Yesterday, Alaska and  Oregon joined Colorado and Washington in legalizing recreational marijuana.  Washington D.C. legalized personal possession of marijuana and in Florida, a ballot issue to approve medical marijuana barely lost when 58% of voters supported the measure falling just short of the 60% needed for approval. Commentators are predicting a controversy in Washington D.C. where a Republican-controlled Congress may try to block voter-approved legalization.

The election outcomes raise a number of issues.  Perhaps foremost is the fact the legalization movement remains citizen driven in the face of political timidity. In every jurisdiction where marijuana measures were on the ballot, citizen support was strong.  Alaskan citizens approved legalization by a  52 to 48 percent  margin and in Oregon, 56% of voters supported the marijuana measure.  In Florida, where the measure failed to reach the 60% needed, 58% of the voters supported the initiative.

The success of marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington last year undoubtedly played a role. Recent research on legalization has somewhat quieted the “sky is falling” predictions by opponents. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association in August found heroin overdose deaths in medical marijuana states 25% lower than in other states. This study follows others that found teen use of marijuana unchanged in those states after legalization. Perhaps just as important was the $125 million in tax revenue generated by the Colorado law.

In my opinion,  the most important take-a-way from the these results is the widening gap between the public and the political establishment.  ALL these legalization successes have come through direct citizen movements rather than legislative action. Ohio is a perfect illustration of the gap.  Polls earlier this year found citizen support for medical marijuana at 82% yet legislative action on the issue remains a non-starter. The only rational explanation is a timidness anchored in 40 years of “tough on drugs” political rhetoric.

The situation in Washington D.C. now poses a test of political leadership for Republicans. Are Republicans truly the party of limited government, supportive of personal freedom and responsive to voter concerns? Or will the build more jails, tough on drugs wing of the party ignore the election outcome and continue down the prohibition path?

Let’s hope the political wind has finally turned.