Marijuana Decriminalization Advances


On Tuesday I noted USA Today's cover story on the prospects for marijuana law reform. Three recent legislative developments reinforce the impression of growing tolerance (or at least waning repression):

  • On March 2, Hawaii's Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill that would eliminate criminal penalties for possessing up to an ounce of marijuana, currently a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. The new maximum penalty would be a civil fine of $300 for a first offense and $500 for a subsequent offense.
  • Also on March 2, residents of Montpelier, Vermont, approved a referendum urging the state legislature to "pass a bill to replace criminal penalties with a civil fine for adults who possess a small amount of marijuana." The vote was 1,530 to 585.
  • On Wednesday, New Hampshire's House of Representatives, by a vote of 214 to 137, approved a bill that would reduce the maximum penalty for possessing up to a quarter of an ounce of marijuana, currently a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine, to a $200 civil fine. Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat who last year vetoed a bill that would have permitted medical use of marijuana, said he will veto the decriminalization bill as well. The bill did not attract enough votes in the House to override a veto.

Vermont and New Hampshire's southern neighbor, Massachusetts, adopted a similar civil-fine-only policy via a state ballot initiative last November. The Marijuana Policy Project's Karen O'Keefe comments:

Taken together, these developments demonstrate how an increasing number of voters and lawmakers across the country no longer support the notion that otherwise law-abiding citizens should be arrested, slapped with a criminal record and possibly thrown behind bars, simply for choosing to use a substance that is safer than alcohol. We know from efforts in other states that decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana allows police to focus on more serious crimes and also produces a net financial gain through saved law-enforcement costs and the revenue generated by civil fines. Lawmakers everywhere should take heed of these examples, especially in these troubled economic times.

Polls consistently find that most Americans don't think people should go to jail for smoking pot, so this sort of reform does not seem terribly risky in political terms.

Tom Angell at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition notes another encouraging sign: The hard-nosed criminologist John DiIulio—who studied under one prominent prohibitionist, James Q. Wilson, and collaborated with another, former drug czar Bill Bennett—has this to say about marijuana policy in a recent Democracy article:

[Congress should] legalize marijuana for medically prescribed uses, and seriously consider decriminalizing it altogether. Last year there were more than 800,000 marijuana-related arrests. The impact of these arrests on crime rates was likely close to zero. There is almost no scientific evidence showing that pot is more harmful to its users' health, more of a "gateway drug," or more crime-causing in its effects than alcohol or other legal narcotic or mind-altering substances. Our post-2000 legal drug culture has untold millions of Americans, from the very young to the very old, consuming drugs in unprecedented and untested combinations and quantities. Prime-time commercial television is now a virtual medicine cabinet ("just ask your doctor if this drug is right for you"). Big pharmaceutical companies function as all-purpose drug pushers. And yet we expend scarce federal, state, and local law enforcement resources waging "war" against pot users. That is insane.

A decade ago in Reason, I described how DiIulio's concern for the cost-effectiveness of the criminal justice system had led him to oppose mandatory minimum sentences and advocate alternatives to prison for nonviolent drug offenders.