By Mike Meno
In 1995, medical marijuana was illegal in all 50 states, national support for making marijuana legal hovered around 25 percent, and the sitting president denied that he had ever inhaled. Marijuana prohibition was more or less an accepted fact of American life.
At the same time – 15 years ago next month, to be exact – three unpaid staffers working in three separate bedrooms formed a new organization for the express purpose of reforming America’s marijuana laws and ending the costly, ineffective and downright silly prohibition of marijuana that’s been on the books since 1937. By the end of its first year, the Marijuana Policy Project had a modest 237 dues-paying members, and the dream of ending marijuana prohibition still seemed distant.
Today, MPP is the nation’s largest marijuana policy reform organization, with more than 29,000 members nationwide, 40 full-time employees, and headquarters on Capitol Hill. Fifteen years since its founding – the anniversary of which will be celebrated at a Washington, D.C. gala on January 13 – the Marijuana Policy Project, through lobbying, outreach and grassroots efforts, has helped to guide this nation’s marijuana laws away from insanity and ever closer toward common sense.
Since MPP was formed, national support for ending the disastrous policies of marijuana prohibition has nearly doubled to an all-time high of 44 percent, according to a Gallup poll; medical marijuana is legal in 13 states, and our current president not only admitted to inhaling, but directed his administration to take the first positive steps toward marijuana reform that the federal government has made in nearly 30 years.
For perhaps the first time in MPP’s brief 15-year history, the end of marijuana prohibition may actually be on the horizon. But there is still much work that needs to be done.
Despite the decriminalization of marijuana in 13 states (Massachusetts became the most recent in 2008 when its voters passed an MPP ballot initiative with a whopping 65 percent “yes” vote), hundreds of thousands of Americans are still being arrested for marijuana offenses every year. In 2008 alone, U.S. law enforcement made 847,863 arrests for marijuana charges – 89 percent of which were for possession. That means that an American was arrested on marijuana charges every 37 seconds.
Although there are now 13 states with medical marijuana laws (the most recent passed in 2008 in Michigan, where voters overwhelmingly approved MPP’s ballot initiative), seriously ill patients who live in 37 other states still face arrest and imprisonment for treating their conditions with medical marijuana. The Obama administration signaled an encouraging change this fall when the Justice Department instructed federal prosecutors to back off patients in states with medical marijuana laws, but marijuana itself remains a Schedule I drug under federal law. (In a historic move, the American Medical Association, the nation’s largest and generally most conservative public health group, last month recommended that this classification be reconsidered.)
And our nation’s drug czar, who many reformers view with cautious optimism as potentially more enlightened than his predecessors, still insists that “marijuana legalization, for any purpose, remains a non-starter” that it is in neither his nor the president’s vocabulary.
But for all these hurdles, there are just as many encouraging signs.
This month, Pennsylvania’s state legislature will hold its first-ever hearing on a medical marijuana bill. Iowa’s Board of Pharmacy concluded a series of four such hearings in November. MPP staffers testified at both. As we approach 2010, nearly a dozen different states are in varying stages of considering medical marijuana legislation, and several (New Jersey and New York) are poised to pass such laws in coming months.
And then, of course, there’s the big question: Which state could be the first to undo the chains of prohibition altogether, and set a positive example for the rest of the nation by taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol? Last month, California’s state assembly held public hearings on a bill that would do just that. Next month, a Rhode Island study commission is expected to issue a report to the state Senate that could be a step in that direction. At the same time, MPP’s Nevada chapter is rallying support for a proposal to tax and regulate marijuana in that state, and more than half-a-million signatures have been collected in California to place a tax and regulate measure on the 2010 ballot.
Against these events, editorial boards across the nation are calling for an end to marijuana prohibition, and major news outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post are beginning to forecast seismic changes in national marijuana policy.
Fifteen years ago, such progress seemed unimaginable. With perseverance, a little luck, and your continued support, perhaps in another 15 years, supporters of marijuana policy reform will be able to look back on the end of marijuana prohibition entirely – and have the legal option of a celebratory toast with a substance safer than alcohol.
For now at least, please consider joining MPP and our staff at our 15th anniversary gala in Washington. More information about the event can be found at www.mpp.org.
Mike Meno is the assistant director of communications at MPP