Legalized pot: Coming to a state near you?

You ever look at trends in public opinion... on weed?

(Image credit: (REUTERS/Rick Wilking))

"Rocky Mountain High" just got a whole new meaning.

Colorado's recreational pot dispensaries officially opened for business on Wednesday, making the state the first in the nation where anyone can legally buy and use marijuana. Dispensaries in Washington state are slated to open later this year, too.

Those two states could soon have company. Support for marijuana legalization is rapidly rising among every age group in the U.S., and there are already legalization efforts underway in a number of states nationwide. Should that confluence of public opinion and activism neatly align in 2014, this could be the year that marijuana legalization, once an untouchable political issue in America, finally turns the corner.

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A decade ago, marijuana legalization was little more than a pipe dream, a policy supported by only one third of Americans. Yet in April 2013, Pew found for the first time ever that a majority of the country favored legalization.

The trend line closely mirrors that of same-sex marriage, which also enjoyed majority support, per Pew, for the first time ever last year. And indeed, 2013 was a banner year for marriage equality, with the Supreme Court striking down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, and the number of states allowing same-sex marriage more than doubling from eight to 18.

Marijuana legalization surely won't follow quite the same course, but the parallel still serves to show how a dramatic shift in public opinion can lead to swift policy changes.

Lending weight to the pro-legalization movement, Attorney General Eric Holder announced in August that the Justice Department wouldn't interfere with Colorado and Washington's legal dispensaries, which were approved by each state's voters in the 2012 election. Though the DOJ still considers marijuana a Schedule 1 drug — the highest classification, putting weed above drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine — the announcement was nonetheless a significant shift in federal drug policy. Of course, a future Republican administration could adopt a much tougher posture, but for now at least, Uncle Sam is giving states something of a symbolic green light.

They're taking advantage of it. About a dozen other states are now seriously pursuing legalization. Most of blue-state New England is eyeing the issue, but so, too, are Arizona and Alaska, the latter of which has a ballot measure that should, if signatures hold up, come up for a vote this year.

Then there's California — where a 2013 survey found that 55 percent of the state's residents supported legalization. The Golden State could also have a legalization measure appear on the ballot in 2014. Though the state hasn't come out in favor of legalization per se, Attorney General Kamala Harris (D) said recently that a proposed legalization measure would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars annually, while bringing in hundreds of millions more in taxes.

On a smaller scale, some cities have already voted to legalize weed within their borders. Three Michigan cities approved legalization last November, as did Portland, Maine.

Even if no more states nor municipalities follow suit this year, the legalization movement will still spend 2014 laying the groundwork for future victories that should, given Americans' swiftly evolving views on marijuana, become even easier to achieve in the next few years. Americans are quickly coming around on legalizing weed, and barring catastrophic failures of Colorado's and Washington's legal pot marketplaces, that support is unlikely to just go up in smoke.

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