Nearly 15 years have passed since California voters passed Prop. 215, and the remarkable rise and acceptance of medical cannabis has been nothing less than astonishing to witness. Perhaps it’s time to stop and examine just how far we’ve come -- and how far we still have to go before all qualified patients have safe, legal access to medical marijuana. 

Currently, 14* states have adopted legal protections for qualified medical patients (the news reports typically cite 15, but most reform groups, including NORML, do not include the state of Maryland, which offers patients minimal and inadequate legal protections). NORML separates these states into three categories: retail access, state-sanctioned dispensary access and self-preservation models.          

Most med-pot states employ the self-preservation model, meaning patients with a physician’s recommendation to use cannabis as a medicine can possess and cultivate a small amount, but there are no legal outlets at which to purchase cannabis, hashish or edibles. The states that follow the self-preservation model are Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Montana, Michigan and Vermont.         

Meanwhile, state-sanctioned dispensary access means that qualified patients can legally purchase a small amount of cannabis products. This is the case in New Mexico, Rhode Island, Maine and New Jersey.          

Medical patients in retail-access states enjoy the greatest degree of access to a wide range of medical-cannabis products. To date, the only two retail-access states are California and Colorado.          

In 2010, state legislatures in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, North Carolina, Tennessee, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Minnesota and Texas will all attempt to pass medical-cannabis bills. And the states of Massachusetts and Oregon may well join the initiative parade in 2012, if state legislators continue to punt on passing medical-cannabis legislation this year.

Elections Have Consequences
While NORML is nonpartisan, it would be hard to dispute the numerous positive (albeit minor) changes to America’s War on Some Drugs that have been made in Obama’s first year as president. While unfortunately dismissive of legalizing cannabis for non-medical purposes, his administration has undertaken a number of dramatic and positive policy reforms, notably recognizing both medical cannabis’s acceptance by state voters and the need to cease committing federal law-enforcement resources against state-compliant medical-cannabis cultivators and providers.    

But this is as it should be. During the 2008 presidential campaign, every single Democratic candidate pledged to end the federal raids on state medical-cannabis providers. In contrast, every Republican candidate – with the notable exception of Ron Paul – opposed patient access to medical cannabis. This is a major political distinction between our duopolistic political parties. The Democratic Party, from this point forward, should be recognized as the party that supports patient access to cannabis products.       

For medical-cannabis-law reforms to continue at their rapid pace, reform organizations and stakeholders in this important issue need to do a better job of reaching out and educating Republicans about the safety, efficacy and economic savings derived from patient access to medical cannabis. When the Republicans start supporting access to the same degree or greater than their opponents, we’ll all know that a major corner has been turned toward the total liberation of the cannabis plant from the clutches of this continuously failing and expensive 73-year-old government prohibition.

Allen St. Pierre is the executive director of NORML in Washington, DC. You can contact NORML at or 888-67-NORML.