Drug War

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.

NEXT: The Slaughter Solution, And Other Tactics For Passing Health Reform

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Whenever I’m tempted to feel discouraged about seeing an end to drug prohibition, I remember that prohibition is a historical aberration. The past hundred years or so have been a time of prohibition of various substances, but during the vast bulk of recorded history, most substances have been perfectly legal. We have grounds for cautious optimism.

  2. Before I RTFA:

    Didn’t Hawaii used to be a misdemeanor citation for up to a kilo?
    Growing posession and consumption perfectly legal in Alaska?
    I seem to have these early memories of States all rushing to reduce penalties to misdemeanors. A Presidential candidate favoring decriminilization actually getting elected.Public marijuana smoking in front of uniformed LEOs being freely tolerated.Polls in favor of decrim and legalization Yeah, that was the 1970s.
    Marijuana was going to be legal any day now.

  3. 7,000 people were murdered by the Mexican drug cartels last year because we in the US kept marijuana illegal, many of the victims were children, police officers and politicians. This year the cartels are on track to kill at least 9,000 more. Who supports keeping it illegal?

    1. The American drug user has a lot of blood on his hands

      1. Unite!

      2. Politicians have even more blood on their hands. If they legalized it all, cartels could not operate at the scale they do and politicians are smart enough to understand that.

        BTW, I have a right to use drugs no matter how much it scares you. I should not be held accountable for exercising my right to consume drugs just because innocents may die, considering I have no other way to exercise my right.

      3. Yes, if it weren’t for the damn drunks, the evil scourge of demon rum would be a thing of the past. American drinkers have gobbets of flesh on their hands…

        Oh wait – this isn’t 1930? OK, then. Forget what I said about the drunks – they are fine, upstanding citizens supporting a perfectly legal industry while enjoying tasty beverages.

        Carry, on Juanita. You do not sound moronic even in the slightest degree.

      4. Juanita has a lot of bullshit on her hands and in her mouth.

      5. The American govt. has the ability to end the violence by ending the blackmarket. The American government does not have the ability to make people stop using. Instead of trying to end the bloodshed the easy way, our government prefers to take the extremely difficult, if not impossible path. But hey, it expands government control, and puts people to work. So why would the govenment be interested in the easy way.

        Yes folks, I know to whom I speak.

      6. Isn’t the drug prohibitionist the one with blood on their hands?

      7. The American who enjoys a cold beer or any alcohol based drink owes a debt to those you’d say have blood on their hands. Americans who refused to obey the Volstead Act were forced to buy their booze from criminals during the prohibition of the drug called alcohol. Sorry, it’s not the user that made the bloody policy that fuels organized crime & the attendant violence over distribution rights of drugs. It’s prohibition itself that’s far more harmful to our society & nation than cannabis use is.

    2. The CIA. They wouldn’t like the price to fall since that’s how they fund their illegal activities toppling foreign govts who won’t give in to big corp’s demands of low prices for their raw materials.

      1. It’s a conspiracy!

  4. Some unfunny “comedian” said back around 1965:

    Marijuana will be legal some day, because the many law students who now smoke pot will someday become Congressmen and legalize it in order to protect themselves.

    1. Marijuana will be legal some day illegal for a long time, because the many law students who now smoke pot will someday become Congressmen and legalize it sell themselves out in order to protect empower themselves.

  5. New Hampshire Governor John Lynch has already said he will veto the bill if it makes it to his desk. I hope when Mr. Lynch is up for re-election, the voters of New Hampshire stick it to him. What a dick! There is absolutely NO reason for simple possession of marijuana to be a crime. A $200 fine is SIGNIFICANTLY more reasonable than a year in the slammer and a $2,000 fine.

    Johnny Green

    1. You’d figure a Liberal Democrat that was elected in the live free or die state of all places would back some decriminalization. But, I guess he only saves that “free” thing for abortion or something. I really hate liberals.

    2. “There is absolutely NO reason for simple possession of marijuana to be a crime.”

      I have kids to feed you know.

