People have interacted with pot for at least 7,000 years, but there's no decade in that stretch that has been better for cannabis than the one we're currently finishing. Pot went from being widely illegal and politically toxic to being a plant that is easily available to millions of adults across the country.
Pot had a really, really good decade.
Pot won by every possible metric, especially its legal status in the United States. In 2009, only 14 states had medical access to pot. Ten years later, an incredible 35 states have medical cannabis in some form, and 11 more (plus the District of Columbia) legalized recreational pot. Only Nebraska, Idaho, Kansas, and South Dakota have no pot access.
Public opinion shifted nearly as dramatically as those state laws. Only 44 percent of people supported pot legalization in 2009, while 54 percent opposed it, according to the Pew Research Center. A 2019 Pew poll shows the numbers flipped: Only 32 percent of people said pot should be illegal, while 67 percent support legalization.
Politicians have also shifted their views on pot. This year's Democratic presidential hopefuls—including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Andrew Yang, and Pete Buttigieg—are overwhelmingly in favor of legalization. Even lukewarm centrist Amy Klobuchar supports legalizing pot. Joe Biden is the only candidate against it, although he does support decriminalization.
And even Biden's stance is a remarkable shift from where we were at the beginning of this decade. In the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, essentially every candidate—including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama—opposed even the decriminalization of pot.
So who can we thank for turning pot from widely reviled to widely accepted? George Soros and a few of his friends (Progressive Insurance founder Peter Lewis, University of Phoenix founder John Sperling, and Men's Wearhouse founder George Zimmer), who spent more than $70 million bankrolling medical and legalization initiatives for 20-plus years.
According to Jonathan Caulkins, a Carnegie Mellon professor and one of the country's leading experts on drug policy, "The simplest explanation of why marijuana reform happened is that three billionaires decided it should happen and they bankrolled the process for many, many years."
It also doesn't hurt that pot reform appeals to a wide spectrum of political beliefs, from libertarians who want the government out of their business to progressives who want to end the racist war on drugs.
Yeshiva University law professor Ekow Yankah says this is why pot reform is winning. "The core of my argument is that philosophy matters. If you find something where there are a bunch of views that all coalesce around one philosophical position... it makes it much harder to keep it at bay," Yankah told me.
I think both Yankah and Caulkins are correct—it's a powerful position when your argument is well-supported theoretically as well as having millions of dollars in support from the ultra-wealthy. But there's one other key aspect that we can't forget when we're talking about the legalization of pot: the plant itself.
Cannabis is incredible. It's one of the oldest crops grown by humans, possibly the oldest medicine our species has ever used. It has a shockingly wide number of varietals—think about every different type of apple you have ever seen and multiply that tenfold, and you won't be close to the different types of cannabis that exist. It can be made into clothing, buildings, nutritious food, medicine, and a recreational intoxicant. And in a very strange turn of events 100 years ago, the American government decided it was sinful and thus convinced the world to outlaw it, just as scientists were beginning to better understand its powers.
Luckily, it only took a decade to reverse this century-long travesty. The next decade will only prove that we should have normalized cannabis sooner.