Marijuana as a political issue has definitely come in from the cold. In what the Marijuana Policy Project refers to as "the second wave" of marijuana activism (initiatives being the first wave and changes at the federal level being the third and final wave), the focus is shifting from the street to the statehouse. Not that the days of smoke-ins, picket signs, and petition drives are over, but the outsider politics of the demonstration and the grassroots initiative are now being supplemented by the insider politics of suited lobbyists and back room deals. As the nation's state legislatures lurch through their brief and frenetic sessions, marijuana-related bills are under consideration across the land.
For the majority of states that lack the initiative and referendum process -- only 24 states, mostly Western, and the District of Colombia allow it -- the legislature is the only resort for changing repressive marijuana laws. As a result, popular pressure is starting to make itself felt in the halls of power.
Medical marijuana bills have come up or will come up in as many as 20 legislatures, as states such as Minnesota, New Mexico, and Texas compete to join Hawaii, now the only state where medical marijuana has become the law through the legislative process. In seven other states, medical marijuana has arrived through successful citizen initiatives. (District of Colombia voters passed a medical marijuana initiative in 1998, but Congress has ever since blocked the will of the voters in its fiefdom.)
In four of the states where medical marijuana initiatives passed -- California, Maine, Nevada, and Washington--bills addressing the messy issue of implementing the initiatives are on the table.
And in at least eight states, lawmakers faced or are facing measures to lessen penalties for recreational marijuana use, or in at least two states, Massachusetts and New Mexico, outright decriminalization. Those efforts remain alive.
But few of these bills are likely to pass. Medical marijuana bills have already been defeated this year in three states -- Maryland, South Dakota, and Wyoming -- and the chances of success elsewhere remain uncertain.
That does not surprise nor especially concern National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) executive director Keith Stroup.
"No one should be surprised that it takes two and sometimes three years before a state feels comfortable enough with a new proposal to generate the support to pass it," he told DRCNet. "This is really the second year for many of these states, and we've made some headway, but we still have lots of hurdles," he added.
"My experience has been that making law through the legislative process is a long, hard struggle because it is easier to stop a bill than to pass one," the veteran reformer argued. "Even in a fairly progressive state with strong support, it's still possible to defeat a bill by tying it up in committee. Trying to change public policy legislatively is a difficult challenge, but it can be done."
Marijuana Policy Project legislative analyst Richard Schmitz offered a similar perspective.
"If you look at the history of a state like Hawaii, which passed medical marijuana last year, it takes time," Schmitz told DRCNet. "At the end of the second year, it looks depressing, but then you're able to push it through."
"One thing that's encouraging," Schmitz added, "is the increase in the number of medical marijuana bills. Last year we had 15 or 16, but this year there will be at least 20."
For NORML's Stroup, the difficulty in achieving reform through the legislative process is another indication of the disconnect between public opinion and the political class.
"We have polls that say 58% of the public doesn't support throwing pot-smokers in jail," Stroup noted, "and these problems in the states are a reminder that even though we enjoy enormous popular support, there is a big gap between public attitudes and official policy."
Stroup remains hopeful, although his optimism is tempered with a healthy dose of political realism.
"Over the next two or three years, we will get to point that the remaining states will find it easy to pass medical marijuana bills, but we're not there yet," he argued. "Remember, 41 states don't allow medical marijuana now, so we are still in a position of having to build momentum."
"This is an example of the real politics we have to deal with," Stroup added. "Any bill that deals with pot is still hot to handle for politicians; they get frightened. And they worry about things that don't seem very serious to us -- like the idea that patients who grow their own will be neighborhood pot dealers -- but we have to deal with that."
Both Stroup and Schmitz had been optimistic about Maryland, but what took place in Annapolis this week is a prime example of the sort of obstacles reformers face. In Maryland, the medical marijuana effort devolved into an ugly fracas, as Walter Baker, the chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, enraged patients and reformers by engineering an early vote to kill the measure. To compound matters, Baker added insult to injury by belittling witnesses and senators interested in their testimony.
