Beginning April 20, and continuing throughout the weekend (or until the snacks run out), swarms of so-called “stoners” will be gathering on grassy knolls, city streets and even the U.S. Capitol steps to celebrate the international marijuana holiday known as “4/20.” And while the yearly, pungent “protests” are often treated as sideshows, the issue of legalized cannabis - and the benefits it is providing to a variety of Americans - is growing too big to ignore.
While the origins of the festivities remain as hazy as the celebrations themselves, "420" is believed to be a reference to police code used in 1970s California to note a "marijuana arrest in progress." And while the term may have started off as something of an inside-joke among the 1970s counterculture, the holiday seems to be taking on a more mainstream feel as folks consider the practical benefits of legalization, and the growing signs of public acceptance.
Pro-cannabis activists were literally handing out "joints" on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Thursday afternoon (and yes, there have been arrests). Some 28 states and the District of Columbia now have laws permitting the use of marijuana in some form. Canada is considering a bill to "legalize it" nationwide. And while a growing number of polls and studies suggest many Americans are coming around to the idea of legalized cannabis, the issue is still the subject of intense debate at the highest levels.
According to data compiled by Governing Magazine, more than half the states in the nation now have laws that either legalized marijuana for recreational use, or legalized the substance for medical use "broadly." That doesn't include the small number of states, like Alabama and Mississippi, who have laws permitting the use of marijuana for certain medical conditions, like severe epilepsy.
A Yahoo/Marist poll released earlier this week revealed that two-thirds of respondents think prescription painkillers like Vicodin are “riskier” to use than marijuana. Some 83% of respondents in the same poll believe marijuana should be legalized for medical use nationwide.
Despite the widespread legalization of the drug for various purposes, marijuana remains just that - a drug - in the eyes of the federal government. Classified as a Schedule-1 illegal substance under DEA guidelines, marijuana is put in the same class as heroin and cocaine.
The Obama Justice Department told U.S. attorneys that states should be allowed to pursue legalization, despite the federal restrictions. However, there have already been cases where federal courts have ruled against people who have been punished by employers for using marijuana in states where it is legal.
When it comes to President Trump’s administration, the issue gets more complicated still. Back in 2015, then-candidate Trump told a Nevada crowd "in terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should really be a state issue, state by state." In February, 2017, Press Secretary Sean Spicer suggested that while President Trump supports medical marijuana, the issue of recreational laws should be left to the Justice Department to decide.
Trump's attorney general, former Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, has a history of opposition to marijuana, but suggested at his January confirmation hearing that perhaps Congress should be doing the deciding. "The United States Congress has made the possession of marijuana in every state and the distribution of it an illegal act,” Sessions said, before clarifying “if that's something that's not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change the rule."
While there may be a lack of consensus on the issue at a federal level, supporters point to the fiscal benefits of legalization as an undeniable benefit - no matter your political persuasion.
When Colorado first legalized cannabis for recreational use back in 2014, Robin Hackett immediately seized on the opportunity to go into business with her sister, Cheri. The two have since opened a retail dispensary, and Hackett believes this may be one of the few instances in which Democrats and Republicans will likely both benefit.
“I’m a conservative person,” Hackett told Fox News, before adding that while she believes it was the “Democrats [who] set marijuana free… the Republicans will make an industry out of it.”
A study by New Frontier Data, a group that monitors the cannabis industry, suggests that states with legalized marijuana could rake in $655 million from retail sales just this year - with revenues forecasted to eventually reach some $1.8 billion.
Over the course of last year alone, Colorado raked in $200 million in tax revenue. Some $42 million was distributed to various state education projects, and some $16 million for Affordable Housing Grants and Loans among other initiatives.
In Oregon, more than $65 million in revenue has been generated since last January. The state's Common School Fund will receive 40% of that boon, while the rest is divided up between mental health & addiction services, as well as the state's law enforcement at all levels.
California, where pot was legalized for recreational use in November, reportedly believes it could generate some $100 million in savings, and $1 billion in revenue, annually.
There are even suggestions that medicinal marijuana could save Medicaid some $1 billion if it were legal nationwide. A study published in the journal Health Affairs found that marijuana laws resulted in some $475.8 million in Medicaid savings in 2014.