As we continue the march towards ending marijuana prohibition and legalizing the responsible use of marijuana, there remains a moral imperative that we must confront head-on: we must not forget those whose lives have been destroyed by prohibition — the POWs of the war on marijuana.
I’m specifically talking about the thousands of state and federal prisoners who were convicted of non-violent marijuana offenses – frequently involving large-scale cultivation or smuggling efforts – and who were sentenced to long prison sentences, frequently longer sentences than those given to violent criminals, and the hundreds of thousands of individuals who are no longer incarcerated, but who bear the unfair burden of a criminal record for conduct that is now becoming legal in more and more states.
A Fresh Look at Smugglers, Dealers and Large Scale Cultivators
For decades, the anti-marijuana propaganda machine in this country demonized those who smuggled, grew or sold marijuana. They were not seen just as citizens willing to ignore the dominant social norms and attendant legal risks of providing a product that millions of Americans wanted, and were willing to pay a premium price to obtain. Rather they were portrayed as evil individuals whose purpose in life was to corrupt and addict our youth and undermine our nation’s strength.
After all, if marijuana caused otherwise ordinary citizens to become depraved animals, leading to unthinkable acts of brutality, and eventually ending with insanity, as was the official party line, then of course those who allowed this threat to continue, and who enabled it by their actions, were perceived as worse than those who committed acts of violence. And routinely they were given harsher sentences than those who were committing violent crimes.
Today, as the country has become more familiar with and accepting of marijuana smoking, those earlier assumptions about the dangers of marijuana seem absurd and fanciful, and it is difficult to imagine they were ever accepted as fact. But they were, and the result was more than 30 million marijuana arrests.
The Perspective of Those of Us Who Smoke
First, let me make the obvious point that if no one would have had the courage to risk arrest and jail for smuggling, growing or selling marijuana, we smokers would have had no marijuana to smoke for all these years.
But even more importantly, without a thriving underground marijuana market in America, there would have been no serious marijuana legalization movement, and we would not have four states and the District of Columbia with legal marijuana, and more to come in November.
Ending prohibition might never have occurred if this were simply a theoretical argument about the wisdom of criminalizing marijuana. It is occurring because there are tens of millions of Americans who very much enjoy their marijuana, regardless of its legal status, and who were passionate about the need to bring it above ground and end prohibition.
Without a reasonably steady supply of black-market marijuana, this topic would be of interest to political science and sociology professors, but it would not be an enormous social movement with the political power to change laws and policy for the better.
So instead of demonizing these brave adventurers who were willing to provide us with marijuana, despite the enormous personal risk, we should be recognizing their role in getting us to where we are today, and taking whatever steps we can to minimize the harm so many of them have suffered. That means those who remain in jail or prison should be released, if what they were convicted of is now being legalized; and those who remain unable to vote or are otherwise limited professionally because of a marijuana conviction should have their records expunged.
I know that some are even calling for those who have been victimized by prohibition to be paid reparations for the damages they suffered, just as people who are proven innocent after years of imprisonment are frequently reimbursed for their suffering. While I see the innate justice in that suggestion, I recognize that is simply not a politically realistic option, at least for now.
But we should, and must, do what we can to restore to health those many lives we have unfairly damaged and destroyed, and we need to begin the public debate now. Once one acknowledges that marijuana is far safer than alcohol or tobacco, and a large majority of Americans now understand this basic fact, then there is simply no rational basis to leave non-violent marijuana offenders in jail or prison, or to limit their ability to succeed and enjoy a full and rewarding life, because of a past non-violent marijuana conviction on their record. A failure to help those previously convicted under prohibition would leave a moral stain on the legalization movement.
The Gentlemen Smugglers
I was reminded of this aspect of ending marijuana prohibition by a visit recently with Barry Foy, an old marijuana smuggler who was featured in the Wall Street Journal best-selling book by Jason Ryan titled Jackpot: High Times, High Seas, and the Sting That Launched the War on Drugs. This is a real-life adventure by a group of fun-loving southern gentlemen based in South Carolina who successfully smuggled tons of marijuana into the US during the Ronald Reagan years, before eventually being caught and serving substantial prison sentences. These were middle-class adventurers who eschewed violence but thoroughly enjoyed the excitement, glamor, and pleasures available to those willing to live on the edge — the lifestyle celebrated in many Jimmy Buffett ballads.
These smugglers eventually married and had families, and when they were not smuggling marijuana, were indistinguishable from their more-ordinary friends and neighbors. Following a 13-year run, they were eventually taken down, not on smuggling charges, but like Al Capone, on tax-evasion charges, with Barry receiving an 18-year sentence (he served 11) and his partner receiving a 25-year sentence (he served 17 years). Yet today, both former smugglers say they have no regrets and remain unrepentant.
