Members of Jamaica’s Parliament have given final approval to a long-standing plan to amend the nation’s marijuana policies.
The newly passed measure amends the island’s Dangerous Drugs Act so that the possession of up to two ounces of cannabis by an adult is reclassified as a non-criminal offense. Violators of the new law will receive a ticket and be mandated to pay a fine, but will not face criminal penalties. Public use of the substance will remain prohibited.
Separate provisions of the measure seek to establish regulations allowing for the licensed production of cannabis for therapeutic purposes as well as for industrial purposes. Additional provisions of the bill provide broader legal protections for those who use the plant for sacramental purposes.
Although various Jamaican commissions had previously recommended similar changes in policy for well over a decade, lawmakers had until now consistently failed to move forward with any legislation seeking to depenalize the plant’s possession or production.
The new marijuana laws recently approved by the voters of the District of Columbia (Initiative 71) by nearly 70 percent took effect last week, following a 30-day period in which the US Congress had the opportunity to override the provision, but our opponents did not have the votes.
So it is now perfectly legal in the District of Columbia to possess up to two ounces of marijuana; to cultivate up to six plants in the home, not more than three of which may be flowering; and to give away, but not sell, up to one ounce of marijuana to someone at least 21 years of age. It is one of the better decriminalization laws in the country, a welcome half-way step that is now law in 17 states as well as the District.
I say it is a half-way step, because while it legalizes the possession and use of marijuana by adults, it does not establish a legal, regulated market, such as those currently operating in Colorado and Washington, and soon to be up and running in Oregon and Alaska. (Voter initiatives in DC may not require the expenditure of city funds, so that was not an option). In DC, marijuana smokers will either have to cultivate their own marijuana in their home, or continue to buy their marijuana on the black market, with no quality controls to protect them from contaminants such as molds or pesticides, and no way to evaluate the strength of the product.
Decriminalization is obviously a giant step forward for any jurisdiction, as it ends the practice of treating marijuana smokers as criminals. Although in DC the elected City Council has already reduced the penalty for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana to a civil offense, punishable by a fine of $25, so the latest change will not be dramatic, and the changes will largely go unnoticed by the general public. Nonetheless, it is good to get rid of the fine altogether and finally make marijuana possession and cultivation legal.
Perhaps most significant, now that possession of two ounces of marijuana is legal in the District, the smell of marijuana, traditionally used by the police as legal justification to search the passenger compartment of a car without the need to obtain a search warrant, no longer provides probable cause for a search. It is impossible for the police to tell whether the marijuana they are smelling is more or less than the two ounce limit, so this much-abused police practice now must stop.
Similarly, the smell of marijuana when the police come to someone’s home has traditionally been used by the police as probable cause to obtain a search warrant for someone’s home; that common, abusive practice must now also end. So the new laws in the District will have the positive result of protecting our right to privacy and reinforcing our 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Interestingly, Mayor Muriel Bowser and a majority of the DC City Council members were poised to develop and approve a set of regulations to license growers and dispensaries in the District, until the drug warriors in Congress used the budget bill approved at the end of the last Congress to preclude the District from spending any of its money to legalize marijuana. Some on the council have long supported more progressive marijuana laws, while others resent the interference of Congress in the local affairs in the District, which enjoys a limited form of “home rule.”
The anti-pot zealots in Congress, led by Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), had thought their budget amendment would also stop the provisions of Initiative 71 from being implemented, but the mayor and City Council Chair Phil Mendelson and the new DC Attorney General all took the position that the initiative was “self-enacting” and required no expenditure of funds by the District, and they are treating the Congressional budget amendment as having no effect on the initiative, although they acknowledge it would block the Council from going further to regulate the market.
When the anti-marijuana ideologues in Congress saw that the elected leadership in the District were going to enforce the language of the new initiative, they publicly threatened to have the mayor and other city officials arrested! To the everlasting credit of Mayor Bowser, Council Chair Phil Mendelson and Police Chief Cathy Lanier, they held a joint press conference explaining what is and is not allowed by the new laws (no public smoking; no selling; no outdoor cultivation; and no possession on federal lands, which comprise roughly 29 percent of the District’s total land area), and announcing the new laws would take effect at 12:01am on Thursday, Feb. 26th.
It was wonderful to see a united defense of the right of the voters in the District of Columbia to determine their own marijuana policy, free from Congressional interference.
