The total number of marijuana-related arrests nationwide rose in 2014, despite the implementation of legalization laws in two states, according to data released today by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.
According to the 2014 Uniform Crime Report, police made 700,993 arrests for marijuana-related offenses, some 7,500 more arrests than were reported in 2013. Of those arrested, 619,808 (over 88 percent) were charged with possession only — a two percent increase since 2013.
Marijuana arrests comprised nearly half (45 percent) of all drug-related arrests nationwide, at a cost of nearly half a billion dollars.
In the two states (Colorado and Washington) that have legalized marijuana-related activities, cannabis-related arrests plummeted in 2014 — indicating that that other jurisdictions are prioritizing arrests at a time when the majority of the public is opposed to criminalization. (Recent changes in marijuana laws in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC are not reflected in the 2014 arrest data, but will be reflected in 2015 data.)
As in previous years, marijuana possession arrests were most likely to occur in the midwest and in the southeastern regions of the United States. Far fewer marijuana arrests were reported in the western region of the United States, where possessing the plant has largely been either legalized or decriminalized.
The total number of marijuana arrests for 2014 are some 20 percent lower than the totals for 2007, when police made an all-time high 872,721 cannabis-related arrests.
I just returned last evening from the 26th annual Boston Freedom Rally on the historic Boston Common, a lovely event that has become more celebration than protest as Massachusetts moves ever closer to ending prohibition and fully legalizing marijuana.
The weather this year was fabulous, with bright blue autumn New England skies and comfortable fall temperatures, the crowds were huge, especially on Saturday (the largest crow I recall experiencing in my twenty-plus years attending), and the overwhelming feeling was one of confident optimism at this latest Freedom Rally, as Massachusetts looks forward to the opportunity to fully legalize marijuana by way of a voter initiative in November of 2016.
In fact, there are currently two competing initiatives starting to collect signatures to qualify for the ballot in 2016, and both are great for consumers.
Two Competing Legalization Initiatives
One, an effort know as Bay State Repeal, is a project organized primarily by long-time in-state activists involved with MassCann/NORML, the NORML state affiliate in Massachusetts, led by attorney Steve Epstein from Georgetown, Mass. The other, The Campaign To Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, is a project organized and funded by the Marijuana Policy Project, although the standard MPP model has been tailored somewhat by the input of a handful of long-time, in-state legalization activists, including especially Richard Evans and Michael Cutler from Northampton, Mass.
The major difference between the two approaches involves the degree of regulation for the proposed legal marijuana industry.
Bay State Repeal
Indeed, the Bay State Repeal proposal has no limitation on the amount of marijuana one can cultivate or possess for personal use, and the only restriction is a prohibition on the sale to minors. It is a version of what is frequently called the “tomato model,” and calls for marijuana to be treated like other legal commodities. Licensed retail stores may sell any amount of marijuana to those 21 and above. Retail sales of marijuana would be subject to the state’s regular sales tax rate of 6.25 percent.
The Bay State Repeal proposal would also authorize marijuana farms, locally licensed marijuana farmers’ markets and marijuana products producers to be licensed by the state. It would also permit municipalities to license cannabis cafes or private clubs where marijuana could be sold and consumed, but not alcohol. And it includes provisions protecting lawful marijuana users from being deemed guilty of abuse or neglect of their minor children, without other evidence; and provisions attempting to protect employees from being fired for their off-job marijuana use.
Campaign To Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol
The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol places strict limits on the amount of marijuana an individual may possess or cultivate. Adults could possess up to one ounce of marijuana out of the home, and up to 10 ounces in an enclosed, locked space within their home; and could cultivate up to six marijuana plants, with a limit of 12 per household.
The CRMLA proposal would license commercial growers, product manufacturing facilities and testing facilities, and would establish the Cannabis Control Commission to implement and enforce regulations controlling the legal marijuana industry. Retail marijuana sales would be subject to a special 3.7 percent excise tax, as well as the regular state sales tax of 6.25 percent. In addition, municipalities would be permitted to enact an additional 2 percent tax on retail sales within their jurisdiction. Localities under this proposal would have the authority to permit on-premise consumption at licensed venues, if approved by local initiative.
This proposal also seeks to protect marijuana-smoking parents from charges of child abuse or neglect, without specific evidence beyond their use of marijuana; but does not limit an employer’s right to fire an employee for off-the-job marijuana use.
Neither proposal would permit public smoking or change the current laws regarding driving while impaired from marijuana.
How Do We Choose?
Now that both proposals have been certified by the state Attorney General, supporters of each measure must collect 64,750 signatures from voters by November 2015 to qualify for the 2016 ballot. If one qualifies, and one does not, all proponents of legalization must get behind the one that’s on the ballot.