I am fully aware that we have much work to accomplish before marijuana smokers are treated in a totally fair manner. I have written frequently about the need to fix the laws that currently permit smokers to lose their jobs for testing positive for THC, without any showing of impairment on the job; the morally offensive policy of assuming parents who smoke marijuana are unfit parents, who must fight to retain custody of their minor children; and the factually unfair policy of treating those with THC in their system as presumed guilty of a DUID offense, without any showing they were driving in an impaired condition. Each of these areas must be revisited to protect the rights of responsible marijuana smokers.
But even as we move more and more states into the legalization column, we must not forget the need to reach back and minimize the harm we have caused to tens of thousands of our fellow citizens by labeling them as criminals for smuggling, growing or selling marijuana to those of us who wanted it. Like marijuana smokers, they too are largely ordinary folks, perhaps with a flair for living an adventurous life, with families and friends who very much care about them, and they should never have been treated with such contempt simply for ignoring the dictates of a failed policy called marijuana prohibition.
This column originally ran in Marijuana.com
A legalization initiative has officially qualified the ballot this November and separate legislative measures around the country continue to advance. Keep reading below to learn the latest legislative developments.
Alabama: Members of both chambers approved legislation this week, House Bill 61, to protect qualified patients eligible for CBD therapy under a physician’s authorization from criminal prosecution. The measure, known as ‘Leni’s Law’, seeks to allow qualified patients to possess CBD preparations containing up to three percent THC. The measure passed in the Senate by a vote of 29 to 3 and in the House in a 95 to 4 vote. The measure now awaits action from Gov. Robert Bentley. #TakeAction
California: A prominent GOP Congressman has endorsed the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which seeks to regulate the adult use, production, and retail sale of cannabis. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) announced, “As a Republican who believes in individual freedom, limited government and states’ rights, I believe that it’s time for California to lead the nation and create a safe, legal system for the responsible adult use of marijuana.” He added: “I endorse the Adult Use of Marijuana Act for the November 2016 ballot. It is a necessary reform which will end the failed system of marijuana prohibition in our state, provide California law enforcement the resources it needs to redouble its focus on serious crimes while providing a policy blueprint for other states to follow.” You can learn more about the initiative here.
Florida: Another Florida municipality has given preliminary approval to a proposed ordinance permitting police to cite, rather than arrest, minor marijuana offenders. Members of St. Petersburg’s Public Safety and Infrastructure Committee voted in favor of the policy that would create a system of fines that would begin at $75 for those caught holding 20 grams or less of cannabis. Two versions of the plan, one that one that would mandate police issue a citation and another that gives the officer the option to do so, will head to the full city council for a final vote in early May. Under state law, possessing any amount of marijuana is classified as a criminal misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1000 fine.
Maine: Maine voters will decide on election day on a statewide ballot measure seeking to regulate the adult use, retail sale, and commercial production of cannabis. The Secretary of State determined this week that initiative proponents, The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, gathered a sufficient number of signatures from registered voters to qualify the measure for the November ballot. The office had previously attempted to invalidate a significant portion of proponents’ signatures, but that effort was rejected by the courts earlier this month.
If enacted by voters in November, the measure would allow adults to legally possess up to two and one-half ounces of marijuana and to cultivate marijuana (up to six mature plants and the entire yields of said plants) for their own personal use.
North Carolina: House legislation was introduced this week to permit the limited use of medical marijuana. House Bill 983 exempts patients engaging in the physicians-recommended use of cannabis to treat a chronic or terminal illness from criminal prosecution under state law. Qualifying patients must possess a tax stamp issued by the state department of Revenue, and may possess no more than three ounces of cannabis at any one time. The proposal does not permit patients to cultivate their own cannabis, nor does it establish a state-licensed supply source. #TakeAction
Don’t forget, NORML’s 2016 National Conference and Lobby Day is being held May 23rd and 24th! We’ll hold an informational seminar where activists from around the country hear from the leaders of the movement, we’ll keep the party going at the Mansion on O St. with our annual award ceremony and finally, we’ll conclude on the Hill where attendees w
ill hear from and meet leaders in Congress who are doing their best to reform our federal marijuana laws! You can register here.
News out of Anchorage and Denver this week was good for marijuana smokers, as both the city of Denver and the state of Alaska moved closer to the legalization of marijuana social clubs. Smokers could thus socialize in a venue with other adults where marijuana smoking would be legal.
Until now, in the states that have legalized recreational use (and in the District of Columbia), marijuana smokers are only permitted to exercise their newly won freedom in their home or as a guest in someone else’s home. Holland-style coffee shops or marijuana lounges were not legalized by those early voter initiatives.
That is about to change.
Denver NORML and The Committee for the Responsible Use Initiative in Denver have announced the final language for their municipal initiative. They expect to be cleared this week by the city to begin circulating petitions seeking the signature of registered voters, putting the issue on the ballot for voters to decide in November.
The proposal would license and regulate private marijuana social clubs and special events where adult marijuana smoking would be legal. The state legislature had earlier indicated some interest in amending state law to permit marijuana social clubs, but when that stalled, Denver NORML began to move forward with their municipal voter initiative. Clubs could not sell or distribute marijuana, and bars, nightclubs and restaurants could not become private marijuana clubs or host special events.
