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In November 2012, Washington and Colorado voters approved initiatives legalizing use and possession of small quantities of marijuana. Before that, eighteen states had legalized medical use of marijuana with differing levels of regulation. Since then, two more states have approved medical marijuana. Today, many people hope—for a range of reasons—that more states and the federal government will decriminalize and eventually legalize marijuana. However, the pendulums of public opinion and political inclinations have swung this way before. In the mid-1970s, the views of Americans on marijuana were strikingly similar to those views today. Decriminalizaion of possession and use of small amounts of marijuana at both the state and the federal levels appeared to be imminent and inevitable. A fierce backlash at the beginning of the l980s, however, produced repeals of decriminalization by the states and sharp increases in federal criminal penalties and prosecutions. Such a change in direction can occur again. It is, however, much clearer today than nearly a half century ago that marijuana prohibition was a tragic mistake. No rational analysis of the costs of marijuana prohibition can support its retention. Unless reform occurs at the federal level, though, state-level reforms face a myriad of limitations and uncertainties. Repeal at the federal level may be constrained by international treaties, which permit decriminalization but may not allow outright legalization. If so, the United States should seek to eliminate marijuana prohibition at the international level as it replaces prohibition with regulation in its own drug laws.

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