6 Red States That Are Turning Green at a Rapid Clip - Are Marijuana Reforms Around the Corner?

Following President Obama’s recent comments acknowledging that cannabis is less dangerous than alcohol, Washington Post columnist and sometime Republican strategist Ed Rogers called on the GOP to take a hard stance against liberalizing pot laws. 
“Republicans need to be clear,” he wrote in his January 20 commentary. “Marijuana use doesn’t lead to anything helpful or productive. The president won’t say so, but Republican leaders should.”
Not if they’re shopping for votes. Recently released statewide polls indicate that marijuana law reform remains a winning issue among voters – and not just voters in stereotypically ‘blue’ states. Here’s a look at various red states that are rapidly turning "green."
Arizona remains the only state in America where first-time marijuana possession offenses are classified as felonies, punishable by up to two years in prison. And while a majority of state lawmakers remain unwilling to embrace marijuana law reform (the state has the sixteenth highest per capita rate of pot possession arrests in the nation), their constituents are more than ready to do so. Fifty-six percent of Arizonans support legalizing pot for adults, according to polling data released in May. (A separate Public Policy Poll from last January reported even higher support, finding that 59 percent of Grand Canyon State voters would vote ‘yes’ on an initiative to regulate the weed like alcohol.) At least one state Representative is listening. Democrat lawmaker Ruben Gallego is backing legislation this session to legalize the production and retail sale of the plant. The measure faces an uphill battle. In 2012, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer filed a lawsuit to try and halt the implementation of the state’s 2010 voter-approved medical marijuana law. (A federal court ultimately rejected Brewer’s request.) 
Nearly 33,000 Georgians were arrested in 2010 for possessing marijuana – a figure that was the sixth highest in the nation. But according to a just-published statewide Public Policy Poll, a majority of Peach State voters would prefer to see that total be reduced to zero. According to the January PPP poll, 54 percent of Georgians support "changing state law to regulate and tax marijuana similarly to alcohol.” Fifty-seven percent of those Georgians surveyed support making cannabis legal for medical purposes. And 62 percent of voters support amending state law to make possession offenses a civil violation punishable by a fine up to $100, but without jail time. (Under present law, the possession of any amount of cannabis is classified as a criminal misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.) Following the poll’s release, some state lawmakers have expressed interest in forming a study committee to explore various options to allow for the herb’s medical use, including allowing for the options of high CBD, low THC strains of the plant.
Fifty-two percent of Hoosiers believe that cannabis “should be regulated like alcohol,” according to statewide polling data released in December by Ball State University. A slightly greater percentage of Indiana voters, 54 percent, support replacing the state’s existing criminal penalties for marijuana possession offenses with civil fines. It’s understandable why most Hoosiers support such changes in law. In Indiana, first-time pot possession is classified as a criminal misdemeanor punishable by up to one-year in jail and a $5,000 fine. In 2010, the FBI reported that police made nearly 13,000 arrests for minor marijuana possession violations. Democrat-sponsored legislation to decriminalize the possession of up to two ounces of pot by is presently pending before Senate lawmakers. However, Republican Gov. Mike Pence has spoken out against reforming the state’s cannabis penalties, calling the plant a “gateway drug.”
Few southern states treat pot offenses more harshly than does Louisiana. But while state lawmakers may publically back strict penalties for weed, their constituents do not. Fifty-three percent of voters believe that cannabis ought to be legalized, taxed, and regulated, according to Public Policy Polling data released last fall. Fifty-six percent of voters support decriminalizing the plant and 65 percent support legalizing its medical use. Nonetheless, last year, Senate lawmakers defeated legislation that sought to amend the penalties for repeat marijuana possession offenders. (Under present law, second-time marijuana offenders face up to five years imprisonment and a $2,000 fine. Subsequent offenders face up to 20 years in prison!) Democrats have reintroduced legislation again this year to address the state’s odious pot possession penalties. According to state Department of Corrections officials, 1,372 Louisianians are serving sentences for minor marijuana possession. The average sentence is 8.4 years, with 10 people serving life sentences.

Oklahoma’s marijuana penalties are among the most severe in America. Under state law, first-time marijuana possession offenses are punishable by up to one-year incarceration and subsequent offenses are punishable by up to ten years in prison. Selling marijuana is punishable by up to life in prison! But voters are ready for a change. According to a September 2013 SoonerPoll.com survey, 57 percent of Oklahomans back amending pot possession penalties to a fine-only offense and 71 percent back the legalization of the plant for medical purposes. Presently, Democrat-sponsored legislation to legalize and regulate the possession, cultivation, and retail sale of cannabis for all Oklahoma adults is pending in the state Senate. However, Republican Gov. Mary Fallin has stated that she opposes legalizing pot; “[I]t's not something that I support,” she says.
Police made over 74,000 pot possession arrests in 2010. (Only New York state arrests more minor marijuana offenders annually.) Those arrested face up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine. But a majority of Texas voters are saying ‘enough.’ According to an October 2013 PPP poll, 58 percent of Texans – including an estimated one out of two Republicans -- support "changing Texas law to regulate and tax marijuana similarly to alcohol, where stores would be licensed to sell marijuana to adults 21 and older." Only 38 percent of respondents oppose the idea. An equal percentage of respondents also say that they favor legalizing the plant for medical purposes, while 61 percent of voters endorse decriminalizing pot. Among them is Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who recently stated that he supports efforts to amend state laws to mitigate the likelihood of pot possession offenders facing jail time.

For a weekly roundup of news and developments in the drug reform movement and the injustices stemming from prohibition,  sign up to receive  AlterNet's Drugs Newsletter here. Make sure to scroll down to "Drugs" and subscribe. Also, please check out the new AlterNet Drugs page on Facebook. Thanks for reading!


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