In case you forgot American Government 101, the U.S. has a federal system in which states can make their own laws. Nowhere is that more evident than with marijuana policy.
Laws differ drastically state-to-state, and certain states are significantly more progressive than others.
Here’s a look at some of the states with more moderate or lenient laws; as a rule they tend to be in the West and Northeast, the places with more marijuana users.
The state-leader in marijuana reform is California. Though Oregon was the first to decriminalize possession of small amounts in 1973, the Golden State followed shortly after, and broke the mold by allowing medical marijuana in 1996.
Possession of less than a ounce merits a $100 fine, and while trafficking is still a felony, the sale of any amount is punishable by two to four years in prison without any fine.
In February 2009, however, State Assembly member Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) introduced another piece of landmark legislation, AB 390, the first bill of its kind to call for taxation and regulation of marijuana.
Though the bill expired and was replaced with a newer version, AB 2254, Quintin Mecke, Communications Director for Ammiano says, “the momentum regarding legalization and the conversation around overall drug policy really took off last year in ways that I’m not sure that even we expected when we first introduced the bill.”
Since then, reform advocates, led by Richard Lee, owner of Oaksterdam University, a school that teaches people how to harvest, cultivate and run their own medical marijuana dispensaries, collected enough signatures to secure a ballot measure, that will allow California residents to vote about whether to tax and regulate the drug in November 2010.
Though the ballot item is different from Ammiano’s bill in that counties must “opt in” to the legalization model rather than it being uniform legislation, it represents a huge opportunity for reform advocates.
If the vote is yes, Meckle says, those counties that are actively regulating marijuana and have dispensaries will be the ones that will quickly get up and running.
“There is a general assumption is that a lot of new counties are not going to come online,” he adds. “The counties that are currently supportive of the issue have created a system, and no one wants to reinvent the wheel if there is already a system in place for medical.”
Although spokesman Mike Meno says it is too early to say what November’s vote will conclude, he points to a field poll done in May 2009 that showed that 56 percent of Californians supported ending marijuana prohibition.
A good portion of this is happening right now due to the state’s economic problems. The economics are presenting a window for the larger reform conversation, which has been building for quite a long time.
“We can’t continue to keep our heads stuck in the sand and pretend that this current model of prohibition works in any way shape or form. Our drug policies are an abject failure. Anyone who looks at the situation with regards to the Mexican violence on the border has got to be literally smoking something,” Meckle says.
California's legislative is considering a number of other bills, from reducing adult possession penalties to medical marijuana-related paraphernalia.
Other western states like Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, Hawaiiand Alaska also have progressive marijuana policies. (Two-term New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson called for legalization in 1998.)
Cities like Denver, Portland, Oregon, Missoula, Montanaas well as cluster in California (Oakland, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and San Mateo) have made pot use the lowest of priorities for local police departments.
Oregon, also one of the earliest states to sanction medical use, continues to reform its laws. There are currently more than a dozen bills in the state legislature, covering everything from medical users and the workplace to sentencing to the creation of a task force to study driving while under the influence.
Hawaii is considering legislation to reduce the already-light penalty for possession under an ounce.
In Alaska, marijuana is also both decriminalized and allowed medically. It also has a low arrest rate based on the user population. According to the Marijuana Policy Almanac, compiled by Jon Gettman, Criminal Justice Professor at Virginia's Shenandoah University and public policy consultant, Alaska ranks 49th in arrest rates nationally. In 2007, of the state’s 74,000 users, only 1.4 percent were arrested.
This is markedly lower than a state like Kentucky, which ranked third, with 5.8 percent of the 350,000 users being arrested. Both New Mexico and Coloradoallow medical marijuana and are considering taxation and regulation, as well as decriminalization.
On the other side of country, Rhode Island also has relatively liberal marijuana policy. First off, it passed medical marijuana two years ago. Bills on reduced penalties for adult possession and outright possession, manufacture and sale of limited amounts are pending.
Rhode Island also ranks 47th In Gettman’s Marijuana Policy Almanac in terms of arrest rates; of their 144,000 annual users, 1,463 people are arrested each year.
Like other states in the Northeast, Rhode Island has a relatively high proportion of users compared to its total population. This is why, says Gettman, their interests may be better represented. In the Ocean State, for example, there are 144,000 annual users, out of a total population of 1.05 million.
In California, there are 3.3 million users out of 36.6 million people. These ratios are higher than in a state like Delaware, which has a more conservative marijuana policy and an estimated 79,000 users and 865,000 residents.
Law And Economics
In a traditional Blue State like Rhode Island, one might think that reform would move quickly. However, this is not the case. One of the reasons is that the state likes to be methodical, and in June 2009, legislators formed the Special Senate Commission to Study the Prohibition of Marijuana in Rhode Island. The Commission’s Chair, Rep. Joshua Miller (D-Cranston) says that Rhode Island likes to have experts come in and look at issues.
“Once medical marijuana was behind us, those of us who were interested wanted to start a conversation about decriminalization.” They waited because they didn’t want medical marijuana to lose any momentum as a result of other potential initiatives.
Knowing Rhode Island's major fiscal problems, Miller says proponents knew the only way they would be taken seriously is if they could demonstrate some kind of positive impact on the state budget.
Though morality and civil liberties are still relevant issues in the broader debate, the Commission found that there are serious budgetary advantages to decriminalization, and that treatment is a better policy than incarceration.
“I think the public sentiment is very favorable towards it, but whether it has legislative momentum is a whole other thing," says Miller.
Miller says the only way decriminalization will be passed before the session ends in June is if it is seen as having an important role in solving pressing state fiscal problems, for example, flooding or the budget crisis. Otherwise, Miller says, it will have to wait until next year.
Of the other states in the Northeast, Mainealso has a liberal policy— it allows medical marijuana and has decriminalized possession.
The state also comes in 40th on the Marijuana Policy Almanac’s arrest-rate ranking based on user population with 2.3 percent of the 143,000 state users arrested. The sale of less than a pound is a misdemeanor, punishable by one year in jail and a $2,000 fine.
“I want to be very clear, there’s no knocking the South here,” says Gettman. “There are states in the south that have very reasonable policies about marijuana—North Carolinaand Mississippiboth have decriminalization. Georgiaalso has a lenient policy for first offenders with small amounts.”
Though times seem to be changing, Gettman points out in his blog that there are many obstacles to marijuana law reform, citing overconfidence on the part of reformers as the No. 1 barrier: "While many marijuana users think legalization will never occur, it seems that just as many are so convinced it is inevitable they don’t bother to take part in activities to bring it about.”