It seems very unlikely that the momentum for legalization will stop on its own. About 50 percent of voters around the country now favor legalizing the drug for recreational use (the number only passed 30 percent in 2000 and 40 percent in 2009), and the younger you are, the more likely you are to favor legal pot. Legalization campaigns have the backing of a few committed billionaires, notably George Soros and Peter Lewis, and the polls suggest that the support for legalization won’t simply be confined to progressive coalitions: More than a third of conservatives are for full legalization, and there is a gender gap, with more men in favor than women. Perhaps most striking of all, an organized opposition seems to have vanished completely. In Washington State, the two registered groups opposing the referendum had combined by early fall to raise a grand total of $16,000. “We have a marriage-equality initiative on the ballot here, and it is all over television, the radio, the newspapers,” Christine Gregoire, the Democratic governor of Washington, told me just before the election. When it comes to marijuana, “it’s really interesting. You don’t hear it discussed at all.” A decade ago, legalization advocates were struggling to corral pledges of support for medicinal pot from very liberal politicians. Now, the old fearful talk about a gateway drug has disappeared entirely, and voters in two states have chosen a marijuana regime more liberal than Amsterdam’s.
These votes suggest what may be a spreading, geographic Humboldt of the mind, in which the liberties of pot in far-northern California, and the unusually ambiguous legal regime there, metastasize around the country. If you live in Seattle and sell licensed marijuana, your operation could be perfectly legal from the perspective of the state government and committing a federal crime at the same time. It is hard to detect much political enthusiasm for a federal pot crackdown, but the complexities that come with these new laws may be hard for Washington to simply ignore. What happens, for instance, when a New York dealer secures a license and a storefront in Denver, and then illegally ships the weed back home? Economists who have studied these questions thoroughly say that they can’t rule out a scenario in which little changes in the consumption of pot—the same people will smoke who always have. But they also can’t rule out a scenario in which consumption doubles, or more than doubles, and pot is not so much less prevalent than alcohol.
And yet the prohibition on marijuana is something more than just a fading relic of the culture wars. It has also been part of the ad hoc assemblage of laws, treaties, and policies that together we call the “war on drugs,” and it is in this context that the votes on Election Day may have their furthest reach. When activists in California tried to fully legalize marijuana there in 2010, the most deeply felt opposition came from the president of Mexico, who called the initiative “absurd,” telling reporters that an America that legalized marijuana had “very little moral authority to condemn a Mexican farmer who for hunger is planting marijuana to sustain the insatiable North American market for drugs.” This year, the reaction from the chief strategist for the incoming Mexican president was even broader and more pointed. The votes in Colorado and Washington, he said, “change somewhat the rules of the game … we have to carry out a review of our joint policies in regard to drug trafficking and security in general.” The suggestion from south of the border wasn’t that cocaine should be subject to the same regime as marijuana. It was: If we are going to rewrite the rules on drug policy to make them more sensible, why stop at only one drug? Why go partway?
Something unexpected has happened in the past five years. The condemnations of the war on drugs—of the mechanized imprisonment of much of our inner cities, of the brutal wars sustained in Latin America at our behest, of the sheer cost of prohibition, now likely past a trillion dollars—have migrated out from the left-wing cul-de-sacs that they have long inhabited and into the political Establishment. “The war on drugs, though well-intentioned, has been a failure,” New Jersey governor Chris Christie said this summer. A global blue-ribbon panel that included both the former Reagan secretary of State George Shultz and Kofi Annan had reached the same conclusion the previous June: “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies.” The pressures from south of the border have grown far more urgent: The presidents of Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Belize, and Costa Rica have all called for a broad reconsideration of the drug war in the past year, and the Organization of American States is now trying to work out what realistic alternatives there might be.