Voters in California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada passed measures on Tuesday to legalize recreational marijuana, making them the latest states to defy federal prohibition and test the waters under a new presidential administration.
The initiatives allow adults to use marijuana and grow a few plants, while also regulating a commercial pot market much like alcohol.
"This is the most important moment in the history of the marijuana legalization movement," Tom Angell, the founder of Marijuana Majority, told BuzzFeed News in a statement. "California is the sixth-largest economy in the world and is hugely culturally influential. Most importantly, this vote will dramatically accelerate the end of federal marijuana prohibition."
Three more states approved ballot measures to legalize marijuana for medical use, including Florida, North Dakota, and Arkansas.
President Obama has consistently opposed legal pot, but he has mostly stayed out of states that experiment with policies that clash with federal law.
Angell noted that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have “pledged to respect state marijuana laws, so we will have a lot of ammunition to go after them to keep those promises.”
A ballot measure in Arizona was rejected by voters on Tuesday.
State legislatures have blocked marijuana legalization efforts in recent years, but support among the American electorate has generally surged. Voters in Washington State and Colorado took the plunge with full legalization in 2012. Alaska and Oregon passed similar laws two years later.
Kevin Sabet, president of the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana and a past drug advisor to three presidential administrations, dismissed the results Tuesday as "disappointing, but not wholly unexpected."
"We don’t see this as tipping point or the end," he said. "We see this is a twisting and turning conversation."
He worried the recreational pot proposals will widen the door for mass marijuana production and heavy abuse, telling BuzzFeed News, "All of these were written with the industry in mind."
The Controlled Substance Act bans all marijuana use, including for medical reasons. However, the Justice Department has not attempted to block state legalization laws.
Peter Carr, a spokesman for the Justice Department, declined to say whether the government takes issue with any of the proposals on the ballot this year. He told BuzzFeed News the department’s current thinking is still found in a three-year-old memo distributed by Deputy Attorney General James Cole, which says government lawyers may prosecute any case they see fit.
Nonetheless, the memo’s guidance adds that officials place a low priority on state regulatory systems in harmony with federal goals to keep pot away from kids, prevent gang or cartel activity, stop pot from crossing state borders, and prevent drugged driving.
Obama said this week that if all of this year's legalizations measures pass, the existing strategy to enforce federal drug law will become "untenable."
“This referenda, to some degree it’s gonna call the question, because if in fact it passed in all these states, you now have about a fifth of the country that’s operating under one set of laws, and four-fifths in another,” Obama told Bill Maher in an interview released last week. “The Justice Department, DEA, FBI, for them to try to straddle and figure out how they’re supposed to enforce laws in some places and not in others — they’re gonna guard against transporting these drugs across state lines, but you’ve got the entire Pacific corridor where this is legal. That is not gonna be tenable.”