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Marijuana Has Rocked the West Coast, And Now New England Is the Next Frontier for Reform

The political landscape for pot in the Northeast is changing dramatically, with bright prospects in many states.
 
 
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New England may be the next frontier for reforming the nation's marijuana laws.

Maine and Rhode Island are moving toward creating a dispensary system for medical marijuana, and Massachusetts decriminalized marijuana in 2008. In Connecticut and Vermont, incoming governors are expected to be much more sympathetic to similar moves than their predecessors were. New Hampshire's legislature passed a medical-marijuana bill this year, but its upper house failed to override a veto by Gov. John Lynch.

In contrast, the other Northeastern states are moving much more slowly. New Jersey's new medical-marijuana law is the most restrictive in the nation, as it limits patients to four state-licensed clinics. Maryland and Washington, DC, are expected to pass or implement similar policies next year. And New York, despite its liberal reputation, continues to have the most petty pot busts in the country.

"The East Coast is going to be a little slow," says Neill Franklin, head of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "New England is the area to watch."

Last October, a Gallup poll found that 47 percent of Northeasterners supported legalization, the second highest regional level in the nation after the West's 58 percent. More than 60 percent of liberals and people under 30 backed it, but only around 30 percent of Republicans, conservatives, and people over 65 did.

New England

In Massachusetts, where voters in 2008 reduced the penalty for marijuana possession to a $100 fine, "the prospects are so bright we've got to wear shades," says Bill Downing of MASS CANN, the state affiliate of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Last November, voters in nine legislative districts endorsed "public policy questions" advising their representatives to support legal, taxed, and regulated cannabis sales. The questions that specified regulations similar to those for alcohol all won more than 60 percent. Nine districts also endorsed legalizing medical marijuana, with a high of 72 percent in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston. The medical referenda were put on the ballot in districts where the 2008 decriminalization initiative, Question 2, did not do well, Downing says.

Whether this will translate into legislation is another story. Bills to legalize medical marijuana will be refiled in the state legislature next year, but a measure to put regular marijuana sales under regulations similar to those for alcohol and tobacco doesn't have a sponsor, says Downing. Still, he predicts that Massachusetts "will be the first state in the U.S. to legalize marijuana"--although if it paralleled the Bay State's liquor laws, you couldn't buy any on Sundays.

Whitney Taylor of the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union, which is backing the medical-marijuana bill, is less optimistic. Public policy questions, she says, "have a wonderful history of passing by great margins and a very poor history of influencing legislators. I've had legislators look me in the eye and say, 'I don't care.'" Lawmakers will also very likely face a campaign by the state's prosecutors to restrict or dismantle the decriminalization law, she adds.

"The Question 2 battle is not over," she warns.

Rhode Island, meanwhile, is on its way to becoming the first East Coast state with medical-marijuana dispensaries. The state government has licensed four "compassion centers," and patients who don't want to go through that system can still grow their own, says Caren Woodson, government affairs director of Americans for Safe Access. She praises the state for having "managed to figure out how to evolve the law while focusing on patient individuality."

With Gov. Donald Carcieri, who vetoed the medical-marijuana bill, now out of office, the stage may be set for "a serious legislative push" starting with decrim and eventually full legalization, says Paul Armentano of NORML.

Maine is also in the process of setting up a dispensary system, but the situation there is more complex. Medical marijuana has been legal there since a 1999 initiative, with patients either growing their own or having caregivers do it for them. In 2009, another initiative allowed nonprofit dispensaries. However, regulations added by the state legislature have drawn criticisms from patients and activists.

The new system is good for patients who can't grow their own and don't know anyone who can, says Becky DeKeuster, head of the Northeast Patients Group, which will operate four of the eight regional dispensaries permitted. In addition, "physicians may be more comfortable" working with a more regulated environment.

Those dispensaries will have to pay a $15,000 annual fee, be open to unannounced state inspections, and have stricter security than regular pharmacies. They will be limited to six plants per patient, and cannot provide patients more than 2.5 ounces every 15 days.

That raises both botanical and medical issues. "I haven't yet figured out how to get one plant to yield precisely that much, says DeKeuster, a former high-school teacher who joined the medical-marijuana movement after her father died of lung cancer. Patients with terminal cancer, she adds, often need massive amounts of the drug, optimally as a cannabis-extract tincture.

