LOS ANGELES: The blue associated with Democrats and the red of Republicans will blend with another color next Tuesday on Election Day: the green of marijuana, as nine states vote on legalizing pot.
Voters nationwide decide between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump for president, but in those states weed will also be on the ballot.
California, Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada will vote on legalizing possession and recreational use of marijuana, as well as regulating its cultivation, production and sale.
Similar initiatives have already been approved in four states and Washington, DC.
In Arkansas, Florida and North Dakota, residents will vote on legalizing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Montana will decide whether to make more flexible conditions under which marijuana can be used for therapeutic purposes.
The United States is the world’s largest consumer of drugs, and advocates say that legalizing marijuana would help end a decades-old war on drugs by eliminating the profit motive.
That war has left thousands dead in Latin America but done nothing to curb Americans’ appetite for getting high.
Marijuana is the most popular illegal drug in the United States, and 57 percent of Americans favor legalizing it, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center. A decade ago, support stood at 32 percent.
The US debate comes as Canada plans to legalize pot in 2017. Uruguay was the first country anywhere to regulate consumption, sales and production. It did so in 2014.
A pro-pot “yes” vote in states like California and Florida is almost certain to lead to a loosening of rules by other states.
If that happens, legalization at the federal level could follow in about five years, predicts Troy Dayton, co-founder and CEO of Market Research, which specializes in studying the marijuana market.
For now, though, consuming and selling pot is still a crime under federal law.
In 2012, Colorado became the first state to legalize pot for recreational use. By then, the use of pot for medicinal reasons had been allowed by some states for more than a decade.
Today, you can buy pot with a prescription in 25 states and the District of Columbia.
The industry is certainly profitable. In 2014, it did $4.6 billion in business, 92 percent of that from pot sold for medicinal purposes.
That figure is projected to grow to $20 billion by 2020, with half of it coming from recreational marijuana use, according to Arcview Market Research, a cannabis industry consultancy firm.
By 2020, California—with one of the world’s largest economies—should have a $6.4 billion dollar marijuana market, the firm said.
“It’s time to legalize. It’s time to tax. It’s time to regulate marijuana for adults in California,” California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom has said. “This is not a debate about hippies.”
Critics say legalizing marijuana can lead to a variety of problems: pot being grown near schools; a rise in addicts including among adolescents; an increase in traffic accidents caused by intoxicated drivers; and a bolstered black market with strengthened drug cartels.
There is also the fear, which is shared by growers, that big corporations like the tobacco companies will take over the pot business.
“There will always be a market for craft cannabis and high-end products because cannabis has a culture of connoisseurism much like coffee, beer and wine,” said Dayton.
He predicted major corporations will get into the market only when pot is legalized at the federal level and this will take at least five years.
“That gives small and medium-sized players a chance to take a run at a multi-billion dollar industry without having to compete with the big dogs yet,” the marijuana market specialist said.
For now, government restrictions make it unattractive for big companies to get into the act.
For example many banks, which are regulated at the federal level, refuse to do pot-related business because of the difficulties of proving the money they are handling is above board.
And the banks that do handle marijuana-related money charge very high fees.
Both Clinton and Trump have said they favor legalized medicinal use of marijuana, but not its use for recreational purposes.
The Drug Enforcement Administration ruled in August that it will still not approve requests to authorize use of pot for medical reasons.
DEA director Chuck Rosenberg has dismissed as a “joke” the idea that pot has medical benefits.
For now, so as to avoid conflicts among different levels of government, Congress has barred federal action against people working with pot in states where it is legal.
More referenda on marijuana are planned in 2017 and 2018. If those on the ballot November 8 pass, the green, pot-friendly splotches on the US map will extend to cover some 84 million Americans. AFP