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Marijuana legalization is having its best year ever

From Canada to Vermont to Oklahoma to California, this has been a huge year for legalization advocates.

A marijuana plant. Shutterstock

When we look back, 2018 may be known as the year that marijuana legalization won.

The latest victory came from, out of all places, conservative Oklahoma. On Tuesday, voters in the state decided to legalize medical marijuana. Although the state is now the 30th to do so, it’s still a big deal because the measure faced so much local resistance. Opposition came not just from major state politicians like Gov. Mary Fallin (R) but also a $500,000 opposition campaign — a pricey effort for an Oklahoma race. The implication is clear: Medical marijuana is so popular, even in a red state like Oklahoma, that little can be done to stop these kinds of ballot measures.

The Oklahoma news, though, only tops what’s been a year of very big victories for cannabis legalization. Last week, Canada became the first wealthy nation — and the second country in the world — to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes, potentially forging a model for others, including the US (where, federally, marijuana is still illegal for all purposes). Earlier this year, Vermont’s legislature became the first to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes (which takes effect this Sunday). And at the start of 2018, California launched the largest legal marijuana market in the world.

Meanwhile, Michigan is set to vote on recreational marijuana legalization later this year, and Utah will vote on medical marijuana — giving marijuana legalization advocates potentially two more wins this year. And New Jersey’s Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, has also been pushing to legalize cannabis for recreational purposes in his state.

There’s a reason for all of this: Poll after poll has found that marijuana legalization is very popular. Gallup put support for recreational legalization at 64 percent among US adults late last year. Medical marijuana legalization is favored even more — polling as high as the 80s.

Other years have been big for marijuana legalization — when California became the first state to vote to legalize medical cannabis in 1996, when Colorado and Washington were the first two states to vote to legalize for recreational purposes in 2012, and when California, as the nation’s biggest, wealthiest state, voted to legalize pot for recreational uses in 2016. But 2018 has come at a dizzying pace — with action across all parts of the US, and Canada becoming the first rich nation to reject a decades-old international drug policy regime.

When you put this all together, it sure feels like marijuana legalization has reached a kind of tipping point. But to understand why, let’s break down why these individual moments are a big deal for the legalization movement.

1) Canada’s move to legalize shakes up the global drug policy regime

In a year with a lot of big news for marijuana legalization, Canada’s move to legalize may come out on top. With the Liberal Party government’s decision to legalize, Canada became the second country in the world, after the South American nation of Uruguay, to do so. But since Canada is a wealthy nation with a lot of diplomatic weight internationally, its decision carries meaning in a way that Uruguay’s did not.

Canada’s move to legalize undermines the global drug policy regime that has existed for decades. From the 1960s through the ’80s, much of the world, including the US and Canada, signed on to three major international drug policy treaties: the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, the Convention on Psychotropic Drugs of 1971, and the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988. Combined, the treaties require participants to limit and even prohibit the possession, use, trade, and distribution of drugs outside of medical and scientific purposes, and work together to stop international drug trafficking.

There is some debate about whether these treaties stop countries from decriminalizing marijuana — when criminal penalties are repealed but civil ones remain in place — and legalizing medical marijuana. But one thing the treaties are absolutely clear on is that illicit drugs aren’t to be allowed for recreational use and certainly not for recreational sales. Yet that’s exactly what Canada has now moved to allow.

Canada’s decision to legalize pot is the most high-profile rebuke of the international treaties since they were signed — since Canada is a relatively large developed country and is fairly active in the international arena. So far, it looks like no one is really challenging Canada for its decision. (The US has been the world’s primary enforcer of these treaties, but it does not seem likely to step in to fight a major ally on this when it is allowing legalized pot within its states — although America argues it’s still not in violation of the agreements because pot remains illegal at the federal level.)

Canada could find ways around this issue, much like Bolivia did to legalize coca leaf chewing. Or it could essentially ignore the treaties altogether, which is effectively what Uruguay has done.

But whatever it does, Canada’s move sends a high-profile signal: The current regime driving the world’s drug policy is not working. This comes after years of reformers trying to change the international treaties with little success. Canada’s move suggests that, if the treaties are not reformed, some countries will effectively ignore the agreements and move ahead with policy changes anyway.

By sending that signal, and likely facing little to no repercussion for it, Canada is showing other developed nations that they too can legalize marijuana. This may be just the beginning.

2) California is likely a bellwether for the marijuana industry

While Canada is the first wealthy nation to legalize, California offers something else that’s perhaps as important: This year, it allowed a recreational marijuana industry in a state that’s more populous and wealthier than any legal marijuana market (including Canada).

It may be easy to dismiss what California did because of the state’s previous medical marijuana system, in which just about anyone could stroll down to Venice Beach in Los Angeles, pay $40 or so for a medical marijuana card, and legally buy some cannabis.

