New York City, United States – Standing in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem, Frank Mills puffs on a thinly rolled marijuana cigarette, exhaling a long thin stream of smoke towards downtown Manhattan.
“I’m celebrating,” said Mills, a native New Yorker whose governor recently proposed to decriminalise possession of under 15 grams of marijuana – a move that came just days after the November 4 midterm elections, when voters overwhelmingly embraced the legalisation of recreational marijuana in Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia.
“Fifteen or 20 years ago, legalisation and decriminalisation would have seemed impossible,” said Mills, referring to the decades-long drug war that has led to the mass incarceration of Americans, disproportionally affecting African-American communities such as Harlem.
“But people have seen the effects, and they are finally saying enough.”
Since the late 1990s, and particularly over the past five years, there has been a sea change in public attitudes towards the legality of marijuana. Today in the United States, 23 states have decriminalised the use of medical marijuana, with another 18 allowing the possession of small amounts for personal consumption.
“A lot of it is attributable to education,” said Morgon Fox, communications manager for the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy and lobbying group that put millions of dollars into recent campaigns in Alaska, Washington DC, and Oregon.
“As more people learn about the harms caused by prohibition and the objective safety of marijuana when compared to alcohol, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify these failed [drug] policies,” Fox told Al Jazeera.
Others attribute the changing political landscape to the growth of the marijuana lobby, which during the recent midterms helped pro-legalisation campaigns outspend the opposition by more than 20-1 in Oregon, Alaska and Washington DC, according to state government documents.
“It was about voters hearing only the legalisers’ message because they were the only ones with real money,” said Kevin A Sabet, a former White House drug-policy advisor, and current president of the anti-legalisation organisation Smart Approaches to Marijuana.
“What happened was because of the millions of dollars the pro-campaign spent on getting their message out.”
For first time in history more than half of the country – 58 percent – now support marijuana’s legalisation, according to a recent Gallup poll. An issue once designated to the far left has gained bi-partisan support, as progressives and conservatives alike have found common cause.
“It’s a fascinating coalition,” said Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, the only national trade group representing the marijuana industry. “You have traditional progressives that are wary of the effect of drug war policies, libertarians and conservatives that support free markets and states rights, and the state politicians that see the potential economic benefits of tax revenue and law enforcement savings,” West told Al Jazeera.
But others are wary that new public interest in legalisation and decriminalisation in the US could be replaced by profit-driven motives of a burgeoning cannabis industry.
“It’s a very legitimate concern,” said Mark Kleiman, a leading researcher on US drug policy, who said he sees the potential for abuse through promotion by the cannabis industry, much like alcohol or cigarette companies.
“By the time we get to writing national legislation, the cannabis industry may have displaced the cannabis movement,” the UCLA professor told Al Jazeera.
In Oregon, the pro-legalisation campaign outspent the opposition by more than 30-1, with most of the money coming from out-of-state sources, according to Mandi Puckett, director of the “No on 91” campaign opposing legalisation in Oregon.
“Marijuana interests for the ‘Yes’ campaign raised over $5m,” said Puckett in an email to Al Jazeera, though an official state document put the figure at close to $8m. “Our campaign had $180,000, mostly from the Oregon Sheriffs, almost all funds were from local Oregonians.”
This influence of out-of-state money, coupled with the establishment of the industry’s first full-time Washington DC lobbyist, has led the opposition to coin the term “Big Marijuana”.
“My biggest concern is creating Big Tobacco 2.0,” said Sabet. “The marijuana lobby already has a lobbying group in DC, and that is exactly the direction they are heading. They are taking their cues from Big Tobacco: downplay the risks, encourage heavy use, start em’ young, and fund your own advocacy.”
“Right now there is Big Marijuana and it’s called criminal cartels,” said West, addressing the huge illicit marijuana industry present in the US.
“With a criminalised and unregulated system, you have a product that has no oversight, no responsibility, and no health testing. This is the worst case scenario, and one that has reaped huge social and economic harm on this country.”
Sabet, while acknowledging problems with US drug policies, said he doesn’t think legalisation is the key.
“Changes in attitudes are really coming from a distaste for a ‘war on drugs,'” Sabet said. “So if we can present an alternative to the war on drugs that is not legalisation, there is still room, I think, for another policy that stops short of retail marijuana legalisation.”
If the legalisation of both recreational and medical marijuana continues apace, the marijuana industry will be worth $2.5bn by the end of the 2014, according to the cannabis investor network ArcView, and is projected to reach $21bn by 2020, according to GreenWave Advisors.
‘Soft on drugs’
Five more states will have legalisation measures on the ballot in 2016, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.
The shifting attitudes and political landscape on the state level have yet to translate on Capitol Hill, as no nationally prominent politician has yet come out in support of legalization.
“People in politics today remember when cannabis legalisation was a fringe issue,” Kleiman said. “They are still terrified of being soft on drugs.”
West said marijuana is an issue where people are leading the politicians. “It will probably be the case for a while, but the momentum is growing.”
For some, including Gary Johnson – a 2012 presidential candidate and CEO of the company Cannabis Sativa – change is inevitable.
“Having a debate of whether marijuana is going to be legal in this country is like having a debate whether the sun will rise tomorrow,” Johnson told Al Jazeera. “The sun will rise – and marijuana will be legal.”