Like I said last month here, 2008 turned out to be a big year – one of the biggest, in fact – for marijuana policy reform.
Voters in Massachusetts passed a landmark ballot initiative ending the threat of arrest, jail, and a criminal record for adults caught with an ounce or less of marijuana. Michigan became the 13th state – and the first in the Midwest – to pass a law protecting qualified medical marijuana patients from arrest for using their doctor-recommended medicine. No fewer than seven local initiatives improving marijuana laws were passed by voters across the country, from Arkansas to Hawaii. And, for the first time ever, we have a president who has promised to end federal raids on medical marijuana patients and providers in states that offer them legal protection.
Some of the best prospects for progress in 2009 stem from "disappointments" in 2008. In Minnesota, a medical marijuana bill fell just short this year when the House failed to call it for a vote after the Senate passed it. But Minnesota patients and activists made huge gains over the past couple years educating their representatives and governor, and their hard work may well pay off in 2009.
The situation is similar in New York, where the General Assembly passed a good medical marijuana bill two years in a row only to have it whither in the Senate. However, New York voters swept out the old Senate leadership that obstructed meaningful medical marijuana reform. The new leadership should be more open to ensuring safe access to medical marijuana for seriously ill New Yorkers and protecting them from arrest – especially if they read the polls, which indicate support among constituents of every political stripe.
In New Hampshire, we expect legislators to pass a medical marijuana law as well. The last time the 400-member House voted on medical marijuana, in 2007, it lost by only nine votes. Again, if legislators pay attention to their constituents – 71 percent of whom favor legal protection for medical marijuana patients, according to a Mason-Dixon poll conducted last April – it should pass easily next year.
Finally, next door in Vermont, lawmakers should take up a marijuana decriminalization bill similar to the one Massachusetts voters passed this year. Proponents made headway in 2008 when the state Senate passed the bill 22-7 before it stalled in the House. That should help ease the way for it to pass in 2009.
Unfortunately, despite all the progress we're seeing in state legislatures and among the voting public, there will probably be situations in which marijuana policy reformers will have to play defense. The most notable, and despicable, threat may be in Oregon, where self-described moral crusader Dan Harmon, vice chairman of pro-business Associated Oregon Industries, has vowed to push a bill that would allow employers to discriminate against valid medical marijuana patients.
Framing the issue as a matter of workplace safety, Harmon wants to be allowed to drug test employees and fire them for testing positive for marijuana – even if they are qualified patients who only medicate at home and not during business hours. Harmon appears to be unfazed by the fact that state workplace fatality rates have dropped significantly since establishing a medical marijuana law.
But the point is that we have a lot of work to do in 2009. We saw in 2008 that our opponents, including some law enforcement leaders and other public servants, have little credibility with voters when it comes to sensible marijuana policy reform. Voters in Massachusetts and Michigan appeared to be very comfortable supporting reform despite dire warnings about the consequences from many supposed opinion leaders.
Politicians, however, are a different breed. They still quiver when opponents of reform bleat about the awful consequences that will accompany, say, not arresting sick people who use medical marijuana.
So, while you're celebrating the holidays, I hope you'll take a minute to go to MPP's Web site and sign up for our e-mail alerts, especially if you live in one of the states I mentioned in this column, so you can help pressure your elected leaders for reform. It's entirely possible that we'll see three more states adopt medical marijuana laws and at least one pass a marijuana decriminalization law this year.
But we're going to need help, and lawmakers are going to have to hear from their constituents that Americans are sick of our failed marijuana policies and demand change now.