By Mike Meno

Well, it’s that time of year, again. State legislatures across the country are back in session, and many are considering proposals to improve state marijuana laws.


This legislative season, MPP and our allies across the country are working to expand the number of states (14) with medical marijuana laws, as well as begin introducing measures that would decriminalize possession of small amounts, or even end marijuana prohibition entirely by taxing and regulating the drug like alcohol.

Here’s just a small sampling of what’s been happening:

In the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., the City Council is considering an amendment to an initiative voters enacted in 1998, but which Congress had previously blocked from going into effect. MPP and allied organizations are working to improve the proposal, which is expected to be sent to Congress for its approval no sooner than May. At a Feb. 23 City Council hearing, representatives from MPP and other groups testified in favor of expanding the narrow list of patients who would be able to use medical marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation.


In bordering Maryland, two bipartisan bills have been introduced in the House and Senate that would improve the state’s lackluster medical marijuana law, which currently protects patients from conviction but not arrest, and still subjects them to a $100 fine and criminal conviction. The proposed bills would, among other things, provide qualified patients with safe access to medical marijuana and no longer treat them as criminals. MPP and allies, including MD Safe Access, have been encouraging legislators to improve protections, which have received overwhelming support in local polls. At a Feb. 26 hearing, dozens of patients, doctors, legislators, and advocates, including two MPP staffers, testified in favor of the bill. No one testified in opposition.  


In California, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) re-introduced legislation to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol. MPP will be working closely with California NORML, the Drug Policy Alliance, and other groups to build upon the support Ammiano’s bill received last year as California citizens prepare to vote on a 2010 “Tax Cannabis” initiative.


In Hawaii, the state Senate on March 2 passed by overwhelming, veto-proof margins, three bills that would improve that state’s marijuana laws. Two would expand the existing medical marijuana law by respectively allowing counties to license dispensaries and increasing the ratio of plants, ounces and caregivers allowed to patients. The third bill would remove criminal penalties for possession of one ounce of marijuana and replace them with a civil fine of up to $300 for a first offense and $500 for a subsequent offense.


In New York, the Senate Health Committee has passed a medical marijuana bill for the second consecutive year. The full Assembly has twice passed the bill, in 2007, and 2008, and legislators are hopeful that the bill will pass through the full legislature this year with a bipartisan vote. 


In Illinois, a medical marijuana bill is awaiting action on the House floor, as advocates work to gather 60 votes needed for it to pass. The state Senate already passed the bill last year, and the governor has said he’s open to signing it into law.


In New Hampshire, a bipartisan, MPP-drafted bill to tax and regulate marijuana and allow personal cultivation and possession came just two votes shy of passing through a committee last month. But the full House approved the committee’s plan to study the issue, by a 272-76 vote. Another bill to decriminalize possession of up to one quarter of an ounce passed through committee Feb. 11 by a 16-2 vote and is now awaiting a floor vote in the House.


In Massachusetts, more than 80 percent of residents support a medical marijuana bill that has been gaining steady support from opinion leaders, including four county sheriffs.


In Rhode Island, the state Senate created a Marijuana Prohibition Study Commission that is receiving testimony from experts about how great a failure prohibition has been. MPP and local allies also remain hopeful about the prospects of a bill to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce.


In Vermont, twin decriminalization bills that carried over from 2009 remain alive in the state legislature, and MPP’s lobbying team has been working with patients, physicians and pharmacists to enact a bill adding dispensaries to the state’s medical marijuana law.


And in Delaware, MPP’s medical marijuana bill is now on the Senate floor, after it passed through the Senate Health Committee on a 4 to 0 vote in June.


But not all of the progress so far this year has come from state legislatures.


In Iowa, the state Board of Pharmacy voted unanimously to recommend reclassifying marijuana as a Schedule II drug (following a series of hearings that included testimony from an MPP staffer). The legislature is also considering establishing a task force, as recommended by the board, to recommend how the state could implement a medical marijuana program.  


In Arizona, MPP is about to conclude a successful signature drive to place a medical marijuana initiative on the 2010 ballot.


And in South Dakota, activists just completed a signature drive to get an MPP-drafted medical marijuana initiative on the November 2010 ballot.


Taken together, these steps signal remarkable progress along the road to protecting medical marijuana patients from arrest and ending marijuana prohibition in the United States. Each new bill that advances, however incrementally, and every new legislator that comes around on these issues represents a significant crack in a failed policy that has gone on for far too long.