The basic problem we are dealing with is the need to raise significant amounts of money to gather the required number of signatures to qualify a legalization proposal for the ballot, and then to run a professional campaign. At one time, those states that provide voters the opportunity to bypass the state legislature and enact new laws by a vote of the people, intended this to be something ordinary citizens could accomplish with a dedicated team of volunteers. It was an outgrowth of the progressive movement. But those days are gone forever.
State legislators, who understandably dislike the voter initiative process and prefer to maintain their control over the process of adopting new laws, have raised the bar for qualifying an initiative for the ballot, requiring more and more signatures; and sometimes requiring that a minimum percentage of those signatures be gathered from voters in every county in the state, making it impossible to qualify by simply focusing on the major population centers.
The result is that voter initiatives have become unrealistic as a vehicle to change public policy unless the sponsoring group has the ability to raise substantial sums of money. Political commitment and hard work are no longer sufficient.
We have had a handful of big donors supporting legalization initiatives going back to the successful Prop. 215 campaign in CA in 1996, and continuing through the two successful legalization initiatives approved in 2014. But those funders were motivated by their desire to end marijuana prohibition, and were not attempting to directly profit from those changes. Their motivation was high-minded.
And the need to earn the support of this group of philanthropic funders tended to assure that the language contained in those initiatives was similarly high-minded, seeking to establish legalization systems that were open to all entrepreneurs, both big and small. Until now, none of the successful initiatives attempted to establish “cash cows” to benefit the funders.
We have seen some ill-advised regulations adopted by the implementing state agencies in a few states that clearly favored those with big bucks, such as the medical marijuana regs in Massachusetts that required those seeking to apply for a license to commercially cultivate marijuana to put $500,000 in escrow before their application would be considered.
And in Florida, the medical marijuana bill that was passed by the legislature last year, permitting only low-THC, high-CBD marijuana, established only five licenses to cultivate for the entire state, and only applicants who could post a $5 million performance bond and pay a $100,000 application fee, and who had been in the nursery business in Florida continuously for a minimum of 30-years, could apply. A cynic might suspect the legislative leadership must be receiving some sizable contributions from the nursery industry.
New Investor Driven Voter Initiatives
But we are now dealing with a different, and potentially more significant, problem in which those who put up the funding to qualify a legalization initiative for the ballot seek to include specific language in the proposal put before the voters that assures them of a favored position in the soon-to-be legal market, and that essentially assures them of a huge “return on their investment.” For these individuals, who have not previously been involved in the legalization movement, this exercise is only incidentally about ending prohibition and stopping the arrest of smokers; it is really about getting rich in a newly legal industry.
On a purely political level, we should welcome these new developments, as these moneyed interests obviously have valuable political connections that could be helpful in ending prohibition more quickly than we could accomplish, at least in some states, without their help. And ending prohibition means stopping the barbaric practice of arresting responsible marijuana smokers, which must remain our highest priority. We have paid far too high a price for prohibition, in wrecked lives and careers.
But the arrival of these new potentially powerful interest groups, primarily motivated by greed instead of policy goals, causes most of us some concern, and some discomfort. Or as Drug Policy Alliance director Ethan Nadelmann recently told a journalist, when asked about this latest phenomenon, “This thing sticks in my craw.”
But whether we like it or not — and most of us do not — as a movement, we will shortly have to decide whether we can embrace proposals to end prohibition and implement legalization in states in which it appears likely those changes will directly enrich a small group of investors, and may erect market barriers for the small and mid-size entrepreneur.
The Loss of Innocence
As a movement, we have lost our innocence. For most of us, legalizing marijuana has been only incidentally about marijuana; it has really been about personal freedom. We are entering a new phase of the legalization movement in which some of the most powerful interests will be profit driven.
Last week, a group called Responsible Ohio announced it had raised $36 million to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot this November to legalize marijuana in the state. They reportedly required investors to pony-up a minimum of $4 million each, for which these investors would be assured one of a handful of commercial cultivation licenses, authorized to grow medical marijuana in the state. The initiative language would establish an oligopoly who would largely control and profit from legal marijuana.
According to an article published in the Columbus Dispatch, one of their principal investors was recently recorded at an investment seminar as saying the business opportunities presented by their proposal are “beyond your imagination. … Let’s hop on this tsunami of money and ride the top of that wave to some enrichment for us.”
