News reports out of Vermont indicate that a major political shift has just occurred that well positions the state legislature to become the first in the nation to end cannabis prohibition and replace with tax-n-regulate policies.
The four states (Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington) that have chucked cannabis prohibition have done so by popular vote on binding ballot initiatives passed by citizens, not legislators. Historically, circa 1996, most all substantive cannabis law reforms at the state level have happened because of ballot initiatives, not legislation.
With national surveys and the vote totals in favor of legalizing cannabis in the four vanguard states equaling similar levels of support–54%–some elected officials have finally ‘got it’ about the need to end cannabis prohibition, if only because it is no longer politically popular.
A state legislature voting in the majority for cannabis legalization, with a supportive governor awaiting passed legislation to sign, has yet to happen in America. Arguably, once a state legislature passes cannabis legalization legislation, this action more so than voter initiatives placed on the ballot by stakeholders in reform (be them civil justice groups or business interests) will likely spark a ‘reefer revolution’ among states that want the revenue and public policy controls that the long-failed federal prohibition does not provide them.
With a largely supportive and anti-prohibtion legislature and governor (in Democrat Peter Shumlin) already in place in the Green Mountain state, the only political impediment was the Speaker of the House Shap Smith, who, in his run up to try to become the state’s next governor, has reversed his public stance on cannabis legalization from undecided to publicly endorsing Vermont legalizing cannabis:
“It’s clear to me in my discussions with Vermonters that in general, the people in this state probably favor legalization. And I certainly believe that we can legalize marijuana if we do it right.” – House Speaker Shap Smith
Will the Vermont legislature be the first one to officially legalize cannabis?
Yesterday’s policy reversal from Speaker Smith almost certainly places Vermont in the lead to do so.
Republican voters in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire do not believe that the incoming administration ought to interfere with the enactment of state laws legalizing marijuana, according to polling data conducted by Public Policy Polling and published today by Marijuana-Majority.com.
Sixty-seven percent of GOP voters in New Hampshire agree that “states should be able to carry out their own marijuana laws without federal interference.” Sixty-four percent of Iowa GOP voters agreed with the statement.
This voter sentiment is contrary to the public positions of at least two Republican Presidential candidates, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Florida Senator Marco Rubio — both of whom have espoused using the power of the federal government to roll back changes in state marijuana laws.
Overall, a super-majority of all voters in Iowa (71 percent) and New Hampshire (73 percent) oppose federal interference in state laws permitting marijuana use.
Previous polls surveying a national sampling of voters have reported similar results. Gallup pollsters reported that 64 percent of respondents oppose federal interference in state laws that allow for the legal use of the cannabis by adults, while a Third Way commissioned poll found that six out of ten voters believe that states, not the federal government, should authorize and enforce marijuana policy. Most recently, a 2015 Pew poll reported that a strong majority Americans — including 64 percent of Independents, 58 percent of Democrats, and 54 percent of Republicans — believe that the federal government should not enforce laws in states that allow marijuana use.
We first wrote about this trend in July when Florida’s largest county, Miami-Dade, passed an ordinance allowing local law enforcement to treat marijuana possession offenses involving 20 grams or less as a civil infraction, punishable by a $100 fine.
Key West City City officials are poised to finalize a similar measure in September while lawmakers in Palm Beach County are considering taking similar action. Decriminalization is also gaining momentum among lawmakers in the city of St. Petersburg.
These changes to local laws are especially significant in Florida, where state lawmakers have failed to even consider amending its archaic and overly punitive marijuana policies. Consequently, Florida possesses the third highest annual marijuana possession arrest total (roughly 60,000 arrests per year) in the nation.
But that may soon change. Advocates, including Florida NORML, are pushing a 2016, ballot initiative aimed at legalizing the adult use of marijuana, while a separate measure to amend the state’s medical marijuana laws is also expected to be decided by voters (in 2014 the measure narrowly failed to meet the state’s 60% vote requirement). According to a Quinnipiac poll conducted last year, 88% of Florida residents support legalizing marijuana for medical use and 55% of residents support legalizing the possession of small amounts of recreational marijuana.
It’s clear that Florida residents are fed up with policies that treat those who possess marijuana as criminals and are looking to their local governments to lead the way in reforming these policies. NORML encourages you to contact your local city commissioners and urge them to consider adopting decriminalization policies in your communities.
For those of us who have spent years in the trenches of marijuana policy reform, it has been a rare sight to see elected leaders actually lead. It has been the voting public who have paved the way.
But there is a glimmer of hope in Oregon.
In the four states, and the District of Columbia, that have legalized marijuana in the face of federal prohibition, those courageous and innovative steps were taken by the voters, not the elected officials in those jurisdictions.
In fact, not only were most elected officials unwilling to seriously consider enacting legalization legislatively, most also publicly opposed the proposals and urged their defeat at the polls. Fortunately the voters led the way, and left their “leaders” to follow.