The law also requires patients to register with the state. Alyssa Melnick of the Maine Civil Liberties Union calls that "unwarranted government scrutiny" that implies medical-marijuana users are criminals. She says she's gotten calls from many patients worried that their medical conditions, such as HIV-positive status, will be in a database accessible to government officials without a warrant and impossible to keep secure. "It just doesn't make sense," she says; people obtaining OxyContin to get high wreak a lot more havoc in Maine than medical-marijuana diversion.

DeKeuster is more optimistic. "This is definitely a law in progress," she says. Legislators seem cooperative, with the attitude that "this is what the citizens have voted for, so we want to do it right." She hopes that "clear regulations and high standards" will keep the federal government from interfering.

New Hampshire saw a medical-marijuana bill vetoed last year by Governor John Lynch, even after it was rewritten to meet his objection to cultivation by state-regulated dispensaries. The state House overrode the veto, but the Senate didn't. The Senate also rejected a bill to reduce the penalty for ?-ounce or less to a $200 fine after Lynch said he would veto it.

Activists plan to reintroduce the medical bill again next year, says Matt Simon of the New Hampshire Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy. They hope to assuage the governor's concerns and "have him meet patients." Though the Republicans gained massive majorities in both houses in November, Simon says the bills had significant support from both parties.

In Connecticut and Vermont, new governors are likely to help legislation advance. Connecticut's outgoing governor, Jodi Rell, vetoed a medical-marijuana bill, but Governor-elect Dan Malloy has publicly supported both decriminalization and medical-marijuana measures, and is already meeting with activists, says Cliff Thornton of Efficacy.

In Vermont, Peter Shumlin sponsored a decrim bill while he was in the state legislature. Activists' main priorities there, says Vidda Crochetta of Marijuana Resolved, are decrim, to "soften the impact" of criminal penalties, and improving the state's "toothless" medical law, which has no provisions for dispensaries and requires patients to grow indoors. He cites the case of Sue Thayer, a 65-year-old woman from East Wallingford, who is facing felony cultivation charges because, as an experienced gardener, she grew medical herb for her critically ill son outside her house.

Ultimately, Crochetta says, he wants to see full legalization, but as of now, "even in Vermont, the state legislature is not going to legalize marijuana."

Middle Atlantic

In New York, a medical-marijuana bill has passed the state Assembly several times without a problem, says a spokesperson for Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, its sponsor, but has only once found a sponsor in the state Senate. As the Republicans have regained a majority there, that problem remains. Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo opposes it on the grounds that he doesn't want New York to have the same problems as California and Colorado, notes Nicholas Eyle of Reconsider, a Syracuse-based antiprohibition group.

Meanwhile, police in New York City continue to arrest more than 40,000 people a year for marijuana possession. Although the state decriminalized pot in 1977, reducing the penalty for less than 25 grams to a $100 ticket, possession "in public view" is a misdemeanor--and a top priority for the administration of pothead-turned-plutocrat Mayor Michael Bloomberg. About 80 percent of those popped are either black or Latino, and a similar proportion are under 25.

Pennsylvania is one of the region's more conservative states, but earlier this year, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams agreed to de facto decriminalization, making pot possession city law enforcement's lowest priority and setting up a drug-diversion court that imposes $200 fines. The rate of marijuana arrests there is not as high as in New York City, but the racial disparities are even more extreme. Of 6,400 people charged with marijuana offenses in Philadelphia in 2009, 80 percent were black.

The biggest recent development in the Middle Atlantic states has been the enactment of a medical-marijuana law in New Jersey last January. The law was the result of a five-year campaign by patients, says Roseanne Scotti of the state Drug Policy Alliance chapter, but it is "the most restrictive law in the country."

New Jersey is the only one of the 15 states with legal medical marijuana that does not let patients grow their own. The state health department has proposed limiting the number of dispensaries permitted to four, with a $20,000 annual license fee. Only two of them would be allowed to grow cannabis, and its THC content could not exceed 10 percent.

