Just this week, a new report announced that the state of Colorado brought in half a billion dollars in taxes and fees related to legalized recreational marijuana. Additionally, according to the the Colorado Department of Revenue, combined recreational and medical sales have gone over $100 million for twelve months in a row. Colorado legalized recreational weed in January of 2014, and this news of massive revenues has a lot of policy makers across the country taking another look at the dope show. So, where's the rest of the country at with legal weed?
With New Hampshire downgrading marijuana possession to a civil offense, the entire New England region has enacted, at a minimum, some form of decriminalization. New Hampshire was the last holdout before becoming the 22nd state to decriminalize earlier this week.
No state has yet successfully legalized marijuana via a legislative process. Vermont came close this past May, which, as VICE Impact wrote at the time, was the latest link in a chain reaction up and down the Northeast -- an attempt that many felt drove the movement forward, despite the fact that it failed. David Mickenberg, a practicing attorney and advocate for drug policy reform, agrees that New England is where the momentum is at right now (there's still a lot to tackle besides just full recreational legalization, like figuring out exactly how to tax everything).
"Do we really want to incarcerate everyone for opioid use, for simple possession? Is that really the best use of the government's time and money?"
"I think there's a growing understanding, and it's a bipartisan understanding, on how the war on marijuana is the tip of the spear of the war on drugs," Mickenberg, who's been lobbying for marijuana legalization for two decades, told VICE Impact by phone. "And those who have been vocal in their idea about the failed drug war being a success, those folks are trying to hold onto that ideal despite the incarceration rate … because [marijuana] is the most common, they've always used it as an excuse to be very invested in the drug war. And now that's crumbling away and they're left with difficult issues. Do we really want to incarcerate everyone for opioid use, for simple possession? Is that really the best use of the government's time and money?"
Weed legalization falls to the states because the federal government still classifies it as a Schedule I substance, meaning there's high potential for abuse and no accepted medical benefit, an archaic stance that is asinine on both counts.
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The Schedule I status is to some degree self-fulfilling: the classification makes it hard to conduct clinical trials, which means the body of reputable peer-reviewed research is thin, which means the perception is hard to overturn, from an academic standpoint anyway. But overwhelming evidence shows that marijuana's potential for addiction is less than that of alcohol, and significantly less than that of the nation's leading addictive substance, nicotine. Nor is it a "gateway drug" in any real sense of the term, despite whatever your uncle told you at Thanksgiving. (He means opiates, the abuse of which weed might, in some cases, alleviate.)
Lots of advocates will point out, correctly, that our federal approach to marijuana is scientifically and economically unsound. This should in no way obscure the fact that it's also racist.
Criminalized marijuana possession has long been used to incarcerate black men at disproportionate rates, even though use of the drug among black and white people is the same. The prison backlog is nothing less than emergency, and there are many people who feel that our criminal justice system is not the right one for drug policy.
Eight states (Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, and Alaska) and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana fully, so far.
To our detriment, none of those people are Jeff Sessions, a man who would like to see longer, harsher sentences for low-level nonviolent drug offenders.
"Obviously it's supremely disappointing to have someone so out of touch with where Americans are generally, but also with where the states are -- both Republican-and Democrat-controlled states," Mickenberg said. "The question is, will we go back to the days [when] there were federal raids on dispensaries … if he begins to flout states' rights it'll be a real sign he's moving to a more aggressive posture, he might employ scare tactics. But I have no doubt that he'll try."
Despite that quip about how he thought the KKK was fine until he learned they smoked pot, Sessions hates and fears black people more than he hates and fears weed; the latter usually feels more like just the vehicle he uses to get to the former. We can joke about how a guy with as long a history of anti-black views as Sessions should support a narrative of fighting for states' rights, but in actuality he flouts them when it suits him to do so.
Eight states (Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, and Alaska) and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana fully, so far. In many states, the sale of marijuana -- medical or otherwise -- remains a felony charge. One reason for this is that Big Pharma has a vested interest in keeping it that way. But the the concept of legal marijuana becomes more familiar, other sectors are growing more curious and less cautious about participating in the industry, or at least its ancillary services. Hopefully that will help amplify the momentum enough to survive any opposition in federal government.
"It's a frankly encouraging sign, seeing corporate America getting involved," Mickenberg said. "It's acceptable to the public, and now it's becoming acceptable to the business community. This is in the face of a changing administration. So while a lot of people express nervousness about what's happening at the federal level, the states -- both Republican and Democratic states -- are forging ahead."
Since legislators aren't in right now, it'll likely be a little longer before we see any tangible, measurable progress -- but expect the momentum in the Northeast to carry forward; Vermont will be taking another shot at passing its legalization bill, which in turn paves the way for states like New Hampshire to move from decriminalizing weed to embracing legal recreational use. As it becomes the norm on both coasts, 2018 might see successful legalization in states like Michigan.
Check to see if one of the dozen-plus states the Marijuana Policy Project has its eye on is yours, and volunteer your time or money if you can. In the meantime, remember that taxing marijuana brings in hundreds of millions of dollars to state government; so if you have one, feel free to do your part to keep your local dispensary in business.