There’s been a lot of talk lately about the "marijuana tipping point" in America and whether or not we’re near it, perched atop it, or have already passed it, but what milestone are we talking about here? The definition of this little news tag really depends on who you ask, but in general, it’s the watershed moment that leads directly to the inevitable repeal of prohibition.
For some, it’s the point where cannabis goes mainstream and its consumption by adults is widely accepted, at least on the same level as alcohol. But how do you measure that? For others, usually those more interested in policymaking, the tipping point is more about legislation. In some cases the tipping point is a number of states—25 for some—that will push a change in federal law. Now that we’re at 20 states and counting, are we in the middle of the moment that will change everything?
It’s easy to see that the talk about legalization has gotten further than it’s managed to in the past 80 years. Our president has admitted to consuming cannabis and his former opponent is also toying with the idea of legalization. Celebrities regularly post photos of themselves doing it and our most decorated Olympic athlete has been caught red-handed. At the very least, cannabis is losing its menacing image. What is it that brought about this change from marijuana’s constant portrayal as a societal plague to a harmless plant that can also provide great benefits?
There is some trickle-down attitude adjustment happening from the counterculture generation that created the “stoner” archetype, but much of the change has been on an educational level. Thanks to the greater population’s rediscovery of cannabis’ medicinal benefits, it’s hard to argue for its Schedule I status as a drug with no medicinal value. Factor in the staggering lack of evidence that cannabis deserved its baneful reputation in the first place (no overdoses, no deadly withdrawals) and people start to question the propaganda they’ve been fed.
If the tipping point is public opinion, then we may be there already. While this figure is different all over the country, overall, more Americans are ready to see the end of prohibition. The newest CNN poll found that 55% of respondents think cannabis should be made legal. Along with medical use, more people are recreationally consuming the drug, which has certainly led to the public’s improved opinion of it. However, it also has something to do with the tone of the conversation. Medical marijuana means that stoners aren’t just talking about cannabis, but doctors and scientists are, too. Moms are talking about it and boardroom meetings are being held about it. The topic hasn’t changed, but there are more diverse participants helping to build the audience.
But a true tipping point should be measurable, or at least simple enough to put on a timeline so that it can be easily taught in the history classes of future generations. In the efforts to legalize, this looks like it will have to be a legislative event. States have asserted the right to make their own rules when it comes to cannabis. In turn, the Department of Justice has had to take a public stance that turned out to be more lenient than expected. Judges themselves have already been showing their support of their states’ laws in cases that have seen the rights of medical patients upheld and charges dismissed or sentences suspended.
Certainly the DOJ’s announcement that it would not be challenging Washington and Colorado’s legal cannabis is a big moment, but is it the moment? We’ll really need some time to tell. The truth is, while they are playing nice, the Federal government reserves the right to change their mind at any time. And as much as advocates would like it, there is no magic number of states that will force cannabis to be re- or de-scheduled.
Given public opinion and the government’s own dabblings in the medical cannabis field, it seems we are at the tipping point, but there is too much inertia keeping us legally in the past. A hugely prosperous prison system has been largely supported by the drug war, international prohibitionist policies have been established, and above all, many people are still buying into the lie that cannabis is a highly addictive, harmful substance that will destroy lives and communities. Decades of miseducation are hard to unlearn, but it is possible.
One of the best ways is by example, so we may have to wait a little longer for a true switch that means we’re in the final stretch—at least until Colorado and Washington have had some more time to show that it can be done. If anything, successful legalization in these two states will be the final push. Whether that can be done with contradictory federal laws and conflicting medical programs remains to be seen, but the diligence that both states are putting into following the rules is a good sign.