NORML reviews the top news stories of 2014.
#1 Marijuana Legalization Measures Win Big On Election Day
Voters in Oregon and Alaska decided on Election Day in favor of statewide initiatives legalizing the commercial production and sale of marijuana for adults, while voters in the nation’s capitol and in numerous other cities nationwide similarly decided on local measures to eliminate marijuana possession penalties.
#2 Colorado And Washington Begin Regulating Retail Marijuana Sales
Two states, Colorado and Washington, initiated retail marijuana sales in 2014. Colorado’s program began on January 1. In Washington, state-licensed retail outlets began legally selling cannabis to adults in July.
#3 Congress Enacts Measure Protecting State-Sponsored Medi-Pot Programs
President Barack Obama signed spending legislation into law in December that included a provision limiting the Justice Department’s ability to take criminal action against state-licensed individuals or operations that are acting in full compliance with the medical marijuana laws of their states. The amendment states, “None of the funds made available in this act to the Department of Justice may be used … to prevent … states … from implementing their own state laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.”
#4 Congress Moves To Permit State-Sanctioned Hemp Cultivation
Federal lawmakers approved legislation in February permitting state-sponsored hemp cultivation to move forward despite the plant’s federal status as a Schedule I prohibited substance.
#5 Federal Judge Hears Challenge To Cannabis’ Schedule I Status
United States District Judge Kimberly Mueller heard five days of testimony in October in regard to the constitutionality of marijuana’s Schedule I status under federal law. Defense counsel and their experts argued that the scientific literature is not supportive of the plant’s present categorization. Judge Mueller is expected to make her ruling in early 2015.
#6 JAMA: Fewer Opiate-Related Deaths In Medical Marijuana States
The enactment of statewide medicinal marijuana laws is associated with significantly lower state-level opioid overdose mortality rates, according to data published in August in JAMA Internal Medicine. Researchers reported, “States with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8 percent lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate compared with states without medical cannabis laws.”
#7 President Acknowledges That Booze Is More Harmful Than Marijuana
Consuming cannabis is less harmful to the individual than is drinking alcohol, President Barack Obama acknowledged in January in an interview with The New Yorker. “I don’t think it (marijuana) is more dangerous than alcohol,” he stated. He added, [W]e should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time.”
#8 Study: Medical Marijuana States Have Fewer Violent Crimes
Medicinal cannabis laws are not associated with any rise in statewide criminal activity, according to data published in April in the journal PLoS ONE. “Medical marijuana laws were not found to have a crime exacerbating effect on any of the seven crime types. On the contrary, our findings indicated that MML precedes a reduction in homicide and assault,” authors concluded. “In sum, these findings run counter to arguments suggesting the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes poses a danger to public health in terms of exposure to violent crime and property crimes.”
#9 NYT Editors Opine In Favor Of Legalizing Cannabis
The New York Times editorial board in July called upon federal lawmakers to end the criminalization of cannabis for those over the age of 21. The paper’s editors opined: “The federal government should repeal the ban on marijuana. … Moderate use of marijuana does not appear to pose a risk for otherwise healthy adults. … [W]e believe that on every level, … the balance falls squarely on the side of national legalization.”
#10 Americans Say Marijuana Is Less Harmful To Health Than Sugar
Americans believe that consuming cannabis poses less harm to health than does the consumption of tobacco, alcohol, or sugar, according to the findings of a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released in March. Respondents were asked which of the four substances they believed to be “most harmful to a person’s overall health.” Most respondents said tobacco (49 percent), followed by alcohol (24 percent) and sugar (15 percent).
Legislation decriminalizing the possession of one ounce or less of cannabis in the United States Virgin Islands became law this weekend.
On Friday, Senate lawmakers voted to override Gov. John P. DeJongh’s line-item veto of the decriminalization provision, which had been included in territory’s 2015 fiscal year budget.
The depenalization measure eliminates jail time for minor marijuana offenses. Under the new law, cannabis possession for those age 18 and older is classified as a civil offense, punishable by a fine between $100 and $200. Those under the age of 18 will also be required to complete a drug awareness program.
(Under the previous law, minor marijuana possession offenses were punishable by up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine.)
The enactment of the new law “will go a long way in easing cost on the judicial system and judicial process,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Terrance Nelson. Senators voted 14-0 to override the President’s veto.
