2014 was truly a watershed year for the movement to legalize marijuana in this country. Two states joined the list of jurisdiction to switch from prohibition to regulated sales, and the District of Columbia, as well as a number of cities, adopted complete decriminalization for minor offenses. And scores of additional states saw their first serious legalization proposals introduced in their state legislatures, a fact that holds great promise for more victories to come in the near future.
While far too many marijuana arrests continue to occur in this country, and hundreds of thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens still have their lives and careers turned upside-down each year because of their use of marijuana, it is also true that the number of marijuana arrests dropped for the fourth straight year, reversing a pattern of increasing numbers of arrests that had been expanding for several decades. With additional states moving from prohibition towards decriminalization or full legalization, those numbers should continue to decline for years to come. We did not get into this mess called marijuana prohibition overnight, and it will require both persistence and patience to put it fully behind us.
A lot of the progress we have seen over the last year occurred in ways that reflect the increasing public acceptance of marijuana, a necessary precursor to political change. 2014 was truly another banner year for legalizers.
Here is my list of the most significant milestones of the last twelve months.
1. Oregon and Alaska Fully Legalize Marijuana
On November 4, voters in both Oregon and Alaska approved voter initiatives that ended marijuana prohibition under their state laws, replacing prohibition with a regulate-and-tax system that licenses both growers and retail outlets. By joining Colorado and Washington, these two states assured the legalization bandwagon continues forward at full speed. This movement towards full legalization is more than just a couple of states breaking with tradition; this is now a national legalization movement with the real potential to end marijuana prohibition over the next few years all across the country.
Oregonians approved their legalization proposal with 56 percent of the vote, allowing those age 21 and older to possess up to eight ounces of “dried” marijuana and up to four plants. Alaskans approved their legalization proposal with 53 percent support, allowing people 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and to cultivate up to six plants. Both states will eventually have licensed growers and sellers, once the state regulations have been promulgated and implemented.
The stage is now set for another round of legalization victories in 2016.
2. Washington, D.C. Completely Decriminalizes Marijuana
In February, the DC City Council approved legislation making the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana a $25 civil fine, with a $100 civil fine for public possession or smoking in public. That provided residents of the District with one of the best decriminalization laws in the nation. And that is especially important because all 535 members of Congress get to experience decriminalization first-hand, and compare it to their (mostly) harsher marijuana laws back home.
Then in November the voters in DC went further, with 70 percent supporting a voter initiative fully legalizing the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana, and the private cultivation of up to six plants (no more than three may be mature); and further legalizing the transfer (without payment ; sales remain illegal) of up to one ounce of marijuana from one adult to another.
District law does not currently permit the retail sales of recreational marijuana, but the City Council has discussed the possibility of moving in that direction over the coming year.
Congress, as part of the Omnibus Budget bill enacted just before Congress adjourned for the year, then attempted to bar the implementation of the voter initiative, inserting language purporting to disallow the expenditure of any funds to implement the new law. However, local elected officials, including the City Council Chair, the incoming mayor and the District’s non-voting delegate to Congress, have all concluded the attempt by Congress is legally ineffective, and they are moving forward to implement the terms of the latest initiative. Stay tuned as this is all sorted out after the first of the year.
3. Obama says marijuana no more dangerous than alcohol; acknowledges racial disparity in marijuana arrests; says Native Americans free to legalize marijuana.
In the Jan. 27, 2014 issue of the New Yorker, President Obama, in a wide-ranging interview with editor David Remnick, shared his belief that “I don’t think it (marijuana) is more dangerous than alcohol.” When pressed further, and asked if he felt it was less dangerous than alcohol, Obama conceded “Less dangerous, in terms of its impact on the individual consumer.”
While that acknowledgement of the obvious might not seem like a big deal, in fact that is the first time a US president has felt comfortable equating marijuana with alcohol, another sign that we are finally working our way out of “Reefer Madness” and towards a more science-based marijuana policy.
In a surprise move, the Obama’s Department of Justice released a memo in October indicating to Native American tribes that they can engage in cannabis commerce -– cultivation, processing and retail sales –- on reservations, as long as they comport with the existing guidelines for states wishing to legalize marijuana. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, there are a total of 326 federally recognized American Indian reservations .
Considering the administration’s 2013 decision to stand down and allow those states that wish to experiment with different legalization models to do so, free from federal interference, and Attorney General Eric Holder, in 2014 publicly questioning the inclusion of marijuana on Schedule I of the federal Controlled Substances Act, the Obama administration has turned out to be the most marijuana-friendly administration in history.
4. Philadelphia, Santa Fe decriminalize marijuana; NYC starts issuing citations, rather than arresting smokers
A number of cities and towns around the country adopted versions of decriminalization during the last year, including Santa Fe, NM; Philadelphia; and several cities in Michigan. And New York City stopped arresting minor marijuana offenders.
In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton publicly announced plans in November to halt the NYPD’s practice of arresting tens of thousands of minor marijuana offenders annually. Under the new plan, now in effect, city police will issue first-time marijuana offenders a summons, payable by a fine, in lieu of making a criminal arrest. This change was spurred by an analysis of marijuana arrests in New York City showing a disproportionate percentage (86 percent) of minor marijuana arrests involved either Black or Hispanic individuals, and nearly three-out-of-four had no prior criminal record.