"That clearly isn't going to be enough for a state of eight million people," says Scotti. "It's clearly not a medical model. We're wondering if this is even going to be workable." On Dec. 10, Gov. Chris Christie announced a compromise deal that would increase the number of dispensaries allowed to six, but three days later, the state Senate voted to order him to rewrite the proposed regulations. "The administration has tried painstakingly to make the medical marijuana regulations as prohibitive as possible for patients," state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, the original bill's sponsor, told the Atlantic City Weekly.

The law restricts patients to two ounces a month. That may seem like a lot, says Caren Woodson, but some HIV patients can go through five grams a day to sustain an appetite and avert nausea. It also bars dispensaries from providing "edibles" such as cannabis cookies, which are safer than smoking and deliver a stronger, longer-lasting dose.

New Jersey has "set a clear trend away from anything that looks like compassionate patient access," says Allen St. Pierre. Maryland is expected to pass a medical-marijuana law next year that will also prohibit patients from growing their own. Washington, DC's medical-marijuana law, the result of a 1998 initiative that was blocked by Congress for several years, will go into effect this month. It too will contain similar restrictions, and patients will need approval from two doctors.

The Medical Marijuana Strategy

The New Jersey law is giving some people in the legalization movement second thoughts about the strategy of focusing on medical marijuana, their main priority for the past 15 years. There were both moral and pragmatic grounds for that strategy--if it is wrong to arrest people for smoking pot to get high, then it is unconscionable to arrest people who use cannabis as medicine, and winning allowances for medical marijuana was a lot more politically possible than full legalization. Also, "any time legislators get in the business of regulating medical marijuana, it shows them you can control marijuana," says Bill Piper, head of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance.

However, the California model, in which alternative weeklies are full of dispensary ads touting $20 eighths and offering free joints to first-time patients, and the strip of dispensaries and related businesses in downtown Oakland calls itself "Oaksterdam," has created "unbelievable blowback," says NORML director Allen St. Pierre.

The New Jersey law essentially treats medical marijuana like methadone--a dangerous drug whose users are considered likely to divert it to get high. Legislators in states that are beginning to look at the issue prefer that approach to California's, says St. Pierre.

The backlash to the California system is "uninformed," says Caren Woodson. "For all its faults, it's like a pharmacy. Once you get a recommendation from a physician, you can get your medicine in 24 hours," she says. Though Los Angeles was "out of control," she explains, other cities, such as Oakland, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara, have reasonable, effective regulations.

In contrast, she says, the more restrictive state laws are based on politics, not science.

ASA says its main concern is with medical-marijuana patients, so it does not take a position on overall legalization; its election guide in California this year said the Proposition 19 legalization initiative did not affect patients. That is sort of like being an AIDS group that avoids the issue of gay rights.

On the other hand, one of the biggest internecine conflicts of the early AIDS era was when AIDS activists in New York and San Francisco supported the closing of gay sex clubs; many gay-rights activists denounced that as government sexual repression. Woodson sees a similar dynamic here; she says "patients have been used" by those who see medical marijuana as a stepping stone to legalization. California's law allows medical marijuana for any condition that a physician thinks it might help. That is often perceived as a vehicle for people to use any medical condition they have to get high-quality marijuana legally. States that wish to avoid that allow medical marijuana only for specific severe illnesses, such as cancer and AIDS--but that often excludes conditions such as migraine headaches or chronic pain. That could be resolved, says Woodson, if we "just reschedule marijuana. It doesn't require legalization." Federal law has marijuana in Schedule I, along with heroin, as a drug with no valid medical use. OxyContin and cocaine are in Schedule II, and codeine in Schedule III.

Clifford Thornton also calls the focus on medical marijuana a strategic mistake. "The movement will take anything that's pro-reform, but they're digging a hole," he says. Ultimately, he believes, only full legalization will eliminate the illegal market and the crime and violence that go with it.

Changing Landscapes

Why has the Northeast been so different from the West? Why is New England different from New York or Maryland?

Activists and analysts almost universally point to initiatives. "Voters are ahead of the politicians," says Bill Piper. "The biggest difference is that the Western states almost all have initiatives." If New York and New Hampshire residents could vote on the issue, he adds, they'd already have medical marijuana.

