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What has changed in states that have legalized marijuana — and what hasn’t

Across the country, more state laws are aligning with voter attitudes about recreational use of marijuana. The wave of cannabis legalization has had a significant influence on individuals, communities and governments, and driven the development of a burgeoning commercial industry. William Brangham begins our series on marijuana with a look at what has changed in states that have legalized it.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There's been a big shift in the attitudes toward marijuana use in many places around the country. Increasingly, new state laws are following voter attitudes.

    We are still in the latest wave of legalization of cannabis, one that's not finished yet.

    And we are going to spend some time this week looking at the many different ways it is affecting individuals, communities, businesses and state governments.

    Our series is called The Green Rush.

    And William Brangham begins with this broader look.

  • William Brangham:

    Illinois is now the 11th state, along with Washington, D.C., to legalize recreational marijuana in the U.S.

    With overwhelming and bipartisan support, the state legislature passed a bill that allows for a regulated recreational market starting next year. Illinois is just the latest state to join the legalization wave that's been sweeping across the country.

    Colorado and Washington were first back in 2012. Now nearly 30 percent of the country live in states where recreational pot is legal. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that public support for legalization has also soared to record levels.

    A 2018 Gallup poll found 66 percent of Americans support it. That's up more than 20 percent from a decade ago and more than 50 percent since 1969.

  • John Hudak:

    There's really two dominant forces affecting public opinion around cannabis legalization.

  • William Brangham:

    John Hudak is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of "Marijuana: A Short History."

  • John Hudak:

    States are realizing the sky isn't falling. The doomsday predictions of opponents are not really coming true.

    The other force is generational replacement. The people who oppose cannabis reform are the oldest people in our society. And, of course, over time, they're dying out. They're leaving the electorate.

  • William Brangham:

    At the same time, the financial windfalls have been significant. Legal marijuana sales in 2018 are estimated between $8 billion and $10 billion nationally. Analysts predict that could reach $30 billion in five years. That's generated over $1 billion in tax revenue last year, though, in places like California, revenues fell well short of expectations.

    And, by and large, the new money makes up only a fraction of states' general funds. But the retail market is booming. In Colorado, there are more than 1,000 medical and recreational stores. That's more than McDonald's and Starbucks combined.

    Buying pot in these places is fairly straightforward. You have to be 21 years and older. Visitors must show I.D., sign in, and you are recorded by cameras. Customers are served by licensed staff, who help them make choices among the many different types of smokable marijuana.

    Or, if they prefer, there's a dizzying array of THC-infused chocolates, candies, sodas, even creams to soothe aching muscles. In the end, it's not that different from buying a bottle of wine at your local liquor store.

    Yet, amid this boom, there are still significant questions. Marijuana laws and regulations vary state by state. Because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, many problems remain. National banks, for instance, are wary of handling this business. So many pot businesses still operate cash-only.

    The marijuana grown and sold today is also far more potent and now far more available than it used to be. And that's raised some public health concerns.

    Researchers warn of a rise in what's called marijuana use disorder, where chronic use of the drug often negatively impacts a user's life. Some states have also seen an increase in cases of driving under the influence of marijuana. Marijuana-related hospital visits are also up, though most cases involve someone smoking or eating too much, which resolves pretty quickly.

    In some states that legalized, the number of underage users went up, but, in others, it didn't.

  • John Hudak:

    What we know is that the legalization of cannabis can have these public health and public safety impacts, but it doesn't — it is not clear that cannabis does cause these effects.

    And so the best bet that states have is to recognize that these effects are possible, and to try to combat them in advance before they become a reality.

  • William Brangham:

    Legalization was sold, in part, as a way to put a dent in the drug trade, but, in many states, the police say the black market for marijuana has increased since legalization.

    Another selling point of legalization was, let's stop locking so many young people up for what's usually a minor nonviolent crime. Between 2001 and 2010, before the legalization tide began, roughly 8.2 million marijuana arrests were made. Nearly 90 percent of them were for simple possession.

    In states that have legalized, arrests have gone down dramatically, but racial disparities do remain. Marijuana legalization is a complicated social and political experiment that this country is now running, and it's all happening very quickly.

    We're kicking off a new series next week called The Green Rush. We will explore issues, including weed's increased potency and potential effects on the brain, racial equity in the industry and in policing, and the pressures from big business and regulation.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

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