As a consumer, both proposals are attractive. Smokers in 46 states would dearly love to have either of these plans in place in their state. They both end the practice of treating marijuana smokers like criminals, both permit personal cultivation, and both establish a legal market where consumers can buy their marijuana.
Obviously, if both qualify for the ballot, it has the real potential to split the legalization vote and leave prohibition in place. So one could hope that the two sides will eventually get together behind one proposal or the other, based on what the polling demonstrates can realistically win. But that is far from certain, as early efforts to find common ground were unsuccessful.
So we need to let this process work itself out, and the result may come down to which of the two has the funding to collect the required signatures, and run a professional campaign. We should keep our powder dry until we see the results of this next phase.
Helpful State Supreme Court Ruling
One additional promising development occurred in Massachusetts over the last few days, leading up to the Freedom Rally. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, their highest court, handed down an important decision holding that because the possession of a small amount of marijuana in the state has, since 2008, been decriminalized, with the penalty reduced to a $100 civil fine, the police may no longer use suspicion that the occupant of an automobile may possess marijuana as legal justification to search the car or the occupants of the car, without a search warrant.
“Permitting police to stop a vehicle based on reasonable suspicion that an occupant possesses marijuana does not serve objectives” of the new law, Justice Margot Botsford wrote for the majority, explaining that allowing such stops “does not refocus police efforts on pursuing more serious crime,” a stated goal of changing the law in 2008.
Botsford’s opinion followed earlier Supreme Judicial Court rulings in 2011, and again in 2014, holding the odor of burned marijuana alone does not provide grounds for police to order occupants to exit a car, and that the smell of burned or unburned marijuana does not justify searching a vehicle without a warrant.
Which makes Massachusetts an even more inviting place to live, or to visit, if one is a marijuana smoker. Now let’s finish the job and enact full legalization by voter initiative in 2016. It’s our breakout year, and Massachusetts should be a big part of that.
Self-reported use of marijuana by high-school students is significantly lower today than it was 15 years ago, according to an analysis of CDC data published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.
Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore assessed data compiled by US Center for Disease Control’s National Youth Risk Behavior Survey for the years 1999 to 2013. The Survey is a biennial school-based evaluation of more than 100,000 high-schoolers nationwide.
Investigators reported that lifetime use of cannabis fell during this period. The percentage of respondents reporting monthly marijuana consumption and/or use any use of cannabis prior to age 13 also declined.
“People have been very quick to say that marijuana use is going up and up and up in this country, particularly now that marijuana has become more normalized,” study leader Renee M. Johnson, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor in the Department of Mental Health at the Bloomberg School said in a press release. “What we are seeing is that … the rates of marijuana use have actually fallen.”
The study is the latest in a series of recent evaluations — including this one here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here — concluding that changes in state marijuana policies are not associated with increased marijuana use by young people.
Moreover, just-released results from a separate University of Texas study assessing trends in the disapproval of marijuana by young people also reports “a significant increase in the proportion of youth (age 12 to 14) reporting ‘strong disapproval’ of marijuana use initiation over the last decade.” Similar to the findings of prior studies, the paper also reports that teens’ lifetime and past year use of marijuana has declined significantly over the past decade.
Chronic pain patients who use herbal cannabis daily for one-year report reduced discomfort and increased quality of life compared to controls, and do not experience an increased risk of serious side effects, according to clinical data published online ahead of print in the Journal of Pain.
Researchers at McGill University in Montreal assessed the long-term health of 216 medicinal cannabis users with chronic non-cancer pain who consumed a daily standardized dose (12.5 percent THC) of herbal cannabis compared to 215 controls (chronic pain suffers who did not use cannabis). Subjects in study were approved by Health Canada to legally use medicinal cannabis and consumed, on average, 2.5 grams of herb per day, typically via inhalation or vaporization.
Investigators reported that daily cannabis consumers possessed no greater risk than non-users to experience “serious adverse events.” Specifically, researchers identified no significant adverse changes in consumers’ cognitive skills, pulmonary function, or blood work following one-year of daily cannabis consumption. Medical cannabis consumers did report elevated risk of experiencing “non-serious adverse events” (e.g., cough, dizziness, paranoia) compared to controls; however, authors classified these to be “mild to moderate.”
Pain patients who used cannabis reported a reduced sense of pain compared to controls, as well as reduced anxiety, depression, and fatigue.
“Quality-controlled herbal cannabis, when used by cannabis-experienced patients as part of a monitored treatment program over one year, appears to have a reasonable safety profile,” authors concluded.
The study is one of the first to ever assess the long-term safety and efficacy of medicinal cannabis. A prior health review of patients receiving medical cannabis monthly from the US federal government as part of the Compassionate Investigational New Drug program similarly reported that cannabis possesses therapeutic efficacy and an acceptable side-effect profile.
Full text of the study, “Cannabis for the Management of Pain: Assessment of Safety Study,” appears online here.
