To the red-and-blue map of American politics, it may be time to add green. The movement to legalize marijuana, the country’s most popular illicit drug, will take a giant leap on Election Day if California and four other states vote to allow recreational cannabis, as polls suggest they may.
The map of where pot is legal could include the entire West Coast and a block of states reaching from the Pacific to Colorado, raising a stronger challenge to the federal government’s ban on the drug.
In addition to California, Massachusetts and Maine both have legalization initiatives on the ballot next month that seem likely to pass. Arizona and Nevada are also voting on recreational marijuana, with polls showing Nevada voters evenly split.
The passage of recreational marijuana laws in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington over the past four years may have unlocked the door to eventual federal legalization. But a yes vote in California, which has an economy the size of a large industrial country’s, could blow the door open, experts say.
“If we’re successful, it’s the beginning of the end of the war on marijuana,” said Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor of California and a former mayor of San Francisco. “If California moves, it will put more pressure on Mexico and Latin America writ large to reignite a debate on legalization there.”
Legalization puts pot-legal states in direct conflict with the federal government, particularly the Drug Enforcement Administration, which in August defied calls for a softening of regulations on marijuana and reaffirmed its classification as a Schedule 1 drug, the same category as heroin.
Legalization also reinforces a jarring dysfunction between state and federal legal systems over how to handle financial transactions related to marijuana. The federal government, which in 2013 announced it would not prosecute states for legalizing marijuana under certain conditions, accepts taxes from marijuana companies. But the same companies have trouble opening bank accounts or accepting credit cards because of the federal marijuana ban.
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