Krissy Oechslin is assistant director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project.
Right now, there are more serious attempts than at any other point in U.S. history to replace marijuana prohibition with a system of taxation and regulation. Four states -- Nevada, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Washington -- are considering proposals to end marijuana prohibition, and one state -- Alaska -- has essentially "legalized" marijuana via court ruling. Is this the beginning of the end for marijuana prohibition?
MPP has worked to pass a tax-and-regulate initiative in Nevada since 2002. This year, after blatant obstructionism by Nevada state officials, we finally succeeded in qualifying an initiative for the 2006 ballot. Because it is a statutory -- not constitutional -- amendment, the Nevada Legislature first has a chance to consider the proposal and pass it, unamended, into law.
On March 10, the Nevada Legislature became the first legislature in the country to debate the merits of a system of marijuana regulation. MPP Executive Director Rob Kampia -- along with a retired police lieutenant, a college professor, and a supportive member of the Nevada Legislature -- testified in favor of the tax-and-regulate proposal. The Assembly speaker and a bevy of law enforcement officers testified in favor of prohibition, saying they don't want "dope smokers walking our streets." The initiative will now go before voters in November 2006.
Also in March, a Vermont state representative introduced the state's first bill to allow the sale of marijuana in a strictly regulated market with appropriate safeguards. Vermont is clearly supportive of marijuana policy reform, having legalized medical marijuana last spring over the objections of a Republican governor. Though the tax-and-regulate bill is unlikely to pass this year, it will stimulate widespread public debate, and MPP will work to increase support for the measure.
Earlier this year, two New Hampshire state representatives introduced legislation to remove all criminal penalties for marijuana. The bill was defeated in committee by an 11-2 vote, but not before sparking a lively debate about the pros and cons of marijuana prohibition. The bill faces a similar fate when it is taken up on the House floor in mid-March.
And Washington legislators are considering a resolution that endorses the creation of an advisory committee to oversee the statewide regulation of psychoactive substances, including marijuana. Under the proposal, marijuana would be taxed and regulated for adults, with penalties for use that leads to harm -- such as distribution to minors and driving under the influence.
(The exhaustively researched, well-written resolution merits more space than this column allows. It's worth a read at http://www.kcba.org/druglaw/.)
Alaska, of course, has already "legalized" the private, adult use of marijuana. In September 2004, the state Supreme Court upheld an appellate court ruling that permitted the adult possession and use of up to four ounces of marijuana in the privacy of one's home. An attempt to create a tax-and-regulate system to complement the court ruling, however, failed 56%-44% in the November 2004 election. Despite the initiative's defeat, it garnered the greatest support in U.S. history for ending marijuana prohibition.
Alaska, Nevada, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Washington aren't alone in their groundbreaking efforts, though. Incremental steps away from prohibition are happening in surprising places.
Texas lawmakers are considering downgrading criminal penalties for possession of small quantities of marijuana from a felony to the equivalent of a traffic ticket.
Columbia, Missouri, and Oakland, California, have already made marijuana arrests the lowest police priority, and 29 legislative districts in Massachusetts have called for tax-and-regulate schemes or "decriminalization" systems where marijuana offenses are treated like traffic violations.
And the mayor of Chicago and some of the city's top law enforcement officials are looking into issuing tickets instead of wasting police and court time chasing down marijuana smokers.
With support for ending marijuana prohibition more widespread, prominent, and credible than ever, and with four states seriously considering marijuana regulation, the drug warriors are running scared. No longer can they claim that marijuana policy reformers are in this battle simply to be able to use marijuana with impunity. No longer will we be branded as working only for our own self-interest.
What will Drug Czar John Walters say to the elected officials who support regulation -- are they all simply "stoners" who want an easier way to get marijuana, or will he be forced to consider that there are legitimate arguments against prohibition?
Mahatma Gandhi said: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." Until now, the drug czar and his prohibitionist cronies had been laughing at us. They still don't even consider marijuana prohibition -- or alternatives to it -- a matter of debate. But with new battles opening up in Alaska, Nevada, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Washington, they aren't laughing anymore. They're fighting, and that's a good thing, because it means our victory is that much closer.