Pot Matters: Reforming All Over

In recent years, the reform of marijuana laws has been a legislative issue in almost every state of the nation, every state but four.

The legislature in Idaho approved a concurrent resolution in 2013 affirming their opposition to the legalization of marijuana. This is what the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) reported in a recent overview of marijuana reform activity in state legislatures. Also, no activity of any sort on this topic was reported for Arkansas, Montana or South Dakota (though, of course, Montana has a medical cannabis program, and Arkansas has just approved a legalization initiative for the fall ballot.) So much for the ability of prohibition supporters to hold back reform of the nation’s marijuana laws.

Don’t worry, these laggard states will have to face the music sooner or later. Prohibition is crumbling, faster in some states than others, but crumbling nonetheless, and crumbling all over America.

Federal marijuana policy is based on the prohibition of use and prohibition of supply. But the federal government is reliant on state and local police agencies for enforcement of this policy. 

Over the last several decades, since the 1970s, states have opted out of enforcing this policy. The first wave on non-cooperation was the passage of decriminalization in several states in the 1970s. Then came sentencing reform in many other states, in which the statutes remained the same but the sentences recommended by prosecutors and handed out by judges tended toward probation and/or conditional discharge (stay out of trouble for a year, for example, and the conviction is expunged). Next, came a series of experimental medical marijuana programs in the 1980s, followed by laws allowing medical access beginning in the mid-1990s. In the last ten years, there has been a cascade of reform activity, including more decriminalization, more medicalization and outright legalization.

Could the states be abandoning prohibition any faster? 

Yes, of course they could. But it should be obvious by now that they are indeed running away from prohibition and embracing reform. There is no other way to read the NCSL report but to realize that the immense scope and direction of legislative activity, in almost every state, is pro-reform and anti-prohibition. All of this activity is an implicit acknowledgement that prohibition is a failed, flawed and unjust policy.

The form of reform is somewhat varied and certainly based on political conditions that vary from state to state. But the fact that the NCSL has to address legislative activity in terms of legalization, decriminalization, penalties and other provisions is clear evidence of a dominant trend.

There is legalization in four states and the District of Columbia. The Vermont legislature is considering legalization, legalization measure are pending in 12 states and ballot initiatives or constitutional amendments are before legislatures in three others. Legalization bills have failed in eight states—but even this is a victory for reform as getting the legislatures to even recognize this as a pressing issue represents tremendous progress for the reform movement.

Just consider this: “Measures to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana were introduced but not advanced in 21 states in 2015, 15 states in 2014 and in 13 states in 2013.”

Twenty states and the District of Columbia have now decriminalized marijuana (and five of these have moved on to legalization).

“Of those, six—Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio (and Oregon before legalization)—have it as a low-level misdemeanor, with no possibility of jail for qualifying offenses,” the NCSL reported, with decriminalization “pending in legislatures in Alabama, Arizona, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Tennessee and South Carolina.”

Kansas is considering making many marijuana possession crimes misdemeanors. 

“Penalty measures are pending in Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wisconsin," the report continued. "Some bills would reduce penalties by addressing thresholds or units, the crime class, mandatory penalties or other clarifications.” 

Utah is considering sentencing reform which would include reductions of most marijuana crimes to misdemeanors. Wyoming passed a bill last year to defer prosecution for first-offense marijuana crimes. North Dakota, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas also relaxed marijuana possession penalties. Expungement (in which convictions are set aside from criminal records) has been adopted in Oregon, Maryland and Vermont. Rhode Island closed marijuana violation records to the public. New Jersey allows for expungement after completion of special probation drug court.

Momentum is clearly against the forces of prohibition. 

Any state legislator checking up on national trends with the NCSL will discover which way the country is headed—as if they haven’t figured this out already on their own.  “You don’t need a weatherman”, as the song goes, “to know which way the wind blows.”

Marijuana reform is breaking out all over. 

(Image Courtesy of The Hill)

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