Amid all the drama of the election last week—followed by either joyous celebration or garment-rending, depending on how one voted—one story got lost in the shuffle: voters in five geographically and culturally disparate states overwhelmingly registered their approval for legal pot.
It was an unmistakable message: Americans want pot legalized. The question now is whether lawmakers, especially those at the federal level, will listen.
That question is very much unanswered, and not only because it's still uncertain which party will control the U.S. Senate next year. If the Republicans maintain control after the two January runoff elections in Georgia, progress toward liberalizing federal cannabis laws will be slow at best. At the moment, the Senate is the only real barrier to various proposals to support cannabis in states where it's legal, thanks mainly to the obstructionism of Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Mike Crapo, the Idaho Republican who heads the Banking Committee and has blocked overwhelmingly popular, bipartisan legislation to enable banks to do business with cannabis clients without fear of legal liability.
But even if the Democrats win the Senate, such legislation—never mind full federal legalization—will likely take a year or more, if for no other reason than because Congress and the White House will be so busy cleaning up the gargantuan mess left by the outgoing administration and dealing with the Covid pandemic, the faltering economy and a host of other pressing issues.
Pot activists might believe loosening or striking down cannabis laws should be one of the nation's top priorities, but few others do. That said, Election Day proved that support for legalization is overwhelming. Voters in four states approved, by huge margins, measures to legalize pot for adult use. Mississippi voters, meanwhile, voted to approve medical pot in the most cannabis-averse part of the country.
That's notable because no Southern states have legalized weed for adult use, and three of the seven states that don't allow medical pot in any form are in the South. Several allow CBD oil only, which is hardly "medical marijuana." In short, any win for weed in the South can be counted as a major victory for legalization proponents.
Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota now join the 11 other states where weed was already legal for adult use. The margins of victory in the voter initiatives were, as a whole, more than decisive: 53 percent of South Dakota voters and 67 percent in New Jersey voted for the measures. That comports with national surveys showing that about two-thirds of Americans support legalization.
The pro-legalization group National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) hailed the victories, noting that they show citizens are far ahead of lawmakers on the issue.
"Despite this public consensus, elected officials have far too often remained unresponsive to the legalization issue," NORML Executive Director Erik Alitieri said in a statement. "This dereliction of representation has forced advocacy groups to directly place the marijuana-related ballot question before the voters."
Advocates now hope lawmakers will get the message.
After Election Day, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has long supported legal pot, said the "pressure will be on" for his state to legalize weed for adult use. He noted the pandemic has put pressure on the state budget, which is sending lawmakers scrambling for new sources of tax revenue.
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont cited the same, and told Yahoo News that legalizing pot in his state would dampen the spread of the virus by eliminating the need for people to drive to states like New Jersey and Massachusetts to obtain weed. "It's one way to keep people closer to home," he said.
But in the end, Georgia voters, of all people, might end up determining how soon federal legalization, or at least major reform like the SAFE Banking Act, might be signed into law.
While many pot advocates have expressed justifiable deep skepticism over President-Elect Joe Biden, it seems more likely than not that he would sign whatever pot legislation came to his desk. This, despite the fact that he had been a lifelong drug warrior who during the campaign said he disapproved of legalization. But he also said he supports decriminalization, which was, for him, a big evolution.