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Marijuana approvals spread like a weed

Nearly 50 years after President Nixon declared a war on drugs, citizens and lawmakers around the U.S. have opted for at least a partial retreat.

In November — 24 years after California became the first state to allow medical use of marijuana and eight years after Colorado and Washington became the first that legalized recreational use — voters in five states approved ballot measures for some form of legalization of marijuana. Oregon voters went even further, approving the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of any drugs, including marijuana, heroin and cocaine. 

Marijuana dispensary sign outside

And last month, for the first time, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to decriminalize marijuana, although the measure is not expected to become law because it is unlikely to gain traction in the Senate.

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Moreover, President-elect Joe Biden has said he favors decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana. His campaign website says he doesn’t believe anyone should be jailed because of cannabis use and that as president, he will decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge past convictions.

He also supports medical use and allowing states to decide about recreational use. 

Marijuana arrests down, but still high

Evolving marijuana laws stand to make a significant impact on the country’s criminal justice system. According to FBI data, more than 36% of all drug arrests in the United States in 2018 were for marijuana possession. 

A recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union said marijuana arrests are down 18% since 2010. The report said there have been more than 6.1 million marijuana-related arrests in the last eight years.

The report found that Black people are more likely than white people to be arrested for possessing marijuana in every state, even those that have legalized the drug. 

Overall, the rate of Black people arrested on marijuana charges was nearly four times higher than whites. The ACLU report says this is in spite of the fact that Black people and white people use marijuana at similar rates.

More Americans support legal marijuana

According to Gallup, Americans are more likely now than at any point in the last 50 years to support legalization. A poll in November found 68% of adults in favor of legal marijuana, up slightly from 66% a year earlier.

The first such poll was taken in 1969 when just 12% of Americans favored legalizing the use of the drug. The number didn’t get above 30% until 2000, but then rose sharply. 

While the poll found a majority of support in all demographic groups, the most support for legalization came from men, younger adults, college graduates and those in households with at least $100,000 in income.

The demographic group with the highest level of support was those between the ages of 18 and 29 with 79% favoring legalization.

Even higher support was reported by those who said they attend religious services less than once a month. Again, 79% of them reported favoring marijuana legalization. Just 48% of those who said they attended religious services weekly favored legalization.

The political groups most in favor of legalizing marijuana were liberals and Democrats, with 83% of Democrats and 87% of liberals saying they favored it. In addition, 74% of political moderates and 72% of independents favored legalization. However, just 48% of Republicans and 49% of conservatives said they are in favor of making marijuana use legal, according to Gallup.

36 states allow marijuana use

Altogether now, 36 states and four territories have legalized marijuana for medicinal use, with 15 states and three territories allowing its adult recreational use.

Cynthia Roseberry, deputy director of the ACLU National Political Advocacy Department, said in an ACLU podcast that the tide may be starting to turn in the war on drugs. “What we’re seeing now is finally the voice of the people being heard by policymakers,” she said. “It is a tipping point. It is a beginning, let me say that.”

In November, Mississippi, South Dakota, Montana, Arizona and New Jersey approved ballot measures legalizing marijuana in some form — South Dakota for both medical and recreational use, Mississippi for medical use and the rest for adult recreational use. 

Roseberry noted that some places accepting marijuana use, such as Mississippi and South Dakota, are politically conservative. 

She observed that marijuana legalization has become attractive not only because of moral issues, but because it is seen as a lucrative source of tax revenue. 

“There is a great deal of income and taxation to be earned,” she said. 

According to NORML, these states, plus the District of Columbia, have previously legalized marijuana for adult recreational use and personal cultivation:

  • Alaska
  • Nevada
  • Vermont
  • California
  • Illinois
  • Massachusetts
  • Oregon
  • Colorado
  • Maine

Additionally, these states have previously partially decriminalized some marijuana offenses, classifying them as criminal but not carrying any jail time:

  • New York
  • Ohio
  • Missouri
  • North Carolina
  • Minnesota
  • North Dakota

“This was a long road to get here,” Roseberry said. 

House bill provides for expungement and marijuana business help

The bill passed by the House, known as the MORE act, for Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, also provides, as the name suggests, for expungement of criminal records, as well as incentives for minority-owned businesses to sell cannabis. 

Roseberry described the act as “a roadmap allowing people who were living in poverty and resorted to selling marijuana to actually become participants in the legal trade.” 

“The expungement portion alone is important to allow people to have their records removed,” she said. It will remove barriers to employment and, in some states, professional and other licenses.

Roseberry, who formerly worked as a federal criminal defense lawyer, said she’s seen lives destroyed by federal drug laws that put people away for as long as life sentences for nonviolent drug violations. 

She said it costs $3.16 billion a year to enforce marijuana laws.

“We have to make an effort to set people back right,” she said.

The bill approved by the house would remove marijuana as a listed substance, applying retroactively to prior offenses and pending cases. It allows states to have their own policies. It would also prohibit denial of federal public benefits based on marijuana use or convictions.

It further authorizes a 5% sales tax on marijuana and marijuana products. The money would go into an Opportunity Trust Fund that would include grant programs. The programs would fund initiatives to help people harmed by the war on drugs, providing job training, legal aid, literacy, youth recreation and substance use treatment, among other services. 

They would also provide loans to help small businesses in the marijuana industry owned by “socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.”

The law would provide funding from the Small Business Administration for cannabis businesses and service providers. 

Contact Elaine Silvestrini at Follow her on Twitter at @WriterElaineS.