by Phillip Smith
State legislatures have convened or are convening all around the country, and once again this year, marijuana decriminalization or legalization are hot topics at the statehouse. Legalization bills are pending in three states (as well as on the ballot as initiatives in Washington and almost certainly Colorado), decriminalization bills are alive in nine states, and bills that would improve existing decriminalization laws have been filed in two states.
And this is still early in the legislative season. Bills can still be introduced in many states, and bills that have already been introduced can advance or be killed. By around the beginning of May, a clearer picture should emerge, but 2012 is already looking to be even more active than last year when it comes to decriminalization and legalization bills.
There's a reason for that, said leading reformers.
"We're seeing more bills introduced, and they're having stronger and more sponsors," said Karen O'Keefe, state policy director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). "We're also seeing more and more public support for decriminalization and legalization. We're approaching critical mass as more and more people see marijuana prohibition as a failed public policy, and in legislatures because of fiscal constraints and changing public sentiment."
"Each year, these bills are easier to introduce, there is less controversy, and the media reaction is generally neutral to positive," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML. "Baby boomers, medical marijuana, the Internet, and the state of the economy have all had an impact, even, finally, on legislators and their staffs," he explained.
"Before 1996, nobody invited NORML; now our staff is regularly going to meetings requested by legislators around the country," St. Pierre recalled. "First, we couldn't get them to return our phone calls; now they're calling us. Everything is in play because of activists around the country doing years of work."
That contact with legislators has led to results, St. Pierre said. "We've been involved in almost all of this legislation. Either we helped write it or legislators contacted us for deep background and we're testifying at public hearings on these bills."
MPP has been busy, too, O'Keefe said. "We have paid lobbyists in Rhode Island and Vermont, and one of our legislative analysts, Matt Simon, is from New Hampshire and has been working on bills up there," she said.
Perhaps not surprisingly, O'Keefe thought the prospects of passage were best in Rhode Island and Vermont. "In Rhode Island, more than half of both chambers are cosponsors of the decriminalization bill, while in Vermont, Gov. Shumlin has been very supportive, and for the first time we have a Republican sponsor in the Senate -- we already had one in the House," she said.
Getting a marijuana bill through a state legislature is a frustrating, time-consuming process, and there is a chance that none of these bills will pass this year. But there is also a chance some will, and some will pass eventually, if not this year, next year, or the year after.
Thirteen months ago, Rep. Ellen Story introduced House Bill 1371, which would allow the legal and regulated sale of marijuana to adults. It was referred to the Joint Committee on Judiciary then, and it is still pending. A hearing is scheduled on March 6.
Last month, Rep. Calvin Pratt (R) introduced HB 1705, which would allow people 21 and over to possess up to an ounce and allow for regulated retail and wholesale sales. Marijuana would be taxed at a rate of $45 an ounce at wholesale and at 19% of the wholesale price at retail. The bill is now before the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
Last year, Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson (D) and 13 cosponsors introduced House Bill 1550, which would replace prohibition with regulation. It and a companion bill, Senate Bill 5598, are still both alive. Dickerson's bill is pending in the House Committee on Public Safety & Emergency Preparedness.
On January 9, Rep. John Fillmore (R) filed House Bill 2044, which would make possession of up to an ounce of marijuana a petty offense punishable by up to a $400 fine. Simple possession is currently a Class 6 felony in Arizona.
In March 2011, the Hawaii Senate passed Senate Bill 1460, which would reduce the penalty for possession of less than an ounce to a civil fine capped at $100. The current law specifies a jail stay of up to 30 days and a $1,000 fine. That bill was carried over and is now before the House Health, Public and Military Affairs, and Judiciary committees. Also carried over is House Bill 544, which would make possession of less than an ounce a violation instead of a misdemeanor and impose a maximum $500 fine. That bill is before the House Judiciary Committee.