This situation may yet end up being resolved by the courts, but for the moment, the good guys are winning. As an aside, the mayor has now called for the City Council to adopt new legislation making it clear that Amsterdam-style “cannabis clubs” will not be tolerated in DC; a sop, I suppose, to the other side. We will try to stop the ban from being enacted. Smoking marijuana is a social activity, and there is no reason to limit marijuana smoking only to a private home. Hopefully we can find some middle ground that will permit smokers to exercise their new right in other private areas. This issue too may end up in the courts.
New Alaska Penalties Also Took Effect
The new legalization law recently approved by the voters in Alaska (Measure 2) calls for the establishment of licensed growers and sellers by the end of the year, but there too the parts of the new law eliminating all penalties for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, and for cultivating up to six plants in the home, took effect last week. Once again, little will change initially for smokers in Alaska, since they have enjoyed protection from arrest or prosecution for possessing personal use amounts of marijuana in the home since 1978, because of a state Supreme Court decision, Ravin v State, finding such conduct protected by the right to privacy provisions in the state constitution.
But again, as in DC, the police will no longer be able to use the mere smell of marijuana as probable cause to search a vehicle, so the legal significance of the new law is enormous.
Oregon Law to Take Effect in Mid-Year
The new penalties approved by the voters in Oregon (Measure 91) will take effect on July 1, although the state has until Jan. 1, 2016 to implement the provisions regulating the cultivation and sale of marijuana. As of July 1, Oregonians will be legally permitted to possess up to one ounce of marijuana in public and up to eight ounces of marijuana in the home (and one pound of solid edibiles, 72-ounces of infused liquid, and one ounce of extracts), along with the right to grow up to four plants per household.
Until that time, possession of an ounce or less remains a non-criminal violation, carrying a fine-only, with no possibility of jail.
This column was originally published on Marijuana.com.
The new law is set to take effect Thursday, February 26, at 12:01am. In a press release issued Tuesday, District officials — including Mayor Muriel Bowser and Police Chief Cathy Lanier — reaffirmed their intent to recognize the will of District voters, 70 percent of whom voted in favor of the municipal measure (I-71).
“In November, residents of the District of Columbia voted to legalize small amounts of marijuana by adults for personal, in-home use in the District,” said Mayor Bowser. “We will uphold the letter and the spirit of the initiative that was passed last year, and we will establish the Initiative 71 Task Force to coordinate our enforcement, awareness and engagement efforts and address policy questions as they arise.”
Initiative 71 permits adults to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and to cultivate up to six marijuana plants (no more than three mature at any one time) in one’s primary residence without facing any criminal or civil penalty. Not-for-profit transactions involving small amounts of the substance are also permitted; however, for-profit sales are prohibited as is the retail production or distribution of the plant.
The consumption of cannabis in public or on federal property also remains prohibited.
District officials contend that they possess the legal authority to depenalize minor marijuana offenses despite the passage of a federal spending provision in December prohibiting the District from spending any tax dollars to implement the new law. They argue that the municipal measure took effect upon passage in November and that Congress failed to take any explicit action to overturn the law during its requisite 30-day review period. (This Congressional review period is mandated law before any new District legislation may be imposed.)
District officials’ stance is not without some vocal critics. Earlier this week, two Republican members of Congress sent a letter to DC’s Mayor warning that Congress may take action if I-71 is enforced.
“If you decide to move forward … with the legalization of marijuana in the District, you will be doing so in knowing and willful violation of the law,” reads the letter signed by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), chairman of the subcommittee that handles DC affairs.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Rep. Chaffetz threatened Mayor Bowser and city officials, stating, “[If District officials are] under any illusion that this would be legal, they are wrong. And there are very severe consequences for violating this provision. You can go to prison for this. We’re not playing a little game here.”
To date, neither spokespersons for the Mayor’s office and/or the DC City Council have responded directly to the Congressmen nor have they indicated that they intend to reconsider their decision to implement I-71 as voters intended.
Nearly six out of ten Coloradans say that they support keeping retail marijuana production and sales legal, according to statewide polling data released by Quinnipiac University.
The figure is a five percent increase in support since voters approved the law in November 2012. A September 2014 statewide NBC News/Marist College poll previously reported that 55 percent of Coloradoans favored the law.
