Is it possible that most US states will legalize marijuana for recreational use?
Already, Washington State and Colorado are working out detailed regulations for such use after voters last year approved the possession and consumption of personal amounts of pot. And 20 states, plus the District of Columbia, have allowed marijuana for medicinal purposes.
It's been 17 years since California voters shocked the world by allowing doctors to write prescriptions for pot and almost exactly 31 years since Ronald Reagan assured the nation that "we're going to win the war" on marijuana and other illicit drugs.
Now this summer, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has signaled that it will mostly leave to states the responsibility to regulate individuals' use of pot. And a majority of Americans – 52 percent, according to the Pew Research Center, now agree with that ubiquitous reggae plea: "Le-ga-lize it."
Yes, people are still being arrested for selling, even consuming, outlawed street drugs, and many members of society are still troubled by, among other things, new psychoactive compounds like the club drug "Molly," which has been blamed for several recent deaths.
And specifically regarding marijuana, the federal government still categorizes it as more harmful than cocaine.
Nevertheless, some policy experts predict that 1 out of 5 states will have legal recreational marijuana for American adults by 2016, and even some legalization critics like columnist David Frum have conceded that before long, half of US states will probably sanction recreational use.
To be sure, some suggest those time frames may be a bit heady, especially given the relatively slow pace of medical-marijuana expansion. But such predictions are also hard to discount, given rapidly shifting attitudes, often across political lines, about pot.
"There's a lot of political forces at play here, and there's a sense that the DOJ's announcement, which does represent a pretty big policy shift, doesn't tackle everything," says Robert Mikos, a marijuana law expert at Vanderbilt University Law School in Nashville, Tenn.
The legalization movement can trace its beginnings to the day in the mid-1960s when a Haight-Ashbury hippie walked into a San Francisco police station smoking a joint and demanded to be arrested. The lawyer who took up his cause was politically "right of [Barry] Goldwater," who believed the government had no business criminalizing a personal choice like smoking pot, says historian Martin Lee.
That strange amalgam – libertarians and hippies – remains the foundation around which cultural shifts on pot have happened.
"It's very much an odd-duck coalition," says Mr. Lee, author of "Smoke Signals," a social history of marijuana. "It includes libertarians calling upon government to tax and regulate – not something that libertarians usually do – and liberals calling for states' rights. The whole thing is very strange. But it's also partly why it's succeeding and prevailing" culturally and politically, he says.
California's medical-marijuana initiative became another landmark – partly because worries that the Golden State would turn into a land of zoned-out stoners never quite bore out.
In that light, "anybody who looks at this objectively at this point comes to the same conclusion, which is that regulation is working ... and it's clearly a better alternative than allowing the black market to control such a popular substance," says Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association.
Professor Mikos argues that something else happened on the way to marijuana accommodations, as well: the Great Recession.
Revenue-starved states and even conservative politicians, including libertarians and law-and-order types, are taking a harder, more nuanced look at legitimizing the massive underground marijuana market. In Vermont, for example, police backed a decriminalization law, and in California, one of the state's most conservative politicians, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R), is arguing for an end to discrepancies in drug sentencing rules. Even some of the most conservative corners of Colorado voted for legalization.
"You've got tough economic times: States are looking for new sources of revenues, ways to cut expenses. And maintaining the drug war costs money, and throwing people in prison for marijuana costs money," Mikos says.
Now, the Justice Department has indicated its position, by and large allowing states to regulate pot. But in testimony before Congress on Sept. 10, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the decision is not an abdication of responsibility to uphold federal law, since the Justice Department will continue to investigate and prosecute drug-related crimes that occur outside states' regulatory frameworks. Federal priorities will include the prevention of pot distribution to minors and of the transport of marijuana to states where it remains illegal.
The Obama administration's newfound marijuana discretion has its share of staunch critics. To Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, "giving the green light to an industry predicated on breaking federal law" borders on unconstitutional and is poor national health policy. Former drug czars wrote a scathing critique, saying the new DOJ policy will have catastrophic effects on the nation. Also, some note that an audit of Colorado's medical marijuana bureau showed major problems.
Along with the new Justice Department stance, the US Treasury Department is exploring new regulations to assure banks that they won't be prosecuted for taking deposits and transfers from weed dispensaries and growers. Currently, pot dispensaries operate chiefly on cash, which makes them prime targets for armed robberies.
Marijuana advocates are also pushing to change the federal tax code to allow pot dispensaries and growers to deduct business expenses from their taxes, like other businesses do.
Dan Riffle, a former Ohio prosecutor who's now federal policy director at the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, is optimistic about voters in more states following the lead of Washington State and Colorado.
"We'll see Alaska pass an initiative in 2014, and it's conceivable that Oregon will pass [one] in 2014," he says. "Going into 2016, we'll see California, Arizona, Nevada, possibly Maine, possibly Massachusetts – a whole wave of states tax and regulate marijuana by ballot initiative."
He adds, "Shortly thereafter, there will be a few states that will [regulate marijuana] legislatively, including Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Hawaii."
Presidential election years, in particular, can be like green gold for pot advocates. Last year, for example, 200,000 more Arkansans voted for medical marijuana than for President Obama – although the ballot initiative ultimately failed by a hair.
If the Northeast and West are moving rapidly toward legalization, pot remains scorned in the South and parts of the Midwest, where legalization advocates have made few inroads, largely because of cultural and religious intolerance for intoxication. "I don't think we'll see legalization in Mississippi, for example, in the next 10 years," says Mr. Smith of the cannabis association.
The parallel, he says, is alcohol prohibition, which didn't end in Mississippi until 1966. And it wasn't until 2011 that Georgia ended its Sunday ban on alcohol.
Yet even the South is beginning to bend. Florida is mulling a medical-marijuana referendum, and North Carolina and, yes, Mississippi have recently decriminalized pot possession.
Elected officials in the so-called Bible Belt could be watching the political winds: Some 58 percent of Tar Heel residents are OK with medical marijuana, according to a recent Public Policy Polling survey.
Opponents of marijuana expansion acknowledge that they're being pounded on several fronts, including fundraising, news media, and now the Justice Department. For example, the antilegalization side raised $6,000 in Massachusetts to fight a medical-marijuana vote, while pro-pot forces raised $1.2 million.
With the DOJ decision, Attorney General Eric Holder "has not just opened the floodgates, he's blown the dam wide open," says Calvina Fay, executive director of Save Our Society From Drugs in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Citing studies that show drops in IQ and health problems in heavy pot smokers, "I shudder to think where we're going to be in another generation," Ms. Fay says. "Is this really what we want for the future of our children?"