Talk about unabashed greed! These are not high-minded individuals. It turns out one of the investors reportedly made his fortune dealing with off-shore asset protection, and another likely investor is a federal felon who was convicted of 19 counts of insider trading in 2005. Legalizing marijuana is simply another get-rich-quick scheme for these scammers.
And rumors continue that a group of venture capitalists has formed in Michigan with the intent of qualifying an initiative for their ballot that sounds awfully similar to the Ohio approach. Investors put-up the money to pass an initiative, and they directly profit from that investment by being assured of licenses under the new system.
Different people will come to different conclusions. I continue to feel we should keep our eye on the prize of legalization, and not get sidetracked fighting over who will profit from legalization. After all, we live in a free enterprise system and we should not expect legal marijuana will be different.
But we may have our limits tested in the months ahead. Are we willing to be complicit in the establishment of oligopolies, which would likely lead to fewer choices and higher prices for consumers; or should we insist on the opportunity for small and mid-sized entrepreneurs to participate in this newly legal market?
The bottom line for me is to stop arresting marijuana smokers as soon as possible, in every state. And each year we defer ending prohibition, for whatever reason, we permit thousands of marijuana smokers to continue to be arrested; nearly 20,000 marijuana arrests annually in Ohio and in Michigan. That’s an enormous price to pay if we have the ability to end prohibition now, even if we do not like all the terms of the system to be established.
Big money has entered the picture, and we will have to deal with that. I prefer to keep the focus on personal freedom and stopping the arrests, but in some states we may have to swallow hard and accept legalization that is profit driven.
This column was originally posted to Marijuana.com.
More than six out of ten Connecticut voters favor legalizing marijuana use by adults, according to statewide polling conducted by Quinnipiac University.
Sixty-three percent of respondents said that they favored permitting adults to legally possess personal use quantities of cannabis. Only 34 percent of voters opposed this idea.
Legislation, House Bill 6703, is presently pending in the state, “to allow marijuana use for persons twenty-one years of age and older, and to regulate the sale, possession, use and growth of marijuana.” Connecticut residents can contact their lawmakers in support of this measure here.
State voters, by an overwhelming 82 percent to 15 percent margin, also support eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for offenses involving the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs, and allowing judges to decide sentences on a case by case basis.
The Quinnipiac University poll possesses a margin of error of +/- 2.8 percentage points.
At a press conference this afternoon, Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Rand Paul (R-KY) announced plans to introduce a measure, The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act, in the US Senate to strengthen statewide medical marijuana protections and impose various changes to federal law.
Passage of the measure permits qualified patients, doctors, and businesses to engage in state-sanctioned behavior involving the production, sale, or use of medical cannabis without fear of federal prosecution. The proposal reschedules marijuana at the federal level and removes the compound cannabidiol (CBD) from the Controlled Substances Act. Additional provisions would allow opportunities for financial institutions to legally provide services to medical marijuana businesses, permit VA doctors to authorize medical cannabis, and would remove existing federal barriers to clinical trial research.
“It is emblematic of how far the movement to reform our country’s failed marijuana policies has come when a Republican presidential hopeful partners with two high profile Democrats to undo the damage done by the war on cannabis consumers,” stated NORML Communications Director Erik Altieri, “We’d encourage all members of Congress to rally behind this effort to end the federal prohibition on medical marijuana, something that over 80% of the country supports. Ultimately, marijuana needs to be descheduled out of the Controlled Substances Act entirely, but this bill provides an excellent start to that broader discussion.”
Dear NORML Members and Supporters,
In the past 24 years I’ve penned hundreds of fundraising requests in the employ of NORML ranging from basic operating expenses to legal defense funds to advertising to match-the-donor grants to computer purchases to initiatives. Unfailingly, NORML’s members and supporters always come through with the needed funding to this venerable non-profit organization.
On this day I bring your attention to a NORML fundraiser self-conceived and implemented from a welcomed–but unlikely source.
I don’t think he’d mind me commenting that when one thinks of a long-distance runner, High Times’ Cultivation Editor Danny Danko does not immediately (or, at all!) come to mind.
So when Dan recently contacted NORML indicating that he’d decided to run in the 2015 New York City Half Marathon, and wanted to do so to raise money and awareness for NORML’s marijuana law reform work, it reminded me of the many types of personal self-sacrifice supporters of marijuana law reform work have been willing to make in support of the organization since its founding in 1970.
Dan has created a CrowdRise webpage for donations to be directed to the NORML Foundation that he is asking us to widely promote, as his employer, High Times Magazine, is willing to match dollar-for-dollar all of the money he raises through his long-distance running effort on Sunday, March 15.
