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To Legalize or Not to Legalize?

With Colorado and Washington already allowing recreational use and a public groundswell supporting legalization, should other states follow suit?

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By John Brinkley

04/01/14

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WASHINGTON—Whether or not to legalize is the question that states have been wrestling with since Colorado and Washington became the first to make recreational marijuana use legal. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper opposed legalization and has been counseling other governors not to be in too much of a hurry to follow his state’s example.

However, owing to the siren call of tax revenue from legal marijuana sales combined with a groundswell of public demand for legalization, Hickenlooper’s advice has fallen on deaf ears in many states.

Colorado’s fiscal 2014-15 budget proposal, released Feb. 19, forecasts that the state will rake in $134 million in tax revenue from marijuana sales. That is substantially more than originally estimated.

Washington State expects to reap $51 million in marijuana taxes between 2015 and 2017 and $138.5 million in 2018 and 2019.

“The momentum is very clearly on the side of reforming marijuana laws,” said Michael Elliott, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group in Denver. 

Since Colorado’s legalization amendment passed, Alaska has put forth a legalization initiative on its 2014 ballots and Oregon may soon follow. The Iowa Legislature is considering decriminalizing possession. Legislation is pending in Rhode Island to legalize simple possession. The New Hampshire House of Representatives passed legislation in January to do the same, but Governor Maggie Hassan has said she would veto it, because “it’s the wrong message to send to young people.”

Several other states have taken legalizing medical marijuana into consideration. They include Oregon, Alabama, Oklahoma, Kansas, Florida and Georgia.

Twenty states already allow medical use, with varying degrees of permissiveness.

In California, where medical marijuana use has been legal since 1996, momentum for full legalization has accelerated since legalization in Colorado and Washington, said State Assembly Member Tom Ammiano, a Democrat whose district is in the Bay Area.

“It’s clear to me - as we work to pass smart marijuana laws - that momentum is growing. If the critical mass has not been reached, it looks very close when the President of the United States recognizes the negative effects of our excessive laws against cannabis,” Ammiano said in a statement.

He added that the office of the California legislative analyst had examined two legalization initiatives and concluded that they would save the state tens of millions of dollars and “generate significant revenues.”

More ammunition for legalization advocates: a Field Poll conducted in December 2013 found that 55 percent of Californians favor legalization. The Field Poll has been asking that question every year since 1969. Never before has a majority of respondents said they were for repeal of California’s criminal marijuana laws.

Ammiano said he would introduce legislation this year to improve California’s regulatory regime for medical marijuana, although “I have always been a supporter of (full) legalization.”

He said some had suggested that California wait to see how things turn out in Colorado and Washington before leaping ahead with legalization.

“No. We already know that what we’re doing in California is not working,” he said. “Let’s watch Washington and Colorado, but we have to keep California moving ahead.”

Unfortunately for legalization advocates, California Governor Jerry Brown opposes legalization, at least in the short term.

In a March 2 appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, Brown said Californians should wait to see what happens in Washington and Colorado before deciding whether to follow their lead.

He said he was worried about “how many people can get stoned and still have a great state or a great nation."

Here in Washington, D.C., which is perennially strapped for cash, legalization advocates are trying to get 25,000 signatures on a petition to put a legalization referendum on the November 2014 ballot. The D.C. government decriminalized it last year.

If they succeed, D.C. voters will almost certainly vote to legalize recreational pot use. A Washington Post poll released in January showed that 63 percent of Washingtonians supported it.

In Maine, residents of the city of Portland voted on November 2013 to allow people 21 and older to possess 2.5 ounces of marijuana for recreational use. The vote – 67 percent in favor – was largely symbolic because state law still prohibits possession, except for medical use.

Maine State Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, hopes to change that. She said prohibition had caused more problems than legalization is likely to cause.

For example, “because we have a medical marijuana law on the books, patients have been getting arrested and their marijuana confiscated,” Russell said. “They (the police) say they can take it under federal law.”

Russell introduced a legalization bill in the Maine Legislature twice last year. The first one lost by four votes. The second, because it was introduced in the second legislative session, had to be approved by the Maine Legislative Council. It voted 5-5 to reject it.

State Senate President and Legislative Council member Justin Alfond is “holding up the bill,” Russell said. “He refuses to move it forward, even though over 80 percent of his constituents voted . . . to legalize.” She was referring to the Portland referendum. 

If Russell re-introduces the bill in 2015, she expects to have better luck.

