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Pot Reformers Up the Ante

Drug reform steps up to the plate with medical-marijuana, decriminalization or industrial-hemp legislation pending in 13 states.
 
 
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Despite the disappointing failure of last November's various drug-reform ballot measures, reformers have upped the ante and now have medical-marijuana, decriminalization, or industrial-hemp legislation pending in 13 states. In an e-mail addressed to supporters of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, NORML director and founder Keith Stroup says the current legislative season has been the biggest for drug reformers since the 1970s.

Currently, decriminalization bills are pending in Connecticut, Oklahoma, and California -- where the penalty for possession of up to one ounce would be reduced from a misdemeanor to an "infraction," akin to a traffic ticket. Legislators in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Montana, Maryland, Arkansas, Wyoming, and New York are all considering medical-marijuana bills. In Maine, a proposal that would legalize the cultivation of industrial-grade hemp is making its way through the legislative process. So far this year NORML has only noted one legislative failure; on March 7, the New Mexico Legislature defeated a medical-marijuana bill by a floor vote of 46 to 20.

In Texas, Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, has filed the state's lone drug reform bill of the session, HB 715, which would decriminalize possession of up to one ounce of pot. The bill would make such possession a Class C misdemeanor (punishable by up to a $500 fine) and would forbid the state from suspending the license of anyone convicted of the charge. Howard Wooldridge, a former Michigan cop turned lobbyist for Texas NORML, said he is optimistic about the bill's passage. Currently, Texas NORML is courting the favor of House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Chairman Terry Keel, R-Austin, a lawyer and former Travis Co. sheriff.

Wooldridge says that so far, his work at the legislature has been aimed at education. While cops are out harassing drivers, looking for small amounts of marijuana, he said, "drunk drivers are speeding by and killing people." So far, he said, the legislators he has talked to have been receptive to this train of thought. And if they fear that some constituent will label them as "soft on crime," he points them to a recent Time magazine poll that shows 70% of the population supports decriminalization for up to an ounce of pot. "I am trying to give these people some backbone to do the right thing," he said. "Win, lose, or draw, this will be worth it."

19 out of 24 Victories for Drug Policy Reform

Compiled by Drug Policy Alliance. November 2002.

Treatment Instead of Incarceration

Votes:

California: Prop. 36 Nov. ’00 61 percent YES

Arizona: Prop. 200 Nov. ’96 65 percent YES

Wash., D.C.: Measure 62 Nov. ’02 78 percent YES

Background:

In 1996 Arizona voters approved a ‘treatment instead of jail’ initiative mandating that first and second time non-violent drug offenders arrested for simple possession or use of illegal drugs be given access to drug treatment instead of thrown in jail. California voters approved a similar measure in 2000. Already these initiatives have reduced drug-related crime and saved taxpayers millions of dollars.

The 2002 DC initiative won overwhelmingly -- by almost 80 percent -- a huge show of support for drug policy reform in the backyard of Congress and the White House. Unfortunately, Ohio drug reformers were unable to overcome a well-funded opposition campaign run by Ohio’s Governor, and ballot language that mislead voters into believing the measure would cost taxpayers money, when it actually would have saved them money. The measure lost 33 percent to 67 percent.

Medical Marijuana

Votes:

California: Prop. 215 Nov. ’96 56 percent YES

Alaska: Question 8 Nov. ’98 58 percent YES

Oregon: Measure 67 Nov. ’98 55 percent YES

Wash. St.: Initiative 692 Nov. ’98 59 percent YES

Wash., D.C.: Initiative 59 Nov. ’98 69 percent YES

Maine: Question 2 Nov. ’99 61 percent YES

Colorado: Amendmt. 20 Nov. ’00 54 percent YES

Nevada: Question 9 Nov. ’00 65 percent YES

San Francisco: Proposition S Nov. ’02 63 percent YES

Background:

Since 1996, voters have approved marijuana for medicinal use in eight states and the District of Columbia. The Hawaii legislature approved medical marijuana last year and several states came close this year. Besides medical marijuana provisions that were in the Arizona decriminalization initiative (which lost), local voters in California and Massachusetts had an opportunity to show their support for medical marijuana.

San Francisco voters approved a non-binding advisory referendum in support of the City growing and distributing marijuana to seriously ill patients. That measure passed 63 percent to 37 percent. In Massachusetts, voters in the 14th Worcester District approved a non-binding advisory referendum instructing their state representative to vote in favor of legislation allowing patients with certain diseases to grow and possess small amounts of marijuana for personal use if they have written permission from a doctor.

Marijuana Decriminalization

Both the Arizona and Nevada measures failed, but received enough votes to send a powerful message to politicians. The Arizona measure failed 43 percent to 57 percent, the Nevada measure 39 percent to 61 percent. In Massachusetts, at least 13 out of 19 local non-binding advisory referendums in support of marijuana decriminalization passed. The outcome of the other 6 referendums is still undecided. The Massachusetts measures instructs state representatives to vote in favor of legislation making possession of marijuana a civil, rather than a criminal, violation.

Reform of Asset Forfeiture Laws

Votes:

Utah: Initiative B Nov. ’00 69 percent YES

Oregon: Measure 3 Nov. ’00 67 percent YES

(There were no such laws on the ballot in 2002.)

Additional Votes

The 12 votes above enacted 11 state laws (DC’s marijuana initiative was thwarted by Congress). In addition, Oregon voters rejected a proposal to criminalize marijuana possession (Measure 57) in Nov. ’98. Arizona voters supported three measures in Nov. ’98 upholding the original vote on Prop. 200 two years earlier (all three votes made necessary by legislative tampering). Nevada voters were required to approve Question 9 at two consecutive elections, which they did, first in Nov. ’98 and then again in Nov. ’00, as reported above.

Jordan Smith writes for the Austin Chronicle.