There is a vast difference in scale between Venice Beach’s local medical pot shops and the burgeoning state and likely international marijuana industry that will come with full legalization. The consequences will be not just economic, but political too.

The new big marijuana industry, just like any other for-profit industry, wants to grow. The obvious pathway to doing that is legalizing pot in the dozens of states where it remains illegal. With many more customers thanks to California’s decision alone, the industry will have more profits to carry out the political campaigning and lobbying it needs to achieve this.

This is, in fact, what legalization advocates have long expected: The marijuana industry will increasingly play more of a role in the drug policy reform movement as legalization spreads.

“On some level, we have always known that,” Ethan Nadelmann, former executive director of the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance, previously told me. “And I think 2016 may be the last year in which drug policy reform organizations, driven primarily by concerns of civil liberties and civil rights and other good public policy motivations, will be able to significantly shape the legislation. And I assume that as the years progress, various industry forces will loom ever larger.”

The big problem with ballot initiatives is not a lack of public support. Based on surveys from Gallup and the Pew Research Center, at least 60 percent of US adults support legalization if asked in a yes-or-no poll about it. Even a poll conducted for the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which added nuance to the issue by asking people what their preference was between medical legalization, decriminalization, full legalization, and keeping current federal policy, found that 49 percent support full legalization — by far the biggest group of responders in the poll.

A chart tracking support for marijuana legalization. Gallup

Instead, the problem has long been that ballot initiatives can cost a lot of money. Whenever I ask legal pot activists why, for example, it took so long to get medical marijuana — which now polls very well virtually everywhere — in Ohio and Florida, the response is usually that those states are very expensive to run ballot initiatives in (partly because they’re relatively large and populous).

Well, there’s now going to be a rapidly growing industry to cover those expenses. And that will likely lead to more victories in the ballot box and legislatures down the line.

A caveat: This isn’t necessarily a good model for legalization. Even some legalization advocates have warned that Big Marijuana, as a for-profit industry, won’t have the public’s best health and safety interests in mind. While marijuana isn’t anywhere as dangerous as alcohol or other illicit drugs, it does carry some risks in addiction and overuse, accidents, nondeadly overdoses that lead to mental anguish and anxiety, and, in rare cases, psychotic episodes. Ideally, regulations would curtail this industry (as Canada is trying to do), but that isn’t how legalization typically plays out in the US.

Regardless, the reality is this model will likely give legalization advocates a big ally in coming battles in legislatures and ballot boxes.

3) States legalized marijuana for medical and recreational uses — and more are set to follow

All the while, states are continuing on their own with different kinds of legalization.

Some of that is happening through ballot measures. Oklahoma legalized medical marijuana this week. Voters in Utah — another red state — may follow with medical pot in November, when Michigan voters may legalize recreational cannabis as well.

Meanwhile, state legislatures are starting to take on recreational legalization on their own. Vermont became the first state to do so in January, when the legislature, with the approval of a Republican governor, passed a law that legalized possessing and growing marijuana (but not sales) for recreational uses. New Jersey’s legislature may soon follow with a bill that would legalize sales as well. And several other states, including Connecticut and New York, are also talking up legalization.

At the same time, major politicians continue lining up for marijuana legalization — with big names such as potential Democratic presidential contenders Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris, all of whom are currently US senators, throwing their support behind it. Even some Republican lawmakers, like Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), have backed bills to allow states to legalize with minimal federal interference.

This is all moving so quickly, with news happening so often, that it can be hard for me, even as someone who covers marijuana legalization for a living, to keep up with everything. It has made it all feel like a tipping point has been crossed — where states and even countries are now racing each other to see who can be next to the finish line.

It reminds me of being a reporter when same-sex marriage was in its third act, sprinting to the Supreme Court. Back then, news of courts striking down marriage bans came so often that we at Vox decided it’d be worthwhile to dedicate an entire article to just tracking the latest legal news to clear up the confusion about where each state stood. We are quickly getting to that point with marijuana.

For marijuana, it’s more remarkable because this is all happening even as certain parts of the government, especially Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s Department of Justice, try to fight legal cannabis by threatening federal prosecution against state-legal pot businesses. But there’s so much support for legalization that state lawmakers and voters are essentially shrugging off those federal efforts. (Even President Donald Trump now appears to be going against his Justice Department on this issue by potentially backing Gardner’s bill.)

Now, a majority of states still don’t allow marijuana for recreational purposes, with just nine doing so for now — so there’s still a lot of room for change. But as the pace in the states keeps up, and as moves like California’s and Canada’s give extra support to the legalization movement, it sure seems like all the pieces have come together and the drug policy reform movement now has, in what would’ve been unthinkable just years ago, a big advantage on marijuana.