It’s been a year of preparation for those in the legalization movement. It’s a non-election year, with only one statewide measure on the ballot this November — Issue 3 in Ohio — which may answer the question of whether the lure of legalization will bring a surge of young voters to the polls in sufficient numbers to approve full legalization in an off-year election.
A victory in Ohio will challenge conventional wisdom that holds voter initiatives should never be scheduled in odd-numbered years; a defeat will reinforce the need to focus on even-numbered years.
2015 has also been a year of implementation of the legalization initiatives approved by the voters in Oregon and Alaska in 2014. Retail marijuana sales are scheduled to begin on October 1 this year in Oregon (the legislature enacted legislation permitting the existing medical marijuana dispensaries to begin selling to recreational users a year earlier than would have been the case under the terms of the voter initiative); while Alaska is still developing their regulations, hoping to have its retail stores up and running early in 2016.
2016 Should Be A Breakout Year
But the real focus for the legalization movement is 2016, a presidential-election year (when legalization initiatives generally do best) with full legalization initiatives expected to qualify for the ballot in several states, including Arizona, California, Maine. Massachusetts, Michigan, and Nevada. In addition, a coalition calling itself Show-Me Cannabis is mounting a serious effort in Missouri, although that seems less certain to qualify for the ballot; and voter initiative efforts have been announced in a handful of other states, including Wyoming (since withdrawn), Montana and Mississippi, that appear premature politically.
We have the real possibility of more than doubling the number of states with full legalization during 2016, which should boost the legalization movement into the political stratosphere and drive a stake through the heart of prohibition, once and for all. If we win four or five or even six more states next year, the game is over and we will have won. But none of that is certain, and each of these proposed initiatives faces serious challenges.
One fact of life for legalization proponents today is the likelihood that many of these efforts will be facing opposition from other legalization activists, who frequently favor less regulations and control, and in some states (Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Michigan) offer competing legalization initiatives that, were they to qualify for the ballot, would likely split the pro-legalization vote and assure legalization would lose at the polls. It remains to be seen if any of the competing initiatives will find the funding or political support to qualify for the ballot, and recent experience suggests they may not.
When marijuana legalization was just a theory of where we wanted to go, there were only two sides to the debate: those who favored prohibition and those who favored legalization. But as legalization became a real possibility, it became clear that not everyone agrees on what they mean by legalization. Should it be a system similar to the one for alcohol; should it be the “tomato model”, with no controls or limits; or something in-between. Are we willing to compromise in order to end prohibition, or do we wish to hold out for that elusive perfect system?
It is these different definitions of what legalization should look like that now divides the pro-legalization supporters into different camps, and finds us frequently opposing each other, at least during the early stages of policy change. We should accept this reality and strive to give everyone a fair chance to have their views heard and considered, while working to build a consensus coalition around a version of legalization that has the support of a majority of the voters, and can attract adequate funding to run a successful campaign. Otherwise we are just making a political statement about what we might like in a perfect world, without actually impacting public policy. And the arrests will continue.
California, the Big Prize
California, which is the most politically significant state in play for 2016, actually has at least six competing legalization initiatives that have been filed with the state, creating a confusing and potentially destructive political environment. Thankfully a Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy, headed by Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, after holding public hearings around the state, released in July a helpful policy analysis outlining the policy options available for regulating marijuana, and appears to be finding a middle-ground around which the majority of legalization advocates in CA can coalesce.
But it is California, after all, a nation-state with nearly 39 million people, so no one should expect all stakeholders will reach common agreement, and we know going in that there will be vocal opposition from some legalization supporters who favor less regulation, or no regulation at all. The goal, of course, is to bring as many stakeholders as possible together, and to try to ignore those who insist that legalization must be done their way, or not at all.
The California legislature appears to have set the table for full legalization in 2016 by finally (20 years after medical marijuana was first legalized in CA) enacting legislation to license and regulate commercial growers and retail sellers of medical marijuana, ending the confusing, unregulated medical marijuana system that had developed in the state. At last they will have rules governing the business of medical marijuana – providing a more legitimate basis for a legal recreational system to come next.
Laboratories of Democracy
Marijuana legalization is a nation-wide movement (more accurately world-wide), with each succeeding state building on the experience of those states that came earlier, and, because of differing regional attitudes about marijuana and marijuana smoking, no two state legalization systems will be the same.
That’s a good thing, as it permits the states to serve as “laboratories of democracy,” as former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once described our system of permitting the various states to test novel social and economic experiments, without directly affecting the entire country. Over time we will see what works best, and what does not, and we can arrive at a national marijuana policy that accommodates regional cultural differences, and that works for smokers and non-smokers alike.
2016 is our best hope for a dramatic political leap forward that will settle the legalization question for good.
This column first appeared on Marijuana.com.