Higher Ground: Despite Trump, election a watershed for weed 

The big headline after the last election was the surprise Electoral College win for President-elect Donald Trump. But aside from that, things went really well for marijuana supporters.

There were nine legalization and medical marijuana questions on ballots — eight of them won. The only loss was in Arizona, where a recreational legalization initiative lost. However, recreational legalization won in California, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Maine. Medical marijuana won in Florida, Arkansas, Montana and North Dakota. Pro-marijuana activists are pretty happy with the election results; indeed they might be dancing in the streets except Donald Trump's victory makes the federal response on legalization somewhat murky.

President-elect Trump has not had a clear message regarding his response to legalization efforts. The Republican platform referred to the "problematic consequences" of the trends and public attitudes toward marijuana. Trump himself has said that he is "100 percent for medical marijuana," and that states should be left on their own to implement their own laws. However his choice for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., testified in a Senate hearing in the spring that "good people don't smoke marijuana." On top of that, running mate Mike Pence, and two of Trump's closest associates, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, are serious supporters of the War on Drugs.

Legalization support strong

At the same time, public sentiment in support of legalization is at its highest since polls have been tracking the issue. Recent polls have tracked support for recreational legalization as high as 63 percent, with a Quinnipiac poll showing the lowest amount of support among major polls at 54 percent. That same Quinnipiac poll showed public support for medical marijuana at 89 percent.

"A clear majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana, and supermajorities across party lines believe that states should be able to implement their own cannabis laws without federal interference," says Tom Angell of the Marijuana Majority. "The truth is, marijuana reform is much more popular with voters than most politicians are, and officials in the new administration would do well to take a careful look at the polling data on this issue before deciding what to do. During the campaign the president-elect pledged to respect state marijuana laws and he should keep his word — both because it's the right thing to do and because a reversal would be a huge political misstep."

With 89 percent support for medical marijuana, it would certainly be a fight to roll that back. In addition, 28 states and the District of Columbia have broad medical marijuana use laws on the books while another 15 have narrow CBD-only statutes. That comes to 43 states with some kind of accommodation to medical marijuana.

Had the MI Legalize effort made the ballot, it could well have won at the polls. The MI Legalize effort collected enough signatures to put the question before voters; it just didn't do it fast enough to satisfy lawmakers. That group is already working to get the question on the 2018 ballot.

In the meantime there are eight states that have recreational legalization. Significantly, California's initiative won in the nation's largest population and the world's sixth largest economy. That solidifies the West Coast post-prohibition territory from Alaska to Baja. Perhaps just as significantly, legalization wins in Massachusetts and Maine have opened up a new region to legalization in the Northeast. Already there is talk of legalization in Vermont and Rhode Island.

Another significant development came in Denver, where voters approved social use of marijuana at private establishments — opening the door to cannabis cafes and the like. This is big because even though there are states where people can buy and use cannabis (the scientific name for marijuana) mostly they are still shunted off into the shadows with restrictions on where they could use it. Gathering together for social use was not allowed except for in a few private membership clubs. The Denver law accommodates any adult, including tourists, who wish to use the facilities.

Big money

Further aspects of the marijuana issue are corporate moves to cash in on the market. For instance, Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., which makes fertilizers and lawn care products, has seen its stock price rise the last year-and-a-half since it began investing in hydroponic growing products and lighting systems. Tobacco companies are reportedly eyeing a potential $50 billion marijuana market to replace a dwindling cigarette smoking population. They're buying up vaporizer companies. Even the alcohol industry wants in on the action. Constellation Brands, the company that owns Corona beer, Svedka vodka, and Richard's Wild Irish Rose wine is looking at the marijuana trade.

Constellation CEO Rob Sands told Bloomberg: "There are going to be alcoholic beverages that will also contain cannabis."

He wasn't clear whether there would be THC or other cannabinoids in the beverages. Musician Melissa Etheridge has a company that produces cannabis-infused wine that has no THC in it, and there are a number of hemp teas on the market that don't get you high. Regardless, a huge cannabis market is not going to be ignored by the people who make it their business to make money.

"If there's a lot of money involved, it's not going to be left to small mom-and-pops," Sands says.

The Street, an investment information website, ran a post-election headline that read, "Marijuana industry bullish on state success, Trump administration." The story said a currently $7 billion legal market could quadruple in four years.

That means that there will be a lot of financial pressure for a Trump administration to stay away from blocking marijuana legalization. As much as marijuana activists would like to keep the business in the hands of small, local companies, it's the big money that is going to move mountains on this issue. Even in the state-level skirmishes that have taken place so far, it is the well-financed, connected initiatives that have been successful. California had the support of the national marijuana policy organizations and the money they could access. The various support organizations raised about $18 million to legalize there. The Michigan effort had no national organizational support and was left to find its own way — managing to raise about $1 million.

International picture

The Trump administration could easily move to ramp up the War on Drugs, but that would be counter to national public opinion and international trends. Canada is set to roll out a legalization plan in the spring, and Mexico is moving toward medical legalization and possibly decriminalization for possession of small amounts. Portugal, Uruguay, Australia, Jamaica, Italy, Israel, Germany, and other countries have made their laws more marijuana friendly.

Time magazine called this year's election a "watershed for weed," pointing out that 1 in 5 Americans now live in states where recreational marijuana is available. After 79 years marijuana prohibition may be taking its last breaths — but the political world may show it's still got some fight in it.

More by Larry Gabriel

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