Who Will Legalize Pot Next?
In Barack Obama: The Story, biographer David Maraniss writes that the president spent his youth in Hawaii getting stoned on a paved road up Mount Tantalus, where he took “roof hits” in smoke-filled cars with his friends, the Choom Gang. (To “choom” is Hawaiian slang for smoking marijuana.) Obama loved weed so much, Maraniss writes, he thanked his pot dealer, but not his mother, in his high school yearbook.
Decades later, the Choomer turned president is in a historically unprecedented position when it comes to drug policy in the United States. Marijuana is illegal under the Controlled Substances Act, but two states, Washington and Colorado, voted in November to legalize and regulate its sale and use by adults 21 and older. This conflict with federal law puts all eyes on Obama, who, despite his smoke-filled teenage years, has refused to consider marijuana legalization as an alternative to prohibition. Indeed, drug policy reformers have endured a rocky four years (to put it mildly) in their relationship with the Obama administration. That’s why, when the president told Barbara Walters in December that his administration had “bigger fish to fry” than prosecuting recreational users of state-legal pot, legalization advocates took that statement with a grain of salt. The last time Obama said he would allow the states to determine their own policies on medical marijuana, he ended up busting more state-sanctioned dispensaries than George W. Bush.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, is confident that the recent state-level legalization victories mark a “turning point” that will inspire more politicians and voters to become curious, even passionate, about marijuana policy. “It’s causing lawmakers to rethink this issue,” Nadelmann says, adding that political risk is “the same reason the White House said nothing about the ballot initiatives in Washington and Colorado before the election.”
While preparing a response to a possible federal crackdown is a priority for the legalization movement, advocates are hoping for more than just nonintervention from the feds. They would like to see an open conversation about drug policy that will turn more policy-makers into legalization advocates, and more states (red and blue alike) a cannabis-friendly green. For that domino effect to happen, however, they must first craft a message that convinces people that voting for reform or even outright legalization is not a vote for pot, but a vote against the multidimensional disasters of prohibition—a web of mass incarceration and racial injustice, tangled up with everything from foreign policy to public benefits at home.
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According to the FBI, in 2011 more than 750,000 Americans were arrested for marijuana-related offenses, accounting for roughly half of all drug crimes in the United States. Eighty-seven percent of marijuana-related arrests were for possession alone—a minor crime that can still cause major problems in one’s life.
The good news is that, should the feds decide to crack down on Colorado and Washington, there is no way to force local law enforcement to arrest marijuana users in those two states. They could, however, still go after some large-scale distributors, as they have done with medical marijuana suppliers in California and Montana.
That’s why the marijuana legalization movement’s first priority, says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), is making sure that all goes smoothly in Washington and Colorado. It must ensure that policy-makers follow through on implementing legalization, to avoid situations like the one in Delaware, where a medical marijuana bill was passed in April 2011 but has never taken effect.
At the same time, Armentano says, legalization advocates must make sure that new laws continue to reflect the will of the voters. This means establishing viable and effective guidelines to regulate how marijuana will be sold and consumed, while also looking out for unnecessary regulatory schemes. In effect, Washington and Colorado must create a model that lawmakers from other states won’t be afraid to support.
“With drug law reform, it’s the states that move federal policy,” Armentano adds. “There’s going to continue to be increased efforts at the state level to bring about additional reforms—legislative in 2013, or possible citizen initiatives in 2014 or 2016.” These will include everything from medical marijuana legalization to decriminalization of possession to full legalization of recreational use and sale.
The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) tells The Nation that the next round of marijuana legalization measures is most likely to come from Alaska, Maine, Oregon, California, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Nevada. Meanwhile, Armentano is optimistic that, elsewhere, efforts to decriminalize, rather than legalize, pot stand a particularly good chance at success, since they do not invite the same conflict with the feds. (Decriminalization typically reduces the penalties for small amounts of marijuana possession from an arrest to ticket or fine, while legalization removes all penalties for adult possession and sale.)
Texas and New Jersey have already introduced decriminalization bills. In New Hampshire, MPP says, three bills will be introduced this year: one to legalize medical marijuana, one to decriminalize, and one to tax and regulate. “The election of Governor Maggie Hassan, who has expressed support for medical [marijuana], means a medical bill would almost surely be signed,” says MPP’s Mason Tvert.
Still, Armentano believes that legalization bills will remain on hold until state lawmakers can feel reasonably confident that there will be no federal crackdown. “To be realistic, I don’t think that we’re going to see a state legalize legislatively in 2013. Most state lawmakers are going to want to take a wait-and-see approach for at least a year, maybe two, to see how this all shakes out in Colorado and Washington.”
A year from now, says Rick Steves, a PBS travel show host who co-sponsored the Washington initiative (I-502), residents in that state can expect stores selling pot to open their doors, though under stringent regulations. Indeed, while some in the legalization movement have criticized I-502 for being too strict—a DUI provision has been especially controversial—Steves notes that “we had to seriously consider and address the concerns of the public that does not use marijuana.” Part of the goal was to “write a law that is so public-safety-minded that you get local law enforcement endorsing it.” That strategy worked: not only did a Seattle sheriff and former prosecutor endorse the initiative, the former prosecutor co-sponsored it.
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