More than half the United States could see medical marijuana legalized in the next few years, as there are 23 states that have approved legalization and 16 states awaiting a decision as early as this year.
The first two states to watch are Pennsylvania and Florida. That’s according to Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, an organization that headed the push for legalization of recreational marijuana sales in Colorado.
An online poll distributed in Pennsylvania by the RMU Polling Institute shows that 67.5 percent of Pennsylvanians are in favor of legalizing medical cannabis, an 11 percent jump from polling the previous year. Lawmakers are expected to hear testimony next week on a House bill that would legalize medical cannabis.
The number of residents in support is even greater in Florida, where Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes recently introduced a bill that would legalize medical marijuana. A Quinnipiac University study from 2014 shows that almost 90 percent of statewide voters support the legal use of physician-prescribed marijuana.
Tvert has been an advocate for marijuana legalization since 2004, when he graduated college and began campaigning for medical marijuana during that year’s election cycle. A year later, he moved to Colorado and began building support for what would become Amendment 64, the measure that legalized recreational marijuana sales in Colorado in 2012.
Tvert has argued for legalization of cannabis on a number of points. For one, he says marijuana is a much less harmful substance than alcohol, in terms of its impact on the consumer and on society.
“It’s irrational to punish adults who make the safer choice,” Tvert said. “Marijuana prohibition has been just as big a failure as alcohol prohibition.”
The disparity surrounding safety between alcohol and marijuana has been long known, with various studies supporting Tvert’s sentiment on the matter.
In 2010, the British peer-reviewed journal Lancet published a study that analyzed the negative effects of 20 drugs, from alcohol to marijuana to tobacco. The study considered “individual harm” - including addiction, mortality and impairment of mental ability - as well as “harm to others” - crime, environmental damage and international damage. On a 100-point scale, cannabis recorded a rating of 20, while alcohol recorded a 72, the highest rating in the study. Alcohol, heroin, cocaine and tobacco were all listed as more dangerous than cannabis, while mushrooms, LSD and ecstasy were listed as less harmful.
A more recent study, published in January by Scientific Reports, showed that alcohol is 114 times more dangerous than alcohol, in terms of mortality. The study looked at 10 different drugs, with alcohol found to be the most harmful and marijuana the least. The research also claimed that harm associated with cannabis “may have been overestimated in the past,” while alcohol risks have been “commonly underestimated.
Those who delivered the report suggest that marijuana opponents would be better served combating alcohol and tobacco use than cannabis use.
Another point Tvert has rallied around is that states have much to gain through marijuana regulation. By treating marijuana like alcohol, states take the substance out of the underground market, control it and generate tax revenue that would otherwise be lost to non-sanctioned operations, Tvert said.
According to the Colorado Department of Revenue, dispensers in the state sold about $700 million worth of cannabis. Medical marijuana accounted for $386 million of that, while recreational sales made up $313 million
NerdWallet, a personal finance website, estimates that if all 50 states were to legalize cannabis, the country would be collecting more than $3 billion a year in tax revenue. The website contends that California would be the greatest beneficiary, raking in $519 million per year. New York would come in second with $248 million per year, according to the website, seven others would each earn about $100 million, and 25 states would see an estimated $20 million in revenue per year.
Tvert, who lives in Denver, has seen the culture shift in Colorado, from medical marijuana’s inception to the first shop openings to the dawn of recreational sales. Compared to 2005, he said a larger percentage of the public now recognizes that it’s okay for adults to use marijuana responsibly. If Coloradans can have a beer or glass of wine at night, they should be able to enjoy cannabis, as well, he said.
“They now recognize that adults should be able to choose marijuana if that’s what they prefer,” Tvert said.
Though some people talk about the medical value of antioxidants in wine, Tvert said there are far more medical benefits associated with marijuana than alcohol. The substance has been known to aid in pain-relief, ALS, mental disorders, glaucoma and cancer, among many other ailments.
The Marijuana Policy Project, where Tvert works, is supporting recreational initiatives in five states for 2016, including Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada. The organization also is working on medical bills and decriminalization.
Along with Pennsylvania and Florida, Tvert said others states that are gaining medical-marijuana momentum are West Virginia, Missouri and Ohio.
“Pennsylvania is probably, in terms of legislature, the most likely to be next, along with Missouri and West Virginia,” Tvert said.
Tvert also mentioned Texas’ recent medical marijuana bill, which the organization is hoping will pass in 2017.
The first state to legalize medical marijuana was California in 1996. Alaska, Oregon and Washington followed in 1998, and by 2008, nine more states had joined the movement. Today, 23 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. So far in 2015, two states have shot down medical-marijuana legislation: North Dakota and Mississippi. A second blow came to North Dakota marijuana advocates this month, when lawmakers shot down the proposal to study legalization. However, study supporters have suggested they will push to bring the issue to state voters at the next election.