon millions of dollars in weed revenue, maybe capitalist America will follow suit. It might even save our higher education system.