Jon Gettman is a long time contributor to HIGH TIMES. A former National Director of NORML, Jon has a Ph.D. in public policy and regional economic development and consults with attorneys, advocates, and non-profits on cannabis related research and public policy issues. On October 8, 2002, along with a coalition of organizations, he filed a new petition to have cannabis rescheduled under federal law. This column will track that petition's progress.

Feb. 11, 2005
Spotlight on Decriminalization

Reducing arrests and penalties for marijuana possession should be the major priority of the cannabis reform movement. Laws and public policies that reduce penalties for marijuana possession help all cannabis users, and in many states reform on possession laws can have a major impact on reducing the threat of arrest and prosecution of medical patients.

Advocates of reform are diligently building public support for cannabis-related legislation in 14 states, however there is only legislation pending in 5 states to reduce penalties for all marijuana users, with most of the rest of the attention focused on attempts to protect medical cannabis patients.

Supporters of marijuana reform, though, should not have to choose between medical cannabis and reform measures that affect the wider community of cannabis consumers. Only 2 of these 14 states (Massachusetts and Texas) have pending legislation in both areas – medical cannabis and marijuana’s decriminalization. Some believe that it will be easier to pass medical cannabis reform than decrim, and that medical cannabis reform can serve as a building block for later reductions in penalties for all marijuana offenses. The problem with this approach is two-fold. First, these are two distinct issues that really have very little to do with each other. It hurts the interests of medical patients for others to use medical cannabis reform as a stalking horse for wider decriminalization. Second, it ignores the interests of the larger population of cannabis users as well as those of medical cannabis patients.

The remedy to the imbalance between the emphasis on medical cannabis and efforts to reduce all cannabis arrests and penalties is simple. First of all, it is just unacceptable, ethically, to do any less regarding the medical cannabis issue, indeed far more needs to be done. And that is the remedy to the challenge of reforming all marijuana laws. More needs to be done to advance the interests of all marijuana consumers, and more attention needs to be devoted to advancing the public interest in further decriminalization of marijuana under state and local law. With that in mind, the present batch of marijuana decriminalization proposals before state legislatures deserve both attention and support from everyone interested in marijuana reform, regardless of where they live.

In early 2005 marijuana decriminalization bills have been introduced in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Texas, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

In Massachusetts Senate Bill 1151 seeks to make possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana a civil offense punishable by a fine of $100 rather than the current penalty structure that allows a sentence of up to 6 months in jail and a fine of up to $500.

Wisconsin is considering Assembly Bill 255 which replaces a penalty of up to 6 months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000 for marijuana possession with just a fine of up to $1,000 for possession of 25 grams of marijuana or less. By changing marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to a civil offense Wisconsin would not have to appoint public defenders for these simple marijuana possession cases, saving the state additional funds.

New Hampshire is examining House Bill 197, a proposal that will replace the current penalty for possession of marijuana of up to a year in jail and up to a $2,000 fine with a civil fine of up to $50 for possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana. The New Hampshire bill also provides for a temporary revocation of the defendant’s driver’s license.

In Texas Senate Bill 254 proposes to make the possession of 1 ounce of marijuana or less a criminal offense subject to a fine up to $500, which would replace the current penalty of up to 180 days in jail and up to a $2,000 fine. Senate Bill 254 would also eliminate provisions in current law that would suspend the driver’s license for conviction of possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana. Federal law restricts the amount of federal highway funds available to states that do not suspend driver’s licenses in response to drug-related offenses, and the Texas legislature estimates that SB 254 could cost the state up to $199.4 million in federal highway funds.

One of the most interesting attempts to reform state marijuana laws has been introduced in Vermont, where House Bill 390 proposes to eliminate all penalties for marijuana possession by adults in non-public places and seeks to establish a legal regulatory system that will provide tax revenue for the state. Currently possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana in Vermont is punishable by up to 6 months in jail and a fine of up to $500 for first offenders. A second offense is punishable by 2 years incarceration and a fine of up to $2,000.

All of these bills would benefit marijuana consumers. Perhaps just as important is the opportunity each of these bills presents to stimulate debate over marijuana laws in these and other states, particularly debate of the costs and benefits (if any) of existing marijuana laws.

In an article summarizing the history of marijuana decriminalization laws in the 1970s prepared for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), Joseph Galliher of the University of Missouri-Columbia concluded that “perhaps the best explanation of the failure of other American states to pass decriminalization legislation is that [in] much of the nation there exists de-facto decriminalization, where punitive penalties remain on the books but are seldom enforced.”

Each of these new reform proposals provides an opportunity to move state penalties closer to actual state and local level enforcement practices. It is in these venues that reform is trial, and it is in these venues that the ability of reform organizations to represent the interests of all marijuana users will be under scrutiny, by both marijuana users and opponents of marijuana reform as well.

These existing proposals highlight many of the complex issues faced by cannabis reform advocates. It is easy to criticize a legislative proposal by focusing on a single provision, such as a fine, or sentence, or even the amount of marijuana it concerns. However legislative proposals are packages designed to address complex concerns of numerous political, social, and legal interests. All of these proposals provide significant reforms, they all improve the treatment of marijuana consumers under their respective state laws, and they all provide the citizens of these states with criminal justice savings.

State and Local Government on the Web is a directory of official state, county, and local government websites that provides access to every state legislative website in the United States. The websites of state legislatures provide access to the texts of bills before the legislatures, information on their status and history, advance notice of committee hearings, and access to legislative reports such as fiscal impact statements. Perhaps most importantly these websites will provide local citizens with contact information for their representatives in the state legislature.

Use the State Legislatures website to learn more about these and other cannabis-related proposals. If there is a cannabis proposal in your state legislature, let your representatives know what you think of the bills and that you will be involved in the legislative process. Otherwise, use this opportunity to learn more about these decriminalization proposals, start to learn more about your own state legislature, and share news of these current decriminalization proposals with members of your own state legislature. Only the persistent involvement of concerned citizens will make the reduction of arrests and penalties for marijuana possession a major priority, a priority not only for the cannabis reform movement, but one for the general public as well.