After Colorado made pot possession legal, “there was a paradigm shift” in the attitudes of Maine legislators about legalization, she said. “It was stunning.” Other Maine legislators may introduce legalization bills this session, she said.

Maine’s eight medical marijuana dispensaries grossed $469,280 in fiscal 2013 and paid $25,800 in sales taxes, according to Maine Revenue Services. But Russell said she wasn’t motivated by the tax revenue that legalization would bring to Maine. She said she was more interested in the opportunities that would arise for small farmers and business people. She said Maine was home to several micro-breweries and she envisioned a “micro-pot” industry taking hold there if marijuana were made legal.

“I’m not a weed warrior,” Russell said. “I just prefer practical policies.”

Polling in Maryland has shown that a majority of its residents favor legalizing marijuana and taxing and regulating it like alcohol. A bill pending in the General Assembly would do just that.

State Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat, supports that bill and said it had “very strong support” in the General Assembly. However, Gov. Martin O’Malley and House Speaker Michael Busch are against it, so “it’s not likely to pass this year,” he said.

However, the Maryland legalization train picked up a lot of steam after Colorado, he said.

“There is a growing sense of inevitability about regulation and taxation,” Raskin said. “The Colorado example moves a lot of people. They’re thinking they might do $1 billion in business there and make a couple million dollars” in tax revenue, he said. “These days, that’s a lot of money when we have serious needs in education, health care, human services, and infrastructure.”

Moreover, he said, legalization would lighten the load of Maryland law enforcement officers, prosecutors and courts. The state spends $100 million per year on marijuana arrests and prosecutions, he said. “That’s money we should be using for the investigation and prosecution of serious crimes, violent crimes, white collar crimes.”

Maryland law enforcement officials don’t see it that way. They oppose legalization.

“This legislation sends a horrible message,” said Riverdale, Maryland Park Police Chief David Morris in testimony to a state senate committee on Feb. 25. He and other police officials said they opposed not only full legalization, but also decriminalization, whereby someone caught with a small amount of marijuana would face only a civil fine.

They said Maryland should wait to see the results of legalization in Colorado and Washington before following suit.

Annapolis, Maryland Police Chief Michael Pristoop told the committee that 37 people had died of marijuana overdoses in Colorado since legalization. 

“The only people I’ve seen overdose on marijuana had a big snack and fell asleep,” said Republican Senator Nancy Jacobs.

Pristoop later retracted the assertion; he said he had fallen for a hoax.

Michael Elliott of the Marijuana Industry Group said police departments nationwide had a vested interest in keeping pot illegal.

“There is an incredible amount of money being given out to fight the war on drugs,” he said, and police departments want to keep it coming. Also, an arrest for possession can lead to property seizures if the arresting officer can cite evidence that the arrestee was planning to sell the pot. The officer could take his car or his house. Seizures represent a huge cash cow for police departments. “They don’t even have to bring charges,” Elliott said.

Medical marijuana use enjoys quasi-legal status in Maryland. If someone is arrested for possession, he has to show during prosecution that a doctor has said he needed the pot for medical purposes.

Not only is the burden on the arrestee to prove medical need, there are no medical marijuana dispensaries in Maryland, so those who need it “are forced into back alleys to buy it from drug dealers,” Raskin said.

He has introduced a bill to make it easier to buy and possess marijuana for medical use. Both Houses of the Maryland Legislature have passed versions of it. Raskin said he expects the differences would be worked out and the bill passed later this year.

Public support for marijuana legalization is widespread and growing nationwide. Yet in several states, senior lawmakers are disregarding public sentiment and blocking legislation to legalize pot.

“It seems to be a pretty common thing for elected leaders to be scared of this issue,” Elliott said. Fifty-five percent of Coloradans supported legalization, “but most of our top leaders were against it or stayed out of it.”

Even though most Americans support reform of marijuana laws in some fashion, “we are not a very powerful political force yet, especially when you compare us to people who oppose reform,” such as law enforcement and parents who fear that legalization would turn their kids into pot-heads, he said.

That state of affairs appears unlikely to persist for long. though.

“The trend lines are in favor of ending the war on marijuana,” said Maryland State Senator Raskin. “People understand that we are criminalizing our population for doing something the last few presidents have admitted doing. And we’re not reducing the supply and we’re not reducing the demand. The decades long war on marijuana is a failure.”

John Brinkley is a writer based in Washington DC, specializing in government policy-making as it pertains to drug and alcohol abuse. 

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