So we are accustomed to the challenge of moving progressive marijuana legislation forward despite the active opposition of most politicians. It means we mostly focus on those states that offer a voter initiative as a way to change public policy by going around the legislature. And it sometimes results in constitutional amendments being proposed, despite higher approval requirements in some states, to protect against the possibility that the legislature might simply ignore the will of the voters and reverse a legalization initiative by a vote of the out-of-touch legislators still holding on to their war-on-marijuana mentality.
But there are some new signs that this overwhelming opposition of elected officials to marijuana legalization may be coming to an end, at least in some states, and that some elected officials are now deciding to embrace these new changes and to take steps to implement them in a common-sense manner, to serve the public interest.
I am referring specifically to the recent decision of the Oregon legislature to begin offering legal recreational marijuana sales a year earlier than had been expected. They had no legal requirement to make this change, but they decided to accept the will of the voters and to implement the new law sooner rather than later. They acted like leaders, rather than sore losers.
SB 460 Approved by Legislature, Signed by Governor
Measure 91, the legalization initiative that was approved by 56 percent of Oregon voters in November of 2014, would have been implemented in two-steps. First, as of July 1, 2015, it became legal for those 21 and above to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, to possess up to 8 ounces in the home, and to privately cultivate up to four plants. But provisions in the initiative that gave the Oregon Liquor Control Commission the authority to begin issuing licenses for commercial growers and sellers, delayed this process until January 4, 2016, and legal dispensaries were not expected to be operational until October of 2016.
The result, like the current situation in the District of Columbia, is that recreational marijuana is now legal in Oregon, but there is no legal market. But unlike the District, where the City Council has been hamstrung by Congress in their efforts to establish licensed growers and sellers, the Oregon legislature decided to fix the problem with a short-term solution – they enacted emergency legislation allowing the existing 300-plus licensed medical marijuana dispensaries, which are regulated by the Oregon Health Authority, to begin selling to adult recreational smokers on October 1, 2015.
Recreational consumers will also be able to purchase marijuana seeds and up to four non-flowering plants. (In a nod to local control, counties that opposed Measure 91 with at least 55 percent of the vote, all located on the east side of the state, were given the right to ban recreational sales during this interim program.)
That’s right! The legislature enacted, and Gov. Kate Brown promptly signed, SB 460, bringing full legalization to Oregon a full year ahead of schedule. For once, instead of trying to undermine the new law, they have embraced it and elected to try to make it work as intended by the voters.
Gov. Brown’s office called the measure “a smart solution to a short-term logistical problem,” adding, “If marijuana is legal to use, it shouldn’t be illegal to buy.”
The new law will permit recreational users to purchase up to one-quarter of an ounce of marijuana per transaction from any of the licensed medical dispensaries. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission will continue forward with the process of issuing recreational licenses after the first of the year, and when those new recreational dispensaries are up and running, consumers will be permitted to purchase up to one ounce of marijuana per transaction.
A Model for Elected Officials Moving Forward
One admirable, common sense step by one state legislature does not make a trend, but it does establish a powerful example of how elected officials can get ahead of the curve and work cooperatively to implement these new laws, without delay, and one that can be the model for elected officials in the states that are expected to adopt legalization in the coming months.
A majority of the voters nationwide now support full legalization, and that support appears to be growing. They understand that prohibition is a failed public policy and legalization with regulation is a better option for everyone, smokers and non-smokers alike. When voters clearly register their approval for marijuana legalization, it’s time for the politicians to acknowledge that change, embrace it, and take steps to implement the new laws in a timely and responsible manner. It is time to lead, for a change.
This column first appeared @ marijuana.com.
The Ohio Secretary of State’s office yesterday confirmed that a statewide ballot proposal seeking to permit the personal use and commercial production and retail sale of cannabis will appear on the November ballot. Proponents of the measure, Responsible Ohio, gathered sufficient signatures to place the issue before voters as a constitutional amendment.
Ohio now has the opportunity to join Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Washington D.C. as states that have passed laws allowing for the personal possession and consumption of cannabis by adults.
If enacted, the measure would initially establish 10 state-licensed commercial growing sites. (State regulators will have the opportunity to grant additional licenses if these initial production sites do not adequately meet demand.) Commercially produced cannabis will be sold at over 1,000 proposed retail dispensaries.
A minimum of five regional marijuana testing facilities will be established to regularly check the chemical compounds found in the product for adequate labeling for consumers and regulators.
Additionally, residents over the age of 21 will be allowed to purchase a $50 license to grow their own marijuana plants with a limit of 4 plants per household and/or 8 ounces of useable product at a time. The amendment also establishes a non-profit medical marijuana dispensary system to provide access to those patients with a recommendation from a physician. Medical marijuana will not be taxed and will be provided on a needs-based fee system. Commercial marijuana production will be taxed at 5% when purchased for personal use and 15% at the wholesale and manufacturing level.
You can read the full text of the amendment here.