"Members of the committee, this bill is not going anywhere," Baker interrupted at one point. "I wish you'd quit asking the questions and let the witnesses put on their show," he sneered.
Later in the hearing, the would-be humorist quipped, "Medical marijuana. On the street, they call it pot."
That prompted Sen. Perry Sfikas (D-Baltimore County) to protest that even if the bill had little chance of passing, he wanted to hear the witnesses.
"Ask a question if you want," Baker retorted, "but don't make a speech."
Baker's attitude had the bill's sponsor, Delegate Donald Murphy (R-Catonsville) up in arms. "It's bad enough that politicians think they know better than doctors," he told the Frederick News Post, "but I can't believe they think they're god."
Murphy was also none too pleased with the Maryland State Medical Society, which opposed the bill on the grounds that it placed doctors in the position of recommending illegal activity. Murphy this week struck back against the doctors by introducing a bill that would subject doctors who recommend marijuana to the same penalties their patients would receive if arrested.
"Doctors can't have it both ways," a frustrated Murphy told the Prince Georges Journal. "If they want to oppose a bill to protect their patients and privately endorse marijuana use, they should suffer the same consequences as the patient."
Things are going much better in New Mexico, which, because of the atmospheric shift generated by Gov. Gary Johnson's bold attack on prohibitionist policies, is well-placed to pass medical marijuana legislation this session. The medical marijuana bill supported by the governor has already won committee approval in both houses, and the Senate approved it on a 29-12 vote this week. The only remaining legislative hurdle is a vote by the House.
And Johnson's marijuana decriminalization bill remains alive, having survived its first committee votes. The bill, which would make possession of less than an ounce a civil infraction punishable by a fine, was approved by both the House and Senate committees on consumer affairs this week. Both committees approved the bill with "no recommendation," instead of a more favorable "do pass" recommendation, which does not bode well for its chances. The bill must also survive other committee votes in both houses before coming to floor votes in the House and Senate. Opponents have vowed to try to kill the bill in committee.
David Goldstein, an analyst with the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation's New Mexico office, told DRCNet, "Things are looking much better than we thought two weeks ago. We expect medical marijuana to pass, and even the decrim bill stands a chance."
Chances for medical marijuana also look good in Massachusetts, where voters last fall startled politicians with broad support for local medical marijuana and legalization initiatives. H1188 would revive and expand the state's dormant medical marijuana provisions, and allow patients to grow their own. And it is accompanied by no less than four bills calling for the decriminalization of marijuana in one form or another.
Meanwhile, four of the states that okayed medical marijuana through the initiative process are attempting to redress deficiencies in their implementation strategies, while in Hawaii, reformers are fighting a rear-guard action against efforts in the Senate to limit eligible medical conditions to those currently enumerated. On Monday, the Senate Ways and Means Committee approved SB 1182 SD1, which would remove any way of qualifying new conditions for treatment with medical marijuana.
But according to the Marijuana Policy Project, the bill's chances are not good. It still must be voted on by the entire Senate, and in the unlikely event it passes, would have to be signed by Gov. Cayetano, the man who originally supported and put his signature on Hawaii's medical marijuana bill.
But for a movement that a few short years ago couldn't get a serious hearing, the political dynamic has changed dramatically. While progress may be difficult to achieve, progress has already been considerable, especially when we consider that most of the legislative battles this year are around enacting affirmative bills -- not fending off draconian new punishments.
The tenor of this year's state legislative marijuana politics is perhaps summed up by the notation the Marijuana Policy Project appended to its updates on states where no action is pending: "The good news from this year's legislative session is that there are no bills that increase penalties for marijuana. The bad news, as you already know, is that there are no positive marijuana bills, either."
(Both NORML and MPP maintain frequently updated web sites for tracking legislative activity. For NORML's page, go to http://www.capwiz.com/norml2/issues/ -- and access MPP's updates by visiting http://www.mpp.org and pressing the "Select Your State" button.)