A number of individuals, non-profit organizations and cannabis-related businesses have already pledged to support Dan’s fundraising efforts for NORML and marijuana legalization. Please take a moment and join them in recognizing Dan’s commitment to legalization, and to a non-profit organization near and dear to him and his family.
Dan has already raised nearly 40% of his stated $5,000 goal!
Thanks to Danny Danko, High Times Magazine and NORML’s supporters for putting the ‘grass’ into the organization’s longstanding grassroots efforts to end cannabis prohibition and stop the arrest of marijuana smokers.
Kind regards from a newly liberated Washington, D.C. (where cannabis became legal on February 26),
Allen St. Pierre
NORML / NORML Foundation
An issue which continues to arise in each new state that legalizes or depenalizes marijuana is where those who wish to gather with others who enjoy smoking marijuana are legally permitted to do so.
This seems like an easy problem to solve — we’ve done it before. At the end of alcohol prohibition, the majority of states legalized and licensed bars and lounges where any adult could legally go to meet friends and enjoy their choice of legal alcohol drinks, and to spend some time with others who enjoy drinking.
This model of allowing bars and lounges where drinkers can socialize is so universal today that it is somewhat surprising it has not been permitted by any of the first few legalization states. Apparently the social stigma surrounding marijuana smoking had become so significant as a result of the decades of “reefer madness” propaganda, that even those proponents of ending marijuana prohibition have feared a political backlash were they to permit marijuana salons. To me it feels like they are saying “it’s OK to smoke, as long as you stay in the closet”!
Unfavorable View of Recreational Marijuana Smokers
This disapproval of recreational marijuana smokers, even by many who favor ending prohibition, was measured in a recent poll commissioned by a group called Third Way, in a national poll conducted in October 2014. This poll found the country nearly equally divided on legalizing recreational marijuana for adults, with 50 percent supporting legalization and 47 percent opposed to it. Bur ominously, the same poll found only 36 percent of respondents said they viewed recreational marijuana users favorably, versus 54 percent unfavorably. Meanwhile, a solid majority (55 percent) viewed medical marijuana users favorably — nearly 20 points higher than recreational users.
This segment of the population, dubbed the “marijuana middle” by the pollsters, have concluded that marijuana prohibition is a failed public policy, and favor legalization; but they nonetheless disapprove of the recreational use of marijuana. They do not think we should treat marijuana smokers as criminals, but neither do they wish to give it their approval. And it is this lingering anti-marijuana bias that is causing most elected officials to oppose the establishment of marijuana lounges or social clubs.
For the rabid anti-marijuana crowd, barring marijuana salons has the appeal of retaining a strong message of societal disapproval of marijuana smoking; it is a sop to those who find themselves on the wrong side of history, even as legalization moves forward. That was clearly on the mind of DC Mayor Muriel Browser last week when she sent emergency legislation to the City Council seeking to prevent anyone from renting a facility for a private marijuana party to which the public could attend.
While the mayor had shown admirable political courage by ignoring threats from a few in Congress who were threatening her with arrest and jail for permitting the new full decriminalization law to take effect in the city, she apparently (no one can ever be sure of an elected official’s motivation) thought permitting the emergence of marijuana lounges to pop-up around the city, charging a fee for entrance (the new law permits adults to give, but not sell, up to an ounce of marijuana to another adult) would be too much for Congress to ignore – like sticking one’s finger in their collective eye.
While that may well have been a smart political decision in the short run, since some of those disaffected members of Congress had publicly suggested the District might be penalized with budget cuts for allowing the new law to take effect, it is inconsistent with the intent of Initiative 71 that was approved by nearly 70 percent of the voters, and it will inevitably lead to black market versions of marijuana social clubs. Remember the “speakeasies” of the Roaring ’20s?
Now let me acknowledge that these types of problems are wonderful problems to have. For more than 75 years, marijuana smokers have had to fear being arrested and jailed – sometimes for long periods of time – simply for possessing or using or growing a little marijuana. We reached the peak in 2010 when the country collectively arrested nearly 900,000 Americans on marijuana charges, with nearly 90 percent of those arrests for possession of minor amounts. And while that trend has slowly begun to reverse itself, marijuana smokers continue to be arrested in most states in America. For the millions of marijuana smokers who live in those states, any fight over whether marijuana salons should be permitted must indeed seem like a distant distraction.
