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Marijuana legalization is a hot-button topic this election season because of the long list of related issues that could be resolved through decriminalization of the plant. Critics of mass incarceration point to non-violent marijuana offenses as a primary driver of excessive imprisonment, and activists frustrated with big pharma note that medical marijuana makes many prescription medications unnecessary.

Even the most conservative politicians are coming around as they take note of the influx of cash flowing into Colorado's coffers. Proceeds from marijuana sales are funding a host of government projects, including improvements in education.

What's Next in Federal Legislation

Marijuana's status as a federal Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act places it in the same category as heroin and LSD. As a result, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is charged with approaching marijuana as a "worst of the worst" drug, resulting in significant resources devoted to policing marijuana-related offenses.

Legislators are now pushing hard to move marijuana to a Schedule II controlled substance, where drugs like methadone, morphine and cocaine are categorized. Schedule II drugs have a "currently accepted medical use," so a change in status from Schedule I to Schedule II would open new opportunities for medical use of marijuana and health-related marijuana research.

All of the leading 2016 Presidential candidates support changing marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II, and some have gone even further, stating that marijuana should be completely declassified. Depending on the outcome of the November election, it is likely that there will be some movement towards making marijuana more available in 2017 - at least for medical use. Exactly how much movement remains to be seen.

States Move Forward with Decriminalization of Marijuana

In the absence of national leadership on this issue, states are advancing pro-marijuana agendas one by one. Colorado's financial success is rapidly bringing other state-level lawmakers on board, and the federal government appears disinclined to interfere. The Supreme Court declined to hear a conservative challenge to Colorado's recreational use laws, and the DEA has not made an effort to disrupt operations of marijuana distributors and head shops in states that have legalized the drug.

As of May 2016, four states and Washington, DC, have legalized marijuana for recreational use. These include Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Colorado. Many more have legalized medical marijuana, including most of the Northeast and all of the Southwest. An additional group of states have decriminalized marijuana, making possession of small amounts a civil offense. Violations in these cases result in fines rather than jail time.

Citizens in California and Nevada will have the opportunity to vote on recreational marijuana use later this year, while those in Arkansas are voting on legalization of medical marijuana. Strong advocacy in Massachusetts makes it likely that this state will have a recreational marijuana vote in the fall as well.

Ultimately, legalizing marijuana for medical and recreational purposes offers economic benefits at the same time as it reduces resources required for enforcing prohibitions. Instead of limiting marijuana sales to the black market, entrepreneurs can create a variety of businesses from online head shops to brick-and-mortar stores.

Growing plants is just the tip of the iceberg, and we can expect to see a new crop of small businesses selling related equipment to make smoking more pleasurable. Examples include shops dedicated to items like marijuana bowls and waterpipes.

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