Of the 10 Western states that have legalized medical marijuana, all but New Mexico and Hawaii did it by initiative instead of legislatively. In the East, only Massachusetts, Maine, and Washington, DC have initiatives, and Congress can nullify local DC laws. National drug-policy groups are considering running "tax and regulate" initiatives in California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington in 2012. The odds are slimmer they will happen in Massachusetts and Maine.

On no other issue is there as wide a gap between legislators and popular opinion, activists say. The October Gallup poll found 46 percent of respondents nationally supporting legalization, but the number of members of Congress who do fell well below the number of anti-Obama "birthers" even before the 2010 elections.

Another factor, says Allen St. Pierre, is that the East Coast lacks the well-developed "cannabis culture" of California. California had its first legalization initiative in 1972, he notes, so they've been debating the issue for 40 years. The success of medical marijuana there has meant the public in the entire Western region is more educated about the issue, he adds.

The quirks of local politics also matter. Massachusetts and Maine have probably the best-organized legalization groups in the region; MASS CANN for several years drew tens of thousands of people to rallies on Boston Common. In contrast, the Middle Atlantic states have much weaker groups. New York is regionally divided, with the almost 3 million people on Long Island a ten-hour drive away from Buffalo.

Activists in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island benefit from their states being small enough for personal contact with legislators. "We've really been able to put a face on things, says Vidda Crochetta. New Hampshire is the most conservative state in New England, but its Republicans have a strong libertarian streak. With lower-house members there representing districts of barely 3,000 people, "grass-roots efforts can have a lot more effect," says Matt Simon.

St. Pierre, a Massachusetts native, says another reason decriminalization progressed there was that the massive pedophile-priest scandal weakened the power of the Catholic Church hierarchy, which was "absolutely behind-the-scenes opposed." But one reason medical marijuana failed this year, says Whitney Taylor, was that the legislature was also considering a gambling bill, and "nobody wanted to support both casino gambling and medical marijuana at the same time."

Perhaps the most important aspect of East Coast drug politics, however, is that the marijuana issue is intertwined with the racially charged questions of drug-related crime and the violent ghetto drug traffic. The Christian right is weaker here than in any other part of the country; right-wing politicians who have succeeded here, most notoriously former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, have done so by exploiting the race-colored reaction to crime.

"Heroin is more an East Coast thing," says Neill Franklin, who formerly headed drug task forces and a domestic-violence unit for the Maryland State Police. Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, New York, and Boston are all "feeling the brunt of organized drug gangs." Heroin is also "running rampant" in the deindustrialized smaller cities of southern New England, says Thornton. Still, Franklin adds, marijuana is the number-one product on the illegal market.

Yet the black and Latino people most affected by both drug arrests and drug-related crime are "overwhelmingly missing from this fight," Franklin says. "They haven't yet separated the issues of drug use and drug abuse from drug prohibition. It's very difficult when they see the effect of drug use in their communities. We tell them, 'If you end prohibition, you won't have that. You won't have to walk by the gangs on the corner fighting for market share.'"

Franklin says his experiences in law enforcement--including the murder of a close friend on the force--taught him that prohibition has failed, and that police should "stop being parents" and focus on violent crimes, such as processing the nation's backlog of more than 400,000 untested rape kits. Marijuana legalization is coming, he says, so it's "irresponsible not to start working on policy for regulations, standards, and control."

Thornton says this all means that activists in the East have to look at the full spectrum, "not just pot," and put together more comprehensive programs. For example, he says, "a lot of people depend on the underground economy--it supports many, many businesses." If you eliminate the illegal drug trade, he wonders, how are those people going to make a living?

He calls his concept "restorative justice," and envisions a "peace dividend" coming from the end of prohibition. State governments would no longer run up deficits spending massive amounts of money on drug enforcement and incarceration, and they'd also reap revenues from industrial hemp and cannabis "cottage industries."

"We've got to get that money back," he says. "I don't want to see that money lost like it was after the Cold War. We've got to have jobs for the people."

Steven Wishnia is a New York-based journalist and musician. The author of Exit 25 Utopia and The Cannabis Companion, he has won two New York City Independent Press Association awards for his coverage of housing issues. He is looking for a job.