Reality Check – The Long Road to Legalization


Reform advocates are excited about the progress of medical marijuana – and there’s good reason for this enthusiasm. The Obama Administration has adopted a hands-off policy regarding state level reforms. Colorado has joined California in allowing over-the-counter access to medical marijuana in storefront dispensaries. Congress appears ready to finally allow a decade old medical marijuana initiative passed by the voters of the District of Columbia to take effect as a matter of home rule for the capital city’s residents. Along with the passage of a medical marijuana initiative in Michigan and of decriminalization of possession of an ounce of marijuana in Massachusetts in the last election, these developments are the source of great optimism in the reform movement.


While these accomplishments are good news, especially for patients that benefit from medical marijuana, efforts to legalize marijuana still face numerous and difficult challenges, especially if recent events contribute to over-confidence on the part of activists and supporters. This is the time to work hard, not to celebrate. These events represent opportunities, not guarantees of victory. Reform may have inertia, but momentum alone will not bring about lasting change across the country.


First of all, medical marijuana will not necessarily bring about legalization of marijuana for everyone who wishes to use it. As medical marijuana gains in popularity, state lawmakers are likely to enact strict restrictions on access and availability. The burning question is whether marijuana will be medicine like aspirin, medicine like tranquilizers, or medicine like Oxycontin. It could end up with few controls, some controls, or very strict controls with extremely limited access. Indeed the more medical marijuana is made available to individuals without what are viewed by the public as severe medical conditions the more likely access will be restricted,


Nor will the acceptance of medical marijuana in some states lead to availability in all states. It’s progress for residents of some states to have access to medical marijuana, but it’s justice for residents of all states to have such access. We need nationwide reform, and this includes nationwide access to medical marijuana. This requires increased political activity in every state, and it will eventually require political action at the federal level.


When the euphoria of recent developments clears, the situation for many marijuana users throughout the country remains bleak.


Many states retain severe penalties for marijuana possession, especially for amounts over one ounce. A recent report in the Bulletin of Cannabis Reform includes a review of marijuana laws throughout the United States. Possession of two ounces of marijuana is punishable by a sentence of a year or more in 36 states. Possession of four ounces is punishable by a sentence of a year or more in 39 states. In 19 states the maximum sentence for possession of one ounce of marijuana is one year. In Florida possession of two ounces of marijuana can result in a sentence of five years, in Arkansas it can result in a sentence of 10 years. Even in Oregon, with medical marijuana laws and decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, possession of two to four ounces can result in a sentence of 10 years.


According to the latest surveys there are 1.4 million annual marijuana users in Florida. There are 234,000 annual marijuana users in Arkansas. They can’t all move to California or Colorado. In Missouri, where possession of two ounces of marijuana could result in a sentence of seven years, there are 481,000 annual users. They can’t all move west either.


In practice, while such severe penalties are possible, most states treat marijuana possession cases leniently. Marijuana possession often results in a fine, probation, and/or a short jail term. Often people arrested for marijuana possession are referred to drug treatment programs as an alternative to serving jail sentences. In Florida, for example, 64% of the marijuana related admissions to drug treatment programs were referred by the criminal justice system. In Arkansas, 74% of marijuana related admissions to drug treatment programs are similarly referred. 


The reality of marijuana laws in the United States remains a bleak situation. In most states marijuana users face harsh laws with little hope of reform. In most states people arrested for marijuana possession are at the mercy of the criminal justice system. They face the possibility of lengthy jail sentences, expensive legal bills, and unnecessary and potentially costly drug treatment services. Decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana, lenient sentencing policies, medical marijuana protections, and even media discussion of marijuana’s legalization obscure this unpleasant, uncomfortable, and unacceptable reality.


Nonetheless, there has been progress. It’s a result of citizen involvement. It’s a result of increased activism on the part of organizations and individuals. And, coincidently, these advances are also a result of novel and innovative efforts over the last few years such as The 420 Campaign. Recent developments do provide signs of hope that greater reforms are possible, and that legalization, despite the challenges, can occur. Participate in The 420 Campaign, support reform organizations, and get involved in the legalization movement. Progress provides opportunities. Take advantage of them and help provide justice for marijuana users in all parts of the United States.