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California voters legalize recreational marijuana: Will federal law follow?

Voters approved marijuana for recreational use in California, Massachusetts, and Nevada. Will a Trump administration join the trend?

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    Different types of marijuana are displayed at Sparc Dispensary Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, in San Francisco. California voters approved a ballot measure Tuesday allowing recreational marijuana in the nation's most populous state.
    Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
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Tuesday night California, Massachusetts, and Nevada joined Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington state and Washington D.C. in legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.

Similarly, medical use referenda passed in Florida, North Dakota and Arkansas, making the 2016 election the biggest victory for cannabis proponents since 2012, when Colorado and Washington became the first to vote to end prohibition of the drug. The growing state support for pot consumption, as evidenced by this election, is interpreted by proponents that there's momentum to change the federal laws banning the drug's use, sale, and cultivation.

“I think of this victory in California as a major victory,” Lauren Mendelsohn, the chairwoman of the board of directors of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a group that has campaigned against the government’s war on drugs, told the New York Times. “It shows the whole country that prohibition is not the answer to the marijuana question.”

But critics note that Arizona voted down a recreational marijuana initiative Tuesday, and argue that the pro-pot movement may have cherry picked the more liberal states, but the momentum could stall in more conservative states. And a Trump administration isn't looking very pro-marijuana. In Maine, the "yes" vote on recreational marijuana ballot initiative is ahead by 1 percent with 93 percent of the vote counted, as of Wednesday morning. 

The California referendum will allow those over 21 to possess small amounts of marijuana for personal use and to grow up to six plants on their private property if they are are not visible to the public. California, Massachusetts, and Nevada, plan to implement these measures by 2018 after licenses are issued to dispensaries and other related businesses. 

There are still questions about driving while high, so some of the  additional $1 billion in tax revenue expected to come from marijuana sales in California are to be put toward a study to develop more accurate tests for determining whether a driver is impaired by marijuana. Marijuana tax money will also be directed to drug education programs for young people as well as efforts to curb the environmental impact of increased marijuana cultivation and production.

California has long been hub of support for marijuana, as well as illicit marijuana cultivation, and with the state’s powerful economy, advocates see it as occupying a unique position to push for reform of US federal ban on marijuana.

“This represents a monumental victory for the marijuana reform movement,” Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. “With California’s leadership now, the end of marijuana prohibition nationally, and even internationally, is fast approaching.”

Advocates say that the federal government's war on drugs stance will not hold up as more states legalize recreational and medical marijuana use. But the White House still opposes the legalization of marijuana because it says it would increase the availability and use of illicit drugs. In August, in a letter in the Federal Register, the DEA said marijuana should remain as a Schedule I drug, a class that includes drugs the regulator says have a “high potential for abuse” and “no current accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.”

Still, President Barack Obama said in a recent interview with Bill Maher that there's a need for "a more serious conversation about how we're treating marijuana and our drug laws in general."

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D) of Oregon and a supporter of legalization, told The New York Times, “The new administration is not going to want to continue this toxic and nonproductive war on drugs.”

But after Tuesday's vote, which gives Republicans control of the House, Senate, and White House, there may be less receptivity to changing federal law on recreational use of marijuana.

"In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state," Donald Trump told The Washington Post. "… Marijuana is such a big thing. I think medical should happen – right? Don’t we agree? I think so. And then I really believe we should leave it up to the states."

Marijuana advocates are aware that a Trump administration may be less receptive to a federal change. “The prospect of Rudy Giuliani or Chris Christie as attorney general does not bode well,” Mr. Nadelmann told the Washington Post. “There are various ways in which a hostile White House could trip things up.”

William A. Galston and E.J. Dionne Jr. acknowledge the growing public support for marijuana use in the US, but write in a study for the Brookings Institution that it's a mistake to assume that national support for issues such as same-sex marriage also means that marijuana is on a similar track to legalization.

Attitudes toward legalization are marked by ambivalence, especially on the conservative side. Many of those who favor legalization do so despite believing that marijuana is harmful or reporting that they feel uncomfortable with its use. Among conservatives, many who believe marijuana should be illegal nonetheless support states’ right to legalize it and take a dim view of government’s ability to enforce a ban," the researchers wrote. 

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