Marijuana Reforms Continue to Sweep the Nation at a Blistering Pace

This article first appeared at High Times magazine.

The 2013 state legislative session was unquestionably the most active on record in regard to the passage of marijuana law reform. Over the past months, lawmakers in over 30 states debated more than 50 separate pieces of legislation designed to liberalize state cannabis laws. In eleven states, lawmakers addressed legalizing the substance outright, while legislators in dozens of others considered more incremental changes. Below is a summary of the record number of marijuana law reform bills enacted by state lawmakers in 2013.

Months after Colorado voters approved a November 2012 initiative legalizing the personal possession, commercial production, and retail distribution of marijuana to those age 21 and older, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper signed legislation – House Bills 1317  and 1318 – into law enacting regulations to oversee this new market. The first-in-the-nation regulations – Washington’s legalization rules have yet to be finalized – establish a framework for state-licensed retail cannabis businesses, which are anticipated to begin operating in early to mid-2014, and propose tax rates for commercial marijuana production and sales. (Voters this fall must first approve legislators’ proposed tax rates before they can become law.) In June, Governor Hickenlooper also signed off on separate legislation, Senate Bill 241, creating a new program within the Colorado Department of Agriculture to regulate the commercial production of industrial hemp. The law requires the Department to adopt regulations governing new program by March 1, 2014.

In 2000, Hawaii lawmakers became the first in the nation to authorize the cultivation and consumption of medical cannabis. (All prior state medical marijuana laws had passed as voter initiatives.) Thirteen years later, Hawaii legislators finally made it a priority to revisit the state’s law and amend it in ways that will make it more functional for patients. In June, Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed into law two separate pieces of legislation – House Bill 668 and Senate Bill 642 – revising the statewide program. The House measure transfers oversight of the state’s medicinal cannabis program from the Department of Public Safety, which has historically been hostile to the notion of medicinal cannabis, to the Department of Public Health. Of more significance to Hawaii patients, the Senate measure increases the quantity of medical cannabis that one may possess from three ounces to four ounces. Senate Bill 642 also increases the total number of mature plants that may be legally grown by qualified patients at any one time from three to seven – amounts that are arguably far more in accordance with patients’ needs. Unfortunately, Hawaii’s patient community will need to remain patient; neither law takes effect until January 2015.

After years of near-misses, Illinois patients suffering from cancer, hepatitis C, rheumatoid arthritis, HIV, multiple sclerosis, lupus, and Crohn’s disease have finally received some legislative relief. On August 1, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn publicly signed legislation, House Bill 01, into law establishing a statewide, four-year pilot program regulating the production, distribution, and possession of medical cannabis. The program creates up to 22 state-licensed cannabis cultivation centers and up to 60 state-licensed dispensaries. Qualified patients participating in the program must have a preexisting relationship with their physician prior to receiving a recommendation for cannabis therapy. Patients diagnosed with one of approximately 40 qualifying conditions will be permitted to legally possess up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis per 14-day period. Under the law, patients must obtain cannabis only from a state-licensed facility. But don’t expect such facilities to be up and running any time soon. The new law doesn’t officially take effect until January 1, 2014. State regulators will then have 120 days to draft rules and regulations governing the program – a timeline that pushes back the possibility of patients having the opportunity to access state-sponsored dispensaries until, most likely, 2015.

Despite possessing a hemp-rich history, Kentucky lawmakers in recent years have largely shunned legislative efforts to reestablish the plant as a legitimate, legal industrial crop. Not this year. In 2013, state lawmakers overwhelmingly backed legislation, Senate Bill 50, to encourage state-sponsored research pertaining to the cultivation of hemp as an industrial commodity and to impose regulations allowing for the plant's licensed production as an agricultural crop. Virtually, all Kentucky politicians endorsed the measure, including US Congressmen Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell – who argued for additional hemp law reform at the federal level. Yet somehow Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear didn’t receive the memo. He refused to sign SB 50 into law – deciding instead in April to let the measure take effect without his signature.

It’s been a long, strange trip for medical cannabis in Maryland. And it’s not over yet. Despite lawmakers on three separate occasions enacting legislation to address the issue of medical marijuana, Maryland patients still do not have legal access to the plant. Legislators this spring took steps to eventually rectify this problem by passing House Bill 1101, which establishes a state commission to promulgate clinical medical cannabis research. Signed into law by Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley in May, the measure establishes a 12-member commission within Maryland’s Department of Health to facilitate the production and dispensing of medical cannabis by academic medical institutions. The new law takes effect on October 1, 2013. However, no state-sanctioned clinical research is expected to begin until 2015.

