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2015 may have been tipping point for pot — but in what direction?

The big question for the year ahead is this one: Should marijuana users and providers be treated as criminals or embraced as consumers and capitalists?
Marijuana plants stand in a room at the grow facility in Denver, Colo., on Dec. 9, 2015. (Photo by Matthew Staver/Bloomberg/Getty)
Marijuana plants stand in a room at the grow facility in Denver, Colo., on Dec. 9, 2015.

After the triumphs of 2014 — when the world’s first completely legal cannabis markets debuted in Colorado and Washington — 2015 was a relatively quiet year in marijuana reform. In the history of the plant, however, it may also figure as a tipping point. 

A year of political plotting and scheming

This was a hinge year for a drug that’s already used by about 20 million Americans a month. Marijuana remains a controlled substance under federal law, and it’s illegal to use it, produce it, or sell it in most states.

So, the subject of fierce debate in 2015 — and the big question for the year ahead — is simply this one: Should marijuana users and their providers be treated as criminals or warmly embraced as consumers and capitalists? Americans have been mulling this question for decades, inching closer and closer to the free market perspective. But while 2015 may go down as a tipping point, it's still unclear which side the nation will tip towards.  

Reformers are full of confidence. Four states have legalized recreational marijuana since President Obama came to office, committing themselves to a regulated adult market, much like the markets for alcohol and tobacco. This number could easily double by the time Obama leaves office, which is credit to groups like the Marijuana Policy Project and Drug Policy Alliance. 

RELATED: GOPers open the door to legal marijuana

In Nevada, marijuana legalization is already guaranteed a spot on the ballot next November. California is closing in on the same milestone. Reformers in Massachusetts, Michigan, Arizona, Maine, and Missouri are on the move as well. 

The tilt of public opinion is clearer and firmer than ever. Fifty-eight percent of Americans support legal marijuana, according to a Gallup poll in October, marking the third straight year of solid majority support.

But here’s where the future of marijuana is still a politically tricky matter: None of the presidential candidates -- Republican or Democrat — have endorsed legalized sales of the sort underway in Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon. 

Bernie Sanders is sometimes held up as a pro-pot candidate, but on close scrutiny his policies and public statements in 2015 were hedged and cryptic. In October, he was asked if he'd vote for state legalization in Nevada. "I suspect I would," he said, which of course is not the same as saying "Yes, I would."

A few days later on a late night talk show he studded his pot talk with political off-ramps. “I am not unfavorably disposed to moving toward the legalization of marijuana,” Sanders said, which of course is not the same as saying “I support legalization.” He also repeated a long-debunked myth about prisons overflowing with marijuana offenders.

Even Sanders' call for a repeal of the federal ban on marijuana is not as radical as it sounds. 

President Obama has implemented in effect the same policy, instructing his Justice Department to let the state experiments play out. Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley have also pledged support for state pot laws and so have most of the Republican candidates. 

The question that matters is whether the next president believes that the state experiments are working or not, and by what measure? 

2015 was not yet a year of answers on this score. Former Secretary Clinton has said she won’t take a position on marijuana legalization until she sees the results in Colorado and elsewhere. But she’s also declined to say what she’s looking for. 

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has taken essentially the same position, joining Clinton in the call for more research, which relieves them of the pressure of commenting on the 5,000 years of existing human experience with pot. 

In contrast to the wait-and-see approach of the Democrats, Republican presidential candidates are openly anti-legalization. They oppose it with an almost Reagan-esque fervor, implying that the drug leads to ruined lives, shattered families and lost productivity. 

Drug reformers say marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol, an idea echoed by President Obama last year. But the Republican field has consistently displayed a more alarmist understanding of marijuana’s risks and its rank among the more dangerous drugs. 

In a September debate at the Ronald Reagan library in California, former Hewlett Packard executive Carly Fiorina gave the strongest voice to the anti-drug position, unveiling a painful personal story that could have been clipped from a Nancy Reagan “Just Say No” campaign from the 1980s.

RELATED: Inside Dangers Of Drug K2, Not ‘Fake Pot’ 

“We are misleading young people when we tell them that marijuana is just like having a beer,” she said. “It’s not.” 

“We need to tell young people the truth,” she continued. “Drug addiction is an epidemic, and it is taking too many of our young people.”

And yet, 2015 was also the year that the GOP essentially blessed legal marijuana. The party’s leading candidates have signaled support for a gay-marriage style rollout of reforms at the state level. None of them have a soft word for marijuana itself, but they love states rights at least as much as they loathe the devil’s weed.  

So what could possibly go wrong? 

Almost anything. For reformers, the door to marijuana legalization may never be closer than the moment it’s slammed in their face. 

The movement’s biggest vulnerability is the specter of “Big Pot,” the idea that legalization will unleash a third blood-sucking vice industry. 

It suffered a public relations nightmare in Ohio, where reformers tried to create a billion-dollar monopoly for just 10 pot farms, the beneficiaries of an exclusive, unending and constitutionally enshrined right to grow all the bud in the Buckeye State. 

These 10 farms weren’t selected by quality or lottery: They simply bought their way in, funding the $25 million dollar legalization campaign. And the campaign to pass the ballot initiative — known as Issue 3 — included an ill-advised pot mascot, Buddy, which reminded a lot of people of long dead cigarette mascots that allegedly targeted kids. 

Fortunately for the movement, the Ohio effort died at the polls in November. But the vulnerability remains and opponents of legalization — lead by Kevin Sabet, a former drug adviser in the Obama administration — intend to exploit it. 

The rise of heroin in 2015 is also a threat to marijuana legalization. 

RELATED: Ohio's legal marijuana hopes up in smoke

In the past, politicians have struggled to distinguish between heroin and marijuana policy, and parents have seen pot as a “gateway” to heroin just because it often comes first in the sequence. Both groups, meanwhile, have historically avoided talking much about drugs until right about the moment when heroin starts making junkies out of a whiter, more suburban population.

That’s exactly what’s happening now -- the vast majority of new heroin users are white. 

Fiorina, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, in particular, make no distinction between marijuana and heroin. And to varying degrees in 2015, they’ve each promoted the debunked idea that marijuana is a “gateway” to harder drugs just because it often comes first in a sequence. 

We’ve seen this episode of American drug politics before, back in the 1970s, and it didn’t turn out well for marijuana. 2015 alone wasn’t enough to change the channel. But it may have given reformers the remote control for 2016.