President Barack Obama signed spending legislation into law on Tuesday that includes provisions limiting the Justice Department’s ability to take criminal action against state-licensed individuals or operations that are acting are in full compliance with the medical marijuana laws of their states.
Specifically, an amendment sponsored by California Reps. Dana Rohrbacher and Sam Farr to the $1.1 trillion spending bill states, “None of the funds made available in this act to the Department of Justice may be used … to prevent … states … from implementing their own state laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.”
Said Farr following Congress’ passage of the legislation: “The federal government will finally respect the decisions made by the majority of states that passed medical marijuana laws. This is great day for common sense because now our federal dollars will be spent more wisely on prosecuting criminals and not sick patients.”
Similar language prohibiting the Justice Department from undermining state-sanctioned hemp cultivation programs was also included in the bill.
Also contained in the appropriations measure is a rider sponsored by Maryland Republican Andy Harris that seeks to limit DC officials’ ability to fully implement a November 2014 municipal initiative depenalizing the personal adult possession and cultivation of cannabis. At this time however, it remains unclear whether the enacted language is written in a manner that can actually do so. On Saturday, The Washington Post reported that DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson “plans to ignore the provision” and that he will “send a bill implementing Initiative 71 to Congress in January for a 30-day review, during which federal lawmakers can veto it or let it stand.” Such a review is necessary before any DC initiative can become law.
Washington DC’s Initiative 71, which was approved by 70 percent of District voters, removes criminal and civil penalties regarding the adult possession of up to two ounces of cannabis and/or the cultivation of up to six plants.
In a completely unexpected move by the Obama Administration, the US Department of Justice released a memo on October 28 indicating to Native American tribes that they can engage in cannabis commerce–cultivation, processing and retail sales–as long as they comport with the existing eight rules put forward in a previous August 2013 Obama Administration memo allowing states the autonomy to develop cannabis-based businesses in states where voters have passed binding ballot initiatives or elected policymakers have passed reform legislation.
- Distribution of marijuana to minors
- Revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels
- Diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal to states where it remains illegal
- State-authorized marijuana activity being used as a cover for trafficking other illegal drugs or activity
- Violence or the use of firearms as part of cultivation and distribution of marijuana
- Drugged driving or the exacerbation of other negative health consequences associated with marijuana use
- Growing marijuana on public lands
- Marijuana possession or use on federal property
US News writes that “there are 326 federally recognized American Indian reservations, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Many reservations are in states that don’t allow marijuana for medical or recreational use, such as Oklahoma, Utah and the Dakotas. Others are located near major East Coast cities and far from legal pot stores in the West.
“The tribes have the sovereign right to set the code on their reservations,” U.S. attorney for North Dakota Timothy Purdon, chairman of the Attorney General’s Subcommittee on Native American Issues, told the Times.
In a statement, the Department of Justice said U.S. attorneys will review tribal marijuana policies on a case-by-case basis and that prosecutors retain the right to enforce federal law.
“Each U.S. attorney will assess the threats and circumstances in his or her district, and consult closely with tribal partners and the Justice Department when significant issues or enforcement decisions arise in this area,” the statement says.
Read the DOJ memo allowing Native American tribes to regulate cannabis-related businesses here.
A detailed map of Native American tribes is found here.
As written, the rider seeks to restrict the District from utilizing federal or local funds to “to enact or carry out any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.) or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative.” A summary of the provision posted on the House Appropriations Committee website acknowledges that the language is intended to prevent any funds from being used to “implement a referendum legalizing recreational marijuana use in the District.”
Washington DC’s Initiative 71 was approved by over 70 percent of District voters in November. The initiative seeks to legalize the adult possession of up to two ounces of marijuana and cultivation of three mature and three immature plants.
“This rider is an affront to the concept of democracy,” commented NORML Communications Director Erik Altieri, “Seven out of ten voters in Washington, DC cast their ballot in favor of ending prohibition and legalizing the adult possession and limited cultivation of marijuana, this attempt by members of Congress to flout the will of the people is a gross injustice to these voters and to the democratic system.”
The House will vote on the final version of the omnibus bill in the next couple days and then it must be approved by the Senate. This rider has no impact on the District’s current decriminalization or medicinal marijuana policies. NORML will keep you updated as the situation develops and what precisely this means for legalization in the nation’s capital.