In January 2011, Rep. LaShawn Ford introduced House Bill 100, which would reduce the penalty for possession of up to 28.35 grams of marijuana to a $500 fine for a first offense, $750 for the second, and $1,000 for a subsequent offense. It would also reduce the charge from a misdemeanor to a petty offense. Under current law, possession of up to an ounce can be penalized with up to six months in jail and a $2,500 fine. The bill has been referred to House Rules Committee, and is still alive in Illinois' two-year session.
Last month, Sen. Karen Tallian introduced Senate Bill 347, which would reduce several marijuana-related penalties, including by making possession of up to three ounces of marijuana a civil infraction, punishable by up to a $500 fine and court costs. SB 347 was referred to the Committee on Corrections, Criminal, and Civil Matters.
Last week, House Bill 1526, which would decriminalize possession of up to an ounce, got a hearing in the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. Sponsored by Rep. William Panek (R),the bill would mandate a maximum $100 fine. It also provides for notification of parents of minor offenders, who could be ordered to attend a drug awareness program.
Last month, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D) introduced Assembly Bill 1465, which would reduce the penalty for 15 grams or less of marijuana to a civil penalty. The first violation would be punishable by a $150 fine, $200 fine for a second offense, and $500 after that. Any adult caught three times would be ordered to undertake a drug education program, as would any minor regardless of prior offenses. The bill is currently before the Assembly Judiciary Committee.
Last month, more than half of the Rhode Island House of Representatives cosponsored Rep. John Edwards' bill to fine adults for simple possession of marijuana and to sentence minors to drug awareness classes. The bill, House Bill 7092, was referred to the House Judiciary Committee. Current law provides for up to a year in jail and $500 fine; the bill would make it a civil offense with a maximum $150 fine.
In February 2011, Rep. Mike Kernell introduced House Bill 1737, which would reduce the penalty for less than 1/8 of an ounce of marijuana to a fine between $250 and $2,500. Possession would remain a Class A misdemeanor, but the bill would remove the possibility of a year-long jail sentence. Fines would remain the same. A companion bill, Senate Bill 1597, has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Both bills remain alive in the state's two-year legislative session.
Last year, a tri-partisan group of legislators led by Rep. Jason Lorber filed House Bill 427, which would reduce the penalty for adults' possession of up to an ounce of marijuana to civil fine of up to $150. Minors would be sent to drug education and community service for a first offense, as would adults under 21 convicted of a second or subsequent offense. The current penalty for first offense possession of marijuana is a fine of up to $500 and/or up to six months in jail. Second offense possession is currently punishable by up to two years in prison and/or up to a $1,000 fine. The bill is still alive in the state's two-year legislative session. Last month, Sen. Joe Benning (R) and Sen. Philip Baruth (D) filed Senate Bill 134, which would reduce marijuana penalties, including by reducing the penalty for possession of up to two ounces of marijuana to a civil fine of up to $100. It has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Decriminalization Improvement Bills
Last year, legislators filed bills aimed at removing New York City's reputation as the world's marijuana arrest capital. The state's current decriminalization law creates an exception for marijuana possessed in a public place and which is burning or open to the public view. The NYPD has used that exception to arrest more than 50,000 people a year on misdemeanor charges instead of issuing them tickets. In May, Sen. Mark Grisanti (R) filed Senate Bill 5187, while Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries introduced a companion bill, A 7620. Both bills were referred to their chambers’ Codes Committees and are still alive.
A bill that would reclassify possession of an ounce as an infraction instead of a misdemeanor has been filed in North Carolina.HB 324 increases the decrim amount from a half-ounce, but removes the automatic suspended sentence for a first offense.
Twelve states have decriminalized marijuana possession so far (and possession in small amounts at home is legal under the Alaska constitution), but between an initial burst of reform activity in the 1970s and Nevada's decriminalization in 2002, there were three decades of stagnation. Since then, three more states- -- California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts -- have come on board, and chances are more will follow shortly, Legalization remains a tougher nut to crack, but so far, there are opportunities in five states this year.