Prospects for Legal Marijuana? Higher and Higher

Anyone who still saw the marijuana-reform movement as a hopeless collection of hippies and slackers got a reality check last November, when advocates successfully passed three major initiatives. Massachusetts became the 18th state to allow for medical marijuana and, most notably, Washington and Colorado became the first two states in the country to legalize recreational use of the drug. Now, less than five months later, a slew of pro-marijuana measures has been introduced in legislatures across the country. At least six have a good chance of passing. Seventeen states have bills to allow medical marijuana. Nine others would make the punishment for possession a fine rather than jail time. Eight states' bills would create a taxing and regulatory system for the drug. And those are just the measures that have already been introduced; others are yet to come.

Traditionally, most major progressive changes to drug laws have occurred through ballot initiatives rather than the legislative process. One reason? According to an October Gallup poll, 50 percent of voters approve of legalizing marijuana, and there are both Democratic and Republican ends of the spectrum. But lawmakers in both parties are hesitant to support even medical-marijuana reform. Much like support for gay marriage, it seems when it comes to marijuana, elected officials lag behind, hedging their bets and fending off potential attack ads.

Activists are hoping this will be the year that changes“Something that was once verboten is becoming both politically popular and therefore salient for reform,” says Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of pro-marijuana legalization group NORML.

Activists like St. Pierre are particularly optimistic about medical-marijuana measures. The issue is increasingly noncontroversial. Already, 18 states have some measure on the books that allows for marijuana use for people with certain illnesses, though they range from very restrictive measures like New Jersey’s, where there’s only one dispensary for the entire state, to California’s extremely liberal law that makes it relatively easy to open a dispensary or get access. 

New Hampshire, Illinois, and New York are all considering medical marijuana measures with good chances of passing. The Illinois measure is on the stricter end, allows 22 dispensaries, and St. Pierre expects a successful measure from New York to be similar in specifying the number of dispensaries. New Hampshire is particularly promising. The state's bill has already passed the House and been sent to the Senate, which is likely to pass the measure as well. The New Hampshire Legislature passed similar measures in previous years, only to see them vetoed by then-Governor John Lynch. However, current Governor Maggie Hassan, who, like Lynch, is a Democrat, has expressed support for legalizing medical marijuana.

Decriminalizing recreational use is far tougher—and so far, no state legislature has done more than put it up for a popular vote. But several promising measures are currently moving through state assemblies. The Maryland Senate passed a measure to decriminalize the drug in small amounts (10 grams or fewer) and now awaits a decision in the state house. In Oklahoma, lawmakers may dramatically reduce the penalties for second-time marijuana offenders—and eliminate mandatory-minimum jail sentences.

In Vermont, Governor Peter Shumlin has been an outspoken supporter for decriminalizing—so much so that he campaigned on the issue last year when he ran successfully for re-election. Mason Tvert, who co-directed the initiative campaign in Colorado and now works with the national Marijuana Policy Project, says the Vermont legislation could be law by the summer. Tvert also has high hopes for Rhode Island. He believes it may be the first state to pass a bill through the legislature that actually taxes and regulates marijuana. So far, only Washington and Colorado have already passed such measures, and they did so through initiatives. This would be the first time a marijuana bill became a law through the legislative process. 

The key to passing marijuana reform, says Tvert, comes from educating the public—and lawmakers—about the drug. It’s “critical that voters understand the very simple fact that marijuana is objectively less harmful than alcohol,” he says. That way, the idea of regulating marijuana like alcohol “becomes a lot clearer.”

Even if the majority of these measures fail, the lobbying and grassroots efforts from the movement will build support for the cause.

The next big question for activists will be whether to start more initiative campaigns for 2014 or whether to wait until the next presidential election. Tvert advocates focusing on the legislative level for now, and says the initiative process shouldn’t be tried again until the next presidential election—when turnout is higher across the political spectrum. Midterm elections tend to rev up groups out of power—currently the conservative base. Not everyone is willing to wait, though. In Florida, two big Democratic fundraisers have announced their intention to help get a medical-marijuana initiative on the ballot in 2014. According to St. Pierre, legalization efforts—like the ones that passed in Washington and Colorado—are in full swing in California, Massachusetts, Maine, and Oregon, where a similar measure failed in 2012. “We already have lots of grassroots on the ground and all of those states ready to rock,” he says. 

That activists are debating tactics is a sure indication of the progress that marijuana legalizers have made in recent years. They're no longer wondering whether victories will be possible but how best to achieve them.

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