Mayor de Blasio called the new enforcement policy “a smart policy that keeps New Yorkers safe, but it is also a more fair policy.”
In Philadelphia, the city council passed and Mayor Michael Nutter signed into law a new marijuana ordinance, removing criminal penalties for the possession of minor quantities of marijuana. Under the new ordinance, possession of an ounce or less brings a $25 civil fine, with no arrest and no criminal record, while consuming the drug in public carries a $100 civil fine, plus possible community service. The new law makes Philadelphia the largest city in the country to officially decriminalize small quantities of marijuana.
In Santa Fe, NM, that state’s capitol, members of the City Council voted 5-4 in favor of municipal legislation that reduces penalties for those who possess small quantities of marijuana for non-medical purposes. The new ordinance imposes a civil fine of not more than $25 for offenses involving the possession of up to one ounce of cannabis and/or the possession of marijuana-related paraphernalia. Proponents of the change had previously qualified a decriminalization measure to appear on the November ballot, but members of the Council decided to approve the proposal outright rather than put the issue before local voters.
In Michigan, voters in a total of eight cities voted in 2014 to eliminate all local penalties for the possession, use, transfer and transportation of small amounts of marijuana. Two cities (Oak Park and Hazel Park) approved the changes during the August primary election, while six additional cities (Saginaw, Port Huron, Mt. Pleasant, Pleasant Ridge, Huntington Woods and Berkley) approved their changes in November.
5. Congress approves language prohibiting the DOJ from interfering with medical marijuana programs in the various states
President Barack Obama signed spending legislation in December that included provisions limiting the Justice Department’s ability to take criminal action against state-licensed individuals or businesses that are acting in full compliance with the medical marijuana laws of their states. Specifically, an amendment sponsored by California Reps. Dana Rohrbacher and Sam Farr to the $1.1 trillion spending bill states, “None of the funds made available in this act to the Department of Justice may be used … to prevent … states … from implementing their own state laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.”
This is the first time the full Congress has taken any action supportive of the medical use of marijuana, and it suggests the long Congressional intransigence may be nearing an end.
Similar language prohibiting the Justice Department from undermining state-sanctioned hemp cultivation programs was also included in the bill.
6. New York Times editorial board calls for an end to prohibition
It is nearly impossible to detect the precise moment when support for a change in social policy reaches the “tipping point,” but for the marijuana legalization movement, that time was likely July 26, 2014, when the editorial board of the New York Times, the most influential newspaper in the world, published their lead editorial entitled Repeal Prohibition, Again. Here is an excerpt from the editorial:
“The federal government should repeal the ban on marijuana….”
“The social costs of the marijuana laws are vast. There were 658,000 arrests for marijuana possession in 2012, according to F.B.I. figures, compared with 256,000 for cocaine, heroin and their derivatives. Even worse, the result is racist, falling disproportionately on young black men, ruining their lives and creating new generations of career criminals.”
“There is honest debate among scientists about the health effects of marijuana, but we believe that the evidence is overwhelming that addiction and dependence are relatively minor problems, especially compared with alcohol and tobacco. Moderate use of marijuana does not appear to pose a risk for otherwise healthy adults. Claims that marijuana is a gateway to more dangerous drugs are as fanciful as the “Reefer Madness” images of murder, rape and suicide.”…
“Creating systems for regulating manufacture, sale and marketing will be complex. But those problems are solvable, and would have long been dealt with had we as a nation not clung to the decision to make marijuana production and use a federal crime.”…
“it is long past time to repeal this version of Prohibition.”
That initial endorsement was followed by a series of six follow-up editorials explaining in more detail precisely why the Times decided to join the fight to end prohibition. The unambiguous Times endorsement provides wonderful political cover for those who might privately understand the benefits of regulation over prohibition, especially elected officials, but who feared taking a public stand would cause them to be seen as being out of step with mainstream political thought. If the New York Times endorses full legalization, it is now part of the legitimate political debate. We have been embraced by “America’s newspaper of record.”
7. National Polling remains strongly supportive.
There were 10 national polls released in 2014 gauging the levels of public support for full legalization, and all but two showed a majority support. Pew, who polled twice during the year, found 52 percent and 54 percent support, with 75 percent saying they expect marijuana will be fully legalized nationwide. Gallup found 51 percent; Huffington Post/You Gov poll found 55 percent support.
And the only two polls to find slightly less than 50 percent support, still found a plurality of support: one found a 48 percent support for legalization vs. 47 percent opposed, and a second found 49 percent support for legalization vs. 48 percent opposed. The 2014 polling average was 52 percent support.
Especially noteworthy was a finding from a Wall Street Journal poll in which people rated marijuana as less harmful than sugar! In this poll, people were asked to rate the relative harmfulness of marijuana, along with three other potentially harmful substances; tobacco, alcohol and sugar. Not surprisingly, tobacco was listed by almost half the respondents (49 percent) as the most harmful, followed by alcohol in second place (24 percent) and sugar in third with 15 percent. Marijuana was considered the least harmful, with just 8 percent of respondents ranking it the most harmful substance.