What Do California, Alaska and DC Have in Common? Marijuana Legalization Is Pending


The past week brought a burst of momentum to the cannabis legalization movement, as three pro-marijuana initiatives made it past a crucial hurdle.

Alaska voters will be given the option to make theirs the third state to legalize cannabis for recreational use this August, after enough signatures were verified to approve a legalization ballot initiative. Down the Pacific coast, a legalization ballot initiative in California got the green light to gather signatures for the November election. In the nation’s capital, the Washington DC Council approved a measure to decriminalize marijuana.

All in all, not a bad week for the legalization movement.

Alaska: With its young electorate and strong libertarian streak, Alaska is a good candidate to be the next state to legalize cannabis for recreational use. Marijuana is already decriminalized in Alaska and legal for medical purposes. On August 19, Alaska voters can take the next step and go fully legal. The proposal needed 30,000 verified signatures to get on the ballot. The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana submitted over 46,000 signatures, providing a comfortable (and needed) margin for error.

The bill would legalize possession of up to an ounce and cultivation of up to six cannabis plants for adults 21 and over.

"It's not that the initiative would bring marijuana to Alaska," Bill Parker, a former state legislator, told the Anchorage Daily News. "Marijuana is already in Alaska. It would legalize, regulate and tax it. It would treat it like alcohol."

Midterm elections and primaries typically have low turnouts, but if a representative sample shows up to vote in August, cannabis advocates have reason to be hopeful: a poll in March 2013 found that 60% of Alaskans support marijuana legalization. Approximately 150,000 Alaskans voted in the 2010 midterm primary, so the fact that this initiative comes in with over 30,000 supporters is encouraging.

California: Californians may get their chance to legalize cannabis in November. The Secretary of State’s office gave the go-ahead for the Marijuana Control, Legalization and Revenue Act of 2014 (MCLR) to start collecting signatures. The bill would legalize cannabis for recreational use for adults 21 and over, a concept that Californians support 52-55% according to recentpolls. Those numbers have improved since Prop 19 failed to legalize cannabis in the Golden State in 2010, 53.5-46.5%.

The MCLR is being sold as a public safety bill with some revenue thrown in as bonus. The bill summary on the initiative’s official website barely mentions cannabis legalization, but is eager to list everything the bill prevents, such as distribution to minors, growing cannabis on public land, stoned driving, and cultivation-associated violence. The summary also notes that drug cartels would lose a revenue stream and police officers would be freed up to focus on “real crime.”

The MCLR got a public relations boost in December when the state legislative analyst, in a report for the attorney general, wrote that the bill would save “hundreds of millions” in law enforcement cost and generate a similar amount in revenue.

Signature gathering will kick off with a bang at the High Times Medical Cannabis Cup in Los Angeles on February 8. The MCLR has 150 days to gather around 500,000 signatures. The campaign has dedicated half a million dollars to signature collection.

Washington DC: The most populous state in the country legalizing pot would turn heads within the federal government, but so will decriminalization in the nation’s capital. The Washington DC city council voted on Tuesday to reduce the penalties for possession up to an ounce to a fine of $25 and smoking pot would bring a fine of $100. Smoking in public would still be a crime (though the penalty would be reduced), and the smell of pot would still be probable cause to search one’s home or vehicle.

Essentially, the measure makes possession into a parking ticket, smoking into a late parking ticket, and smoking in public into an open container offense.

Perhaps most importantly, pot offenders would no longer be tagged with a felony conviction, making it easier for them to get jobs down the road. African Americans, despite being only half of DC’s population, account for 91% of the city’s marijuana arrests. This vast disparity perpetuates wealth inequality on racial lines. This issue provided motivation for DC to reform its cannabis laws.

The measure now has to pass the city council a second time and then be approved by the mayor. Mayor Vincent C. Gray supports the bill, so unless multiple council members suddenly get cold feet, marijuana will soon be decriminalized in Washington DC.

With DC a few steps from decriminalization, and the prospects for legalization looking good on the West Coast, 2014 could be a banner year for sensible cannabis policy.

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