Which Southern U.S. State Will Legalize Recreational Cannabis First?

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cannabis sentiment in the U.S

Though it took almost a century for the United States to reverse its stance on marijuana, states are beginning to legalize recreational, adult-use cannabis at near break-neck speeds. What began with a few outlying progressive states in the West has now taken over the country, with 14 states boasting recreational regulations on the books and a handful more planning to push legalization in 2021.

The South was once proudly a bastion of anti-cannabis sentiment in the U.S., but even that is beginning to crumble. It is likely that a Southern state will pass recreational marijuana in the coming years, — but which one?

Oklahoma Cannabis

Part Southern and part Western, Oklahoma has a mixed heritage that has provided the state with an interesting history — especially with marijuana. The state was among the last to ban the drug in the 1930s, and since then, the state has drifted ever-more conservative and today has a reputation as one of the reddest states in the nation. Still, Oklahoma boasts some remarkably progressive policies, like its universal free preschool and its wide-open medical marijuana program.

Every other state that has legalized marijuana for medical use requires patients to suffer from specific conditions that have been shown to benefit from cannabis use. Typically, these conditions are severe and life-threatening, like cancer, HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer’s and anorexia. However, Oklahoma does not have such a list of qualifying conditions; instead, it permits doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to any patient, as long as the doctor has a reason to believe that cannabis products will improve that patient’s quality of life.

As a result, many more Oklahomans have access to the state’s medical marijuana program than patients in other states, to the extent that Oklahoma marijuana dispensaries are consistently unable to meet the exceedingly high demand. Though medical establishments are expanding at a rapid pace, a better solution would be to provide recreational cannabis options to adult consumers, which would decrease the load on dispensaries oriented toward patient care. Considering that Oklahoma has one of the most open-minded attitudes toward cannabis in the South, legislators could pass adult-use regulations within the next few years.

Texas

The Lonestar State has one of the longest weed histories in the country. Among the first Americans to document marijuana use by Mexican communities, Texans initially embraced the drug, believing it to help manage respiratory conditions like asthma — but in the same breath, Texans cursed hashish, a drug they believed incredibly dangerous and responsible for the downfall of the East. Yet, sale and possession of cannabis was controlled throughout the state in the 1910s and early 1920s as more white Americans moved into the state and disagreed with local and immigrant Latin culture.

Despite being one of the first states to ban marijuana, Texas was also one of the first states to update its laws. In 1973, the state began reducing penalties for low-level cannabis offenses, and state legislators effectively (though not entirely) decriminalized the drug in 2007. For most of the past decade, the state’s marijuana programs have been in near-continuous reform, with expansions to the medical marijuana program and allowances for the cultivation of industrial hemp.

The first attempt at creating a recreational program occurred way back in 2015 with a bill backed by Tea Party conservatives, and though that initiative failed, recreational weed has only gained steam throughout the state. Popular with Libertarians, Progressives and law enforcement — the latter for the opportunity to reduce drug cartel power in the state — adult-use cannabis could be on the horizon for the largest red state in the nation.

Florida

cannabis sentiment

The most southern state in the South, Florida is nonetheless a strange mélange of cultures from around the country — and from other countries, too. The Sunshine State is the third most populous state in the nation, with over 20 million residents and a hundred million tourists visiting every year. Yet, all this population growth occurred over the course of one generation — before World War II, Florida was the least populated state — which has caused more than a bit of culture clash and encouraged outsiders to think of Florida as deeply, utterly weird.

Fortunately, this weirdness is likely to lead directly to legal weed. Despite having one of the stricter medical marijuana programs in the country, Florida activists are looking to put pot on the ballot in 2022 — and experts believe they already have a good shot at passing their initiative, which puts Florida leaps and bounds ahead of other Southern states.

It is impossible to predict the future — after all, many marijuana experts believed that many more states would pass recreational marijuana laws in 2020, but the unforeseeable pandemic got in the way. As a silver lining, the economic downturn caused by COVID could incentivize conservative lawmakers to create marijuana programs to increase tax revenues. Ultimately, the South could go from red to green sooner than we think. 

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