Maine lawmakers have historically been some of the most open to cannabis law reform. They still are. In June, 67 House lawmakers voted in favor of legislation that sought to place the issue of legalizing marijuana before a public vote in 2014. (The measure fell just four votes shy of House passage.) Legislators came back later that month to give final approval to LD 1062, which expands the list of qualifying conditions for which a state-licensed physician may legally recommend cannabis to include “post-traumatic stress disorder,” “inflammatory bowel disease” (such as Crohn’s and/or ulcerative colitis), and “dyskinetic and spastic movement disorders and other diseases causing severe and persistent muscle spasms” (such as Parkinson’s disease and/or Huntington’s disease). It is the second time in recent years that Maine legislators have acted to expand the pool of patients who may legally access medicinal cannabis.

In 2000, state voters enacted a state constitutional amendment mandating lawmakers to authorize the possession and cultivation of medical marijuana by physician-authorized patients. But nowhere did the voter-approved measure call on lawmakers to provide patients with regulated access to the plant. Nevada legislators sought to remedy this issue in June by passing Senate Bill 374. Signed into law by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, the measure authorizes the creation of as many as 66 medical cannabis production and distribution facilities. In the interim, the bill amends patient possession limits from one ounce of cannabis to two and one-half ounces and increases qualified patients’ personal plant cultivation limits from three mature plants to twelve.

New Hampshire
The third time was the charm for medical cannabis access in the Granite State. Well, sort of. Former Democratic Gov. John Lynch had twice vetoed legislation legalizing physician-authorized cannabis. However, newly elected Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan had pledged to part ways with the former Governor and allow for New Hampshire patients to finally receive long-awaited legal protections. And she lived up to her pledge – sort of. In July, Gov. Hassan signed legislation, House Bill 573, creating four state-sanctioned marijuana dispensing facilities to produce and distribute cannabis to state-qualified patients who possess a doctor’s recommendation. Unfortunately, the new law provides no immediate legal protections for patients who obtain cannabis on the black market, nor does it permit authorized patients to engage in home cultivation – as both provisions were opposed by and ultimately removed from the bill at the request of none other than Gov. Hassan. The Governor also strong-armed lawmakers into stripping language from the bill that provided for patients suffering from post-traumatic stress to have access to cannabis therapy. Nonetheless, Hassan insists that her last-minute restrictions to the measure were “compassionate” and “right” – even if they mean limiting patients’ access and legal protections under the law until at least 2015.

In no other state were lawmakers as active in instituting statewide marijuana law reforms in 2013 as they were in Oregon. During the 2013 session, lawmakers enacted and Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber signed into law, four separate pieces of legislation liberalizing the state’s pot policies. Lawmakers expanded the state’s nearly 15-year-old medical marijuana law by approving Senate Bill 281 – which allows physicians to legally recommend cannabis to post-traumatic stress patients – and by enacting House Bill 3460, which provides for the creation of state-licensed cannabis dispensaries to serve the needs to the state’s 57,000 registered patients. State lawmakers also enacted some relief for non-patients by passing Senate Bills 40  and 82. Senate Bill 82 eliminates the suspension of driving privileges for persons cited for possessing one ounce or less of cannabis. Senate Bill 40 reclassifies marijuana offenses involving the possession of over one ounce, but less than four ounces of marijuana, from a felony offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison, to a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by no more than six months in prison. It also reclassifies offenses involving the possession of less than one-quarter ounce of hashish from a felony to a Class B misdemeanor and reduces the maximum fine associated with civil violations involving the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana from $1,000 to no more than $650. Both Senate measures took effect upon their passage in July.

Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin has publicly advocated in favor of marijuana law reform. This June he followed through on his word by signing Hl 200, which eliminates criminal penalties for adults who possess personal use amounts of cannabis and/or hashish. Under the new law, which took effect in July, penalties for the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and/or marijuana paraphernalia by a person 21 years of age or older were reduced from a criminal misdemeanor (punishable by up to six months in jail and a $500 fine) to a civil fine only – no arrest, no jail time, and no criminal record. The law also decriminalized possession of less than five grams of hashish. Vermont is now one of 17 states that have effectively ended the practice of criminally prosecuting individuals who possess personal use amounts of marijuana.

For more information on these laws or other pending state and federal legislation – as well as on how you can get involved in supporting marijuana-friendly measures in your state – please visit NORML’s ‘Take Action Center’ online.

Paul Armentano is the Deputy Director or NORML and is the co-author of the book Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? (Chelsea Green).

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.