These are heady days in parts of the American West. In November, the citizens of Washington and Colorado voted to legalize marijuana, and when the first of the new laws took effect on Dec. 6, happy tokers celebrated by lighting up beside Seattle's Space Needle. One group passed around a fat cigarette stuffed with Maui Wowie, which connoisseur Eric Widener, 26, partook of enthusiastically as a friend nearby praised the virtues of the "citrusy, very cerebral" strain. Although Washington's referendum did not countenance such public consumption, police were instructed not to write tickets. As doobies glowed in a purple Pacific Coast haze, a young couple visiting from Michigan breathed the odor and smiled knowingly. "We just decriminalized it in our city," says Joe Markham, 25, whose hometown of Grand Rapids decided last month to treat pot possession as a mere civil infraction punishable by a small fine. Thus sigh the winds of change.
A few days later, on Dec. 10, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a popular brewpub owner before getting into Denver politics, put his signature on Amendment 64, passed last month by his citizens. "Voters were loud and clear on Election Day," said Hickenlooper, and he was not exaggerating. The margin of victory was more than a quarter of a million votes--larger than Barack Obama's victory margin over Mitt Romney in the swing state--thanks in part to a canny campaign that called for regulating (and taxing) marijuana just like alcohol. Amendment 64 proponent Mason Tvert exulted in the moment. "From this day forward," he said, "adults in Colorado will no longer be punished for the simple use and possession of marijuana."
But after the initial buzz, a question lingered that would make excellent fodder for late-night dorm-room philosophizing over bong hits and Doritos. What difference does this make, really? I mean, like, haven't the pot dispensaries in Colorado, Washington and 16 other states been bustling for years, thanks to the widespread availability of what's generously known as "medical" marijuana? Accessing pot in Denver has been so easy that in August the city council voted to ban dope-touting billboards and bus benches. In Washington, lawmakers cracked down on doctors who were offering therapeutic marijuana to otherwise healthy patients complaining of headaches or anxiety.
The loopholes opened by medical-marijuana laws long ago scrambled the strange economics of dope. Supplies of the drug are now so abundant that the grass farmers of California's famed Emerald Triangle are being hammered by plummeting wholesale prices. Some cities, like Denver, have nearly as many dispensaries as upscale coffee shops. And everything you need to equip a home cannabis garden (other than seeds) can be purchased with one click on Amazon.