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Legal marijuana: Will most states head that way?

Speculation is afoot after the Justice Department signaled it will mostly leave to states the responsibility to regulate use. Washington State and Colorado are already working out details of legal marijuana.

By Staff writer / September 17, 2013

A vendor displays products at the High Times US Cannabis Cup Sept. 8 in Seattle. Washington State was one of the first to legalize recreational marijuana.

Jason Redmond/Reuters

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Is it possible that most US states will legalize marijuana for recreational use?

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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.

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