Men and younger voters were most likely to support legalization. Voters ages 18 to 34 overwhelmingly favored state law (86 percent to 16 percent) while 50 percent of those ages 55 and older opposed it.
Male voters supported the legalization by a margin of 63 percent to 33 percent, while women only favored the law by a margin of 53 percent to 44 percent.
The gender and age differences in support are not surprising. A just-published study in the February issue of the journal Drug Abuse and Alcohol Dependence reports that women are twice as likely as men to perceive significant risks associated with the use of cannabis. The study reported that those least likely to perceive significant harms associated with cannabis are those between the ages of 18 to 25, those who have completed high-school and/or college, and those with annual household incomes exceeding $75,000.
According to newly released figures by the Colorado Department of Revenue, retail sales of marijuana totaled just under $700 million in Colorado in 2014 – the first full year during which sales of marijuana for both medical and recreational purposes were allowed.
On Monday, I published a rebuttal of these claims in a commentary published on the website Alternet.org — an excerpt of which appears below.
Debunking the Latest Pathetic Fear Smear Campaign Against Marijuana
[excerpt] [N]umerous (though far less publicized) studies have come to light downplaying the likelihood that cannabis use is a direct cause of psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia. Specifically, a 2009 paper in the journal Schizophrenia Research compared trends in marijuana use and incidences of schizophrenia in the United Kingdom from 1996 to 2005. Authors reported that “incidence and prevalence of schizophrenia and psychoses were either stable or declining” during this period, even though pot use among the general population was rising. They concluded: “This study does not therefore support the specific causal link between cannabis use and incidence of psychotic disorders. … This concurs with other reports indicating that increases in population cannabis use have not been followed by increases in psychotic incidence.”
Similarly, a 2010 review paper published by a pair of British scientists in the journal Addiction reported that clinical evidence indicating that use of he herb may be casually linked to incidences of schizophrenia or other psychological harms is not persuasive. Authors wrote: “We continue to take the view that the evidence that cannabis use causes schizophrenia is neither very new, nor by normal criteria, particularly compelling. … For example, our recent modeling suggests that we would need to prevent between 3000 and 5000 cases of heavy cannabis use among young men and women to prevent one case of schizophrenia, and that four or five times more young people would need to avoid light cannabis use to prevent a single schizophrenia case. … We conclude that the strongest evidence of a possible causal relation between cannabis use and schizophrenia emerged more than 20 years ago and that the strength of more recent evidence may have been overstated.”
More recently, researchers at Harvard University released a study further rebutting this allegation. Writing in 2013 in Schizophrenia Research, investigators compared the family histories of 108 schizophrenia patients and 171 individuals without schizophrenia to assess whether youth cannabis consumption was an independent factor in developing the disorder. Researchers reported that a family history of schizophrenia increased the risk of developing the disease, regardless of whether or not subjects consumed weed as adolescents. They concluded: “The results of the current study, both when analyzed using morbid risk and family frequency calculations, suggest that having an increased familial risk for schizophrenia is the underlying basis for schizophrenia in these samples and not the cannabis use. While cannabis may have an effect on the age of onset of schizophrenia it is unlikely to be the cause of illness.”
In fact, some researchers speculate that specific cannabinoids, such as cannabidiol (CBD), may even be efficacious in treating symptoms of psychosis. According to a review published in the January 2014 issue of the journal Neuropsychopharmacology: “CBD has some potential as an antipsychotic treatment. … Given the high tolerability and superior cost-effectiveness, CBD may prove to be an attractive alternative to current antipsychotic treatment.” Specifically, a 2012 double-blind, randomized placebo-controlled trial assessing the administration of CBD versus the prescription anti-psychotic drug amisulpride in 42 subjects with schizophrenia and acute paranoia concluded that two substances provided similar levels of improvement, but that cannabidiol did so with far fewer adverse side effects.
Case reports in the scientific literature also indicate that some patients turn to cannabis for subjective benefits, though other studies indicate that pot use may exacerbate certain symptoms in patients with psychiatric disorders. Nonetheless, even a recent paper summarizing the “adverse health effects of recreational cannabis use” acknowledges, “It is difficult to decide whether cannabis use has had any effects on psychosis incidence, because even if a relationship were to be causal, cannabis use would produce a very modest increase in incidence.”
You can read my full commentary here.
You can also watch my discussion with Thom Hartmann of The Big Picture (air date: February 23) here.