While we all wait breathlessly to see if I was brilliantly right or stupidly wrong to predict a tight Biden victory, let us discuss the clear winner of the United States election: Legal marijuana.
Although New Zealand has of course rejected full legalisation, three more US states voted to approve recreational pot this week. They include deep blue, purple and red states, and their margins would be the envy of either presidential candidate. Apparently, although we may hate each other, we love pot.
Blue New Jersey, purple Arizona and bright red South Dakota all legalised recreational marijuana. New Jersey actually amended its state constitution to do so, which will make it very hard to reverse the law. South Dakota not only voted 53 per cent in favour, it legalised both medical and recreational use simultaneously. That’s something no state here has ever done.
“It’s like a baby learning to walk and talk on the same day,” said attorney Daniel Shortt. He specialises in marijuana matters at the Green Light Law Group in Seattle, where pot has been recreationally legal since 2014.
And that’s not all: Mississippi is a famously conservative state that finally removed the Confederate symbol from its flag just this year. But this week it seems to have passed a liberal medical measure instead of an alternate proposal that reserved pot for terminally ill patients only. Not to be outdone, Oregon decriminalised small amounts of heroin, cocaine and meth. A recreational pot state since 2015, Oregon also legalised psychedelic mushrooms for sale yesterday. Washington DC decriminalised “shrooms” too.
In red state Montana, where yet another recreational measure seems likely to pass, the referendum organisers had to get creative to collect the 76,400 signatures required to get on the ballot during the pandemic. So they redesigned their signature drive with new health protocols, including hand sanitiser, distancing and temperature checks for volunteers. Every signer was given their own clean, new pen.
“All the initiatives on the ballot in the US won. Every single marijuana initiative at any level won,” Shortt told me. “After this election, one third of Americans will live in a state with legal recreational marijuana.”
Pot legalisation here began with medical dispensaries in California in 1996 and has grown bigger since. In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states with legalised recreational pot. Blue state pot use is easy to understand. But no one expected South Dakota and Mississippi would be so easy.
It’s not completely clear why this is happening now. Living in a country that’s doing a pretty good imitation of the decline of the Roman Republic is depressing. Trump creates anxiety. Pandemics are horrible and arduous. And pot sales have soared here since it began.
Here in Washington state, which has about 7 million residents, marijuana sales have climbed from US$14 million ($20.9m) in 2014 to more than a billion dollars last year. It’s up even more sharply since Covid-19 hit this winter. As a result, Washington state monthly excise tax income on pot sales jumped from about US$35m in February to almost US$47m in July. That’s just tax revenue, for one month, in one state not much more populous than New Zealand.
Part of the explanation for the green wave here is this green money. Total American retail pot sales will probably reach US$8.7 billion next year, and perhaps $37b by 2024, according to some estimates.
Tax revenue from it in Washington State alone is closing in on half a billion dollars annually. That drives a lot of interest, politics and action. Not surprisingly, American pro-pot initiatives out-raised their opponents by 36-1 this year. It used to be pretty much the reverse.
And that can change a lot of laws.
Despite the obvious and overwhelming state interest, things are still oddly complicated at the US federal level.
Although pot is now legal in most states, it’s still very much against US federal law.
To prevent the wholesale shutdown of the industry, the US Department of Justice has issued a waiver that temporarily restrains our drug agents from busting every grow and pot shop in America.
In addition, the IRS tax agency takes a dim view of the business. Unlike every other legal business in the country, pot stores cannot deduct any expenses or salaries, except their cost for the weed itself. So federal tax income on pot is huge and pot profits are much smaller than many other industries.
Neither Biden nor Trump has promised to end this. Trump’s 2016 victory initially alarmed the industry when he appointed famously anti-pot Jeff Sessions Attorney General. But nothing happened and Sessions was fired for other reasons.
It’s not clear if this legal drug boom is entirely for the better. Yes, there will be fewer arrests, a smaller black market and fewer ruined lives. But sobriety is not a vice and pot legalisation will likely lead to more users, if legal ones. Pot is no panacea. New Zealand can always change its mind if it wants to.
And yet, in a time when my country is deeply divided and on a razor’s edge, it is perhaps nice to see that there is still at least one thing left that most Americans agree on: We want to get stoned.
• Dick Brass was vice-president of Microsoft and Oracle for almost two decades. His firm Dictronics developed the first modern dictionary-based spellcheck and he was an editor at the Daily News, NY.
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