Conor Friedersdorf is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.
The fortunes of political parties wax and wane, whereas the movement to legalize cannabis won key victories Tuesday that portend a generational shift in drug policy.
President Obama lost his mandate to govern Tuesday as his party ceded control of the Senate and additional seats in the House. For partisans who obsess over the ups and downs of every election cycle, that makes Democrats seem like the biggest losers in the midterms, though they could realistically regain the Senate in 2016.
Indisputably, the Democrats had a terrible night.
But the 2014 losers least likely to regain ground in future elections are marijuana prohibitionists. Oregon and Alaska just became the third and fourth states to legalize the drug. Washington, D.C., voted for legalization, as did the city of South Portland, Maine. The island territory of Guam chose to allow medicinal marijuana. And while Florida voters defeated a constitutional amendment legalizing medicinal weed, it required 60 percent support to pass and received roughly 58 percent of the vote. A healthy majority in the state want medical cannabis to be legal.
The polities that rejected marijuana prohibition Tuesday will make it even harder for the federal government to crack down on the drug in any states where it is legal.
The new laws will grow a marijuana industry that will spend some of its largess on lobbying.
The outcome was also notable for coming in a midterm, when younger voters are less likely to show up at the polls. Like earlier victories for recreational use in Colorado and Washington, Tuesday's results will reduce the taboo that surrounds legalization, making it easier to raise money for ballot initiatives in other states and easier to persuade voters that following suit won't have terrible consequences. Drug warriors also suffered another blow in California on Tuesday when voters handily passed Proposition 47, reclassifying common drug crimes as misdemeanors. That could portend a successful legalization push two years from now in the Golden State, where medicinal marijuana has long been permitted and demographics and voter turnout could make things tough on prohibitionists.
"With marijuana legal in the federal government's backyard it's going to be increasingly difficult for national politicians to continue ignoring the growing majority of voters who want to end prohibition," says legalization advocate Tom Angell. "We can expect to see many more ambitious national politicians finally trying to win support from the cannabis constituency instead of ignoring and criminalizing us."
That last bit may be too optimistic. I would be surprised to see any contender in the 2016 presidential field endorse legalization. I do expect more candidates to take the position that this is a matter that ought to be left up to the states and the people. Unless demographic trends change dramatically in an unexpected direction, that means much of America will eventually legalize marijuana, though a lot of people will be needlessly arrested and jailed at taxpayer expense in the interim. The details of the Oregon law are here. Information on the Alaska initiative is here. And details on the defeated constitutional amendment from Florida is here.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.