    3. I wonder how much it costs in New Hamphire to throw someone in the slammer for a year for the non viloent “crime” of smoking mairjuana ?

  6. Public marijuana smoking in front of uniformed LEOs being freely tolerated.

    When I was a kid in California, this happened. And I remember, maybe falsely, that possession of any amount wasn’t any kind of illegal, for a while. Mid-’70s? There were huge public smoke-outs in parks and shit.

    Then suddenly it was illegal again. Coincidentally, that happened as soon as the hippies got old enough to join the government. Officially.

  7. Coincidentally, that happened as soon as the hippies got old enough to join the government.

    Yup, quite the coincidence too.

    I bummed rolling papers off a uniformed off-duty ATL PD officer at a Ted Nugent concert in 1978.

    1. Nugent’s more-or-less a neocon now. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

      1. actually, Nugent is more or less a Libertarian these days.

        1. And Obama is a neocon.

  8. Predicted outcome: More marijuana citations as police forces use the civil fines to raise cash without the expense of incarcerating someone or convicting them criminally.

  9. I’ve been saving my newest piece for the day when we can finally inhale freedom.

  10. I have a vision: the govt. offers pot gardening classes and organic soil to every citizen the day they go onto Social Security. “Let’s keep ‘um all sedated and loose as a goose.” Free seeds at every political convention and politician’s smirking faces on red, white and blue rolling papers. Screw taxation, just go in your closet and GROW world-class weed.

  11. Why does the gov continue to allow alcohol to b legal???…Alcohol is the #1 killer in the USA!!!…I say LEGALIZE MARIJUANA!!!!….it has alot of useful uses that this Country could benefit from

    1. Why does the gov continue to allow alcohol to b legal???

      Why do you think they call it dope?

  12. OK, this is too much even for me:

    The FBI continues to investigate civil rights allegations made by Jordan Miles, 18, who was charged with assaulting the officers on Jan. 12 in Homewood.

    On Thursday, Miles appeared in court and all charges against him were dropped.

    Police charged Miles because, they said, he fought with the officers who thought a “heavy object” in his coat was a gun. It turned out to be a bottle of Mountain Dew.

    In court, when asked what crime Miles committed, arresting officer Michael Saldutte testified, “Loitering. Because of the high crime area and standing next to the house, it could have been a burglary.”

    Saldutte testified he was also assaulted by Miles during the arrest saying, “He brought his elbow back and struck me in the head.”

    But in the end, the judge sided with Miles, and all charges were dropped.

    “We disagree completely with the decision,” said Chuck Hanlon, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1. “We will vigorously lobby the D.A. to re-file the charges.”

    A Mountain Dew bottle? Not even the right color for God’s sake. Dr Pepper I could see.

  13. I’ve seen those negros lift a car on Mountain Dew. They get super strength and don’t feel pain.

  14. Those who claim dope smokers have blood on their hands are, as previously mentioned, wrong in the sense that the policy, not the user, determines how much blood is spilled (spilt?). They are also overdrawing assumptions about the source of much American pot (ever hear of a nasty cartel murder in Ukiah?). The majority of what I’ve come across was grown in North Carolina and Tennessee, which puts another spin on that whole “South will rise again” thing (forgive the truly awful attempt at a drug-related pun)

  15. Marijuana is already legal under natural law.

  16. As an Alaskan, I can assure you that growing and consumption: not perfectly legal.

  17. Excellent article! Thank you for this articulate and frankly refreshing commentary on the whole absurd issue of marijuana prohibition. Cannabis has “been in jail” for a hundred years, and in spite of that, this highly beneficial, strategically crucial plant has elicited the cooperation of consumers, growers, distributors, researches and scientists to continue giving to our society. So we eat hempen seeds, and dribble hemp oil on our salads. We weave clothing and build houses with hemp fiber. We create fuel and plastic from its oil.

    It’s time to “commute the sentence” and let cannabis out to fulfill all of its potential in medicine, agriculture, industry and, yes, recreation and inspiration.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.