The most current polling suggests the proposal is favored by a clear majority (56%) of voters in Denver.
Denver NORML executive director Jordon Person offered this appraisal of the proposed initiative. “Passage of this ordinance would be a historic first step in moving towards the ultimate goal of normalizing the consumption of marijuana in our country. The initiative would provide responsible adults a legally defined space where marijuana could be consumed and shared with other like-minded adults — a simple, yet necessary accommodation for states that have passed some form of legalization. This is a pragmatic approach that focuses on the basics and provides the city of Denver a solution to an issue that is not going away.”
Proponents have until August 15 to collect 5,000 valid signatures to qualify the measure for the November ballot.
In Alaska, the decision to license some version of marijuana lounges was made by the Alaska Marijuana Control Board last November, and this week the board issued draft regulations to define when and where “on-site consumption” would be permitted.
The proposed regulations are now open for public comment before the board finalizes them.
While the outline is still tentative, marijuana cafes would be permitted only in conjunction with an existing marijuana retail store, on the same premises, either indoor or outdoor, but with a separate entrance and separate serving area. A separate license would be required for on-site consumption.
Customers could purchase small amounts of marijuana ( 1 gram of marijuana, edibles with up to 10 milligrams of THC, or .25 grams of marijuana concentrates) to consume on-site and would not be permitted to bring their own marijuana to smoke on-site. Strangely, they would be required to leave any unfinished marijuana behind to be destroyed, and “happy hours” would not be permitted. Marijuana lounges would be permitted to sell food and non-alcohol beverages.
Marijuana Control Board chair Bruce Schulte explained the board was proceeding with a degree of caution, because this is new territory for state legalization regulatory agencies. One of the more difficult issues the board had to deal with, according to board member Brandon Emmett, was whether to permit dabbing.
Laboratories of Democracy
As former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, “a state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” Denver and Alaska are exercising that important role as we move forward with better and better versions of legalization. What we learn from these initial experiments with marijuana social clubs will inform subsequent states in the coming years.
This column first ran on Marijuana.com.
The Secretary of State determined today that initiative proponents, The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, gathered a sufficient number of signatures from registered voters to qualify the measure for the November ballot. The office had previously attempted to invalidate a significant portion of proponents’ signatures, but that effort was rejected by the courts earlier this month.
If enacted by voters in November, the measure would allow adults to legally possess up to two and one-half ounces of marijuana and to cultivate marijuana (up to six mature plants and the entire yields of said plants) for their own personal use. The measure would also establish licensing for the commercial production and retail sale of cannabis. Retail sales of cannabis would be subject to a ten percent sales tax. Non-commercial transactions and/or retail sales involving medical cannabis would not be subject to taxation. You can read the full text of the proposed initiative here.
Maine is one of a number of states — including Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Nevada — where voters are expected to decide this fall on legalizing the adult use of cannabis. According to statewide survey data provided by the Maine People’s Resource Center, nearly 54 percent of likely Maine voters would approve the initiative if the election were held today. Only 42 percent of respondents said they would oppose it.
We are excited to have finalized the agenda for our 2016 National Conference and Congressional Lobby Day! You can check out the full itinerary here.
Day one will include panel discussions on a variety of topics, including the prospects of marijuana law reform in the 114th Congress, the ongoing experience with legalization in Colorado, Washington, and other states, and post prohibition concerns for marijuana consumers. Throughout the day attendees will hear policy experts from NORML, the Marijuana Policy Project, Americans for Safe Access, the National Cannabis Industries Association, and many others
Following the seminar, attendees will head to the Mansion on O Street (2020 O St NW) for our NORML Social. Here, attendees will kick back and relax with fellow advocates and share stories of their activism. We will also be holding our 2016 Awards Ceremony, to honor our most dedicated activists and shine light on the hard work they’ve put in throughout the years. You won’t want to miss this event and entry is not included in your general Lobby Day registration. You can purchase a separate ticket to the NORML Social here.
On Tuesday morning attendees will meet on Capitol Hill for a morning reception to hear from our allies in Congress who are leading federal marijuana law reform efforts. Following that, attendees will separate into groups based on voting district/state and together will visit their federally elected officials offices to discuss with them the importance of ending the federal prohibition of marijuana.
**If you’re already registered to attend our 2016 Congressional Lobby Day, please contact your federally elected officials Washington D.C. office to schedule an appointment to talk with a staffer on Tuesday, May 24th. Walk-ins are generally not supported. If you have questions or would like assistance with this please email firstname.lastname@example.org.**
If your organization would like to help support NORML’s 2016 Congressional Lobby Day please consider becoming a sponsor! More information on sponsorships is available here.
We can’t wait to gather like minded activists, volunteers, lobbyists, and marijuana consumers all together under one roof to discuss the state of marijuana law reform around the country, to honor our MVP’s of the movement and to lobby our federally elected officials together. Register today!