But as we move forward in this transition phase, moving from prohibition to legalization, it is important that we not permit ourselves to get shoe-horned into some system that suggests we are second-class citizens, simply because we enjoy smoking marijuana; and that would effectively keep us in the closet. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the responsible use of marijuana by adults, and there is no reason why we should not be permitted to enjoy marijuana in a lounge or social club with like-minded people.
Might Not Want to Permit Alcohol in Marijuana Lounges
I would like to see some legalization states experiment with a provision that would license marijuana lounges in which food and drink is available for sale, along with marijuana, but no alcohol. In effect, that is the Amsterdam model, with a few exceptions. I propose this as an attractive possibility, for two reasons.
First, we all recognize that alcohol sometimes causes drinkers to become belligerent and violent, leading to bar fights and worse. Marijuana has no such effect on smokers; in fact, it tends to smooth over those aggressive tendencies we may all occasionally feel, and it is nearly unheard of for a fight to break out at a marijuana party. We can largely avoid those problems if we ban alcohol.
Second, the research clearly shows that using the two drugs together – marijuana and alcohol – greatly exaggerates the level of impairment beyond that which either drug produces by itself; they are synergistic. So the concern shared by many Americans about marijuana-impaired drivers on the road – a concern which is generally overblown – would become a far greater problem if those who spent some time at a marijuana lounge were later driving home impaired on both marijuana and alcohol. We can save ourselves a lot of problems, both real and political, if we voluntarily keep the two drugs separate.
But the idea that marijuana smokers are going to limit their marijuana smoking only to their home, or a friend’s home, is unrealistic. Even under prohibition marijuana smokers devise ways to socialize in groups where they can enjoy marijuana, and that will certainly be the case with legalization. So let’s begin to experiment with legal and licensed marijuana lounges, salons and social clubs, and bring this inevitable social practice out of the shadows and above ground.
Although the District of Columbia is apparently not going to permit marijuana clubs, at least not in the immediate future, there is some hope in other legal states. In Colorado, for example, while Denver has outlawed private social clubs for marijuana smokers, as have many other towns in the state, the County of Pueblo has opted to license marijuana social clubs; and the City of Colorado Springs, which has since prohibited new clubs, have grandfathered in a few social clubs that were in existence prior to the ban.
Colorado has amended their Clean Indoor Air Act to prohibit marijuana smoking wherever tobacco smoking is prohibited, putting most hotels off limits. Not surprisingly there has been an increase in the number of tickets written for public smoking, since marijuana smokers from out-of-state have no legal alternative.
In Washington, there are a few private smoking clubs operating quietly in the shadows, but none are yet licensed or regulated. Seattle City Attorney Peter Holmes, one of the official sponsors of the new legalization initiative (I-502), has taken the lead in this area, recently releasing a 10-page report calling for the licensing of legal pot lounges. “Single family homeowners have a legal place to consume marijuana, “ Holmes said, “but others however, such as out-of-town visitors, the homeless , and renters and condominium owners whose buildings do not permit marijuana use, have fewer options. You can enforce the law much better if you, at the same time, provide an outlet for that demand,” Homes added. His wise advise has yet to be implemented, but it has given a boost to the necessary public discussion.
Oregon presents an interesting experiment, as they get closer to the July 1 date when marijuana smoking will be legal in the state (the regulated market will not come online until early 2016), as Portland has since 2009 been the site of the grey-market World Famous Cannabis Café, catering to medical cannabis patients, charging an entrance or membership fee, but “giving away” donated marijuana once inside. They operated openly for years as a members-only private club, and have announced they will be re-opening after July 1. There are currently a few other private marijuana social clubs that have opened in Portland, although pending state legislation, if approved, may drive those endeavors back underground.
In Alaska, the new legal status for marijuana took effect in February, although the provisions for licensed growers and sellers will not be implemented until early 2016 But at least one activist – former TV news reporter Charlo Greene, who walked off her job while on-air with a four-letter expletive last year, proclaiming her intent to focus on helping pass the legalization initiative, has already opened the Alaska Cannabis Club in downtown Anchorage, promising to “give away” marijuana to “members.” But it is to early to know whether marijuana lounges will be permitted to operate openly under the new law.
As I said, this is a wonderful problem to deal with! We will eventually get licensed lounges in most states in America, and we will eventually stop arresting smokers in the states where that barbaric practice continues. Let’s keep the pressure on in all of those venues.
It is a great time to be alive for a marijuana smoker. But our work is far from complete.
This column was originally posted on Marijuana.com.