On November 4, several states radically altered their approaches to a drug once known for Reefer Madness. In Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC, voters approved marijuana legalization measures. But in Florida, a medical marijuana amendment fell short of the 60 percent approval it needed to pass under state law. Here's a breakdown of each state's initiative, the latest results, and how the opposing campaigns pushed their messages to voters.
It has been a little over a month since Coloradans approved a groundbreaking law legalizing small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. Now that the celebratory haze has settled, state officials and marijuana advocates began sifting through the thorny regulatory questions that go beyond merely lighting up.
The dynamics of reform in the Americas continues. This time, the momentum comes from the Caribbean region. Jamaica and other Caribbean Community (CARICOM) member states are now moving to change their marijuana laws. Among the proposed changes discussed in Jamaica were the decriminalisation of possession of small amounts of ganja for recreational and religious use and cultivating it for medicinal purposes.
Alaska voters likely will get a chance next year to make their state the third in the country to approve the recreational use of marijuana by adults 21 and older. Pot backers took the first step toward getting the measure on the August 2014 primary ballot, presenting draft language and 100 signatures to the Alaska lieutenant governor’s office.
If moral entrepreneurs and interest groups manage to whip up enough fear and anxiety, they can create a full-blown moral panic, the widespread sense that the moral condition of society is deteriorating at a rapid pace, which can be conveniently used to distract from underlying, status quo-threatening social problems and exert social control over the working class or other rebellious sectors of society.
The US Drug Enforcement Agency has now walked back statements it made about the trafficking of marijuana grown in the US to buyers in Mexico, after being met with skepticism by other law enforcement agents and experts and being pressed to divulge more information on the allegedly burgeoning problem. The claim that Mexican drug cartel members were taking US-grown weed and selling it at a premium to Mexican customers first emerged in a broader NPR report on the effects of legalized marijuana on the illicit drug trade.
These are interesting times for drug law reform, which, as it gathers pace, is asking important questions of international law. A UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs is set for 2016 just as national reforms are challenging international treaties that form the bedrock of a global prohibition regime that has dominated since the turn of the twentieth century. States parties to the three UN drug control conventions must now confront the legal and political dilemmas this creates. This is the situation in which the US now finds itself following cannabis reforms in various states that are at odds with these treaties.
Two U.S. states have legalized recreational marijuana, and more may follow; the Obama administration has conditionally accepted these experiments. Such actions are in obvious tension with three international treaties that together commit the United States to punish and even criminalize activity related to recreational marijuana. The administration asserts that its policy complies with the treaties because they leave room for flexibility and prosecutorial discretion.
If D.C. residents vote to legalize marijuana possession next week, it wouldn’t just mean a sea change in drug policy in the nation’s capital. It could also mean big business. A study by District financial officials shared with lawmakers estimates a legal D.C. cannabis market worth $130 million a year. The ballot initiative voters will see Tuesday does not allow for the legal sale of marijuana — only the possession and home cultivation of small amounts — but D.C. Council members gathered Thursday to hear testimony about what a legal sales regime might look like.
For decades, the United States has been a champion of the global drug control treaty system, which limits the use of marijuana exclusively to medical and scientific purposes, and obligates governments to punish and even criminalize recreational marijuana activity. But American attitudes toward marijuana policy are shifting: voters in Colorado and Washington approved ballot initiatives to legalize regulated recreational marijuana in 2012, and recent polls suggest that the majority of Americans think marijuana use should be legalized.
Nebraska and Oklahoma filed the first major court challenge to marijuana legalization, saying that Colorado’s growing array of state-regulated recreational marijuana shops was piping marijuana into neighboring states and should be shut down. The lawsuit asks the United States Supreme Court to strike down key parts of a 2012 voter-approved measure that legalized marijuana in Colorado for adult use and created a new system of stores, taxes and regulations surrounding retail marijuana. (See also: Colorado vows to defend pot law against states' challenge)
A Colorado marijuana innovation is changing the way lawmakers in even the most conservative parts of the country talk about cannabis and is poised to create a rapid expansion in the number of states that have legalized marijuana in some way. But many marijuana advocates view the new political campaign with skepticism, fearing it could halt their movement's momentum. Taken to its logical conclusion, medical marijuana could be a "box canyon" for broader legalization efforts.
Federal law still prohibits marijuana, and existing jurisprudence (Gonzales v. Raich 2005) holds that federal law trumps state law when it comes to marijuana prohibition. So far, the federal government has mostly taken a hands-off approach to state medicalizations and legalizations, but in January 2017, the country will have a new president. That person could order the attorney general to enforce federal prohibition regardless of state law. Whether that will happen is hard to forecast. If more states legalize marijuana and public opinion continues its support, Washington may hesitate to push back.
Frustrated by the cash-heavy aspect of its new marijuana industry, Colorado is trying a long-shot bid to create the world's first financial system devoted to the pot business. But Colorado's plan to move the weed industry away from dank-smelling cash to easily auditable banking accounts is a Hail Mary pass that won't work, industry and regulatory officials agree.
The 43-year-old war on drugs had never seen such a barrage of opposition as it did in 2014, with successful marijuana legalization initiatives in several U.S. states, California’s historic approval of sentencing reform for low level drug offenders and world leaders calling for the legal regulation of all drugs — all of which cement the mainstream appeal of drug policy alternatives and offer unprecedented momentum going into 2015.
Latin America is now at the vanguard of international efforts to promote drug policy reform: Bolivia has rewritten its constitution to recognize the right to use the coca leaf for traditional and legal purposes, Uruguay has become the first nation in the world to adopt a legal, regulated Cannabis market, and Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, and Ecuador are openly critiquing the prevailing international drug control paradigm at the UN. And now with the United States itself relaxing its marijuana laws state by state, the U.S. prohibitionist drug war strategies are losing credibility in the region.
The Department of Justice announced that it would let Native American tribes grow or sell marijuana on their reservations, even in states where the drug is still illegal. The decision opens the door to pockets of legal marijuana throughout the country, in addition to the growing number of states that have legalized pot or are considering doing so. There are more than 300 reservations in some 30 states. If a good portion of those tribal governments choose to grow and sell marijuana on their land, then large swaths of the country will have access to legal pot. (See also: Tribes wary of selling pot, even if feds allow it)
Some 20 years ago, a Spanish official in favor of lifting the ban on drugs such as marijuana mentioned at a UN meeting that there "might be a more humane option" in the fight against trafficking. She was immediately taken aside by a senior diplomat, who told her in no uncertain terms: "Don't say things like that round here, not even in the washroom." Today, the same official says that internal documents are now circulating within the UN that openly admit to the failure of prohibition.