Times are changing. Ten states decriminalized the possession of marijuana in a sudden burst in the 1970s, just before the dark, "just say no" years of the Reagan era, but after that, it was more than two decades before another state decriminalized when Nevada joined the list in 2001. Then Massachusetts voters added the Bay State to the list in 2008, and California came on board last year.
It's unlikely that all -- or even most -- of the bills will pass, but prospects are good in several states. In other states, progress will be measured by winning a hearing or a committee vote, and will be viewed as laying the ground work for a longer-term legislative strategy.
"That these bills are popping up shows that popular support has been increasing for both taxing and regulating marijuana and other reforms," said Karen O'Keefe, director of state affairs for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). "Gallup and other polls show steady increases in support," she added.
"States are also interested in decriminalization because of their budget crunches," O'Keefe noted. "They can't afford to lock up people for marijuana possession. There has been an explosion in these bills. The states can do this to save money and not punish people so severely for something that is less harmful than alcohol."
Here are the states where decriminalization bills have been introduced (thanks to NORML and its "Take Action" web page):
In Arizona, House Bill 2228 would make adult possession of up to two ounces a petty offense punishable by a $100 fine. Under current law, possession of that amount is potentially a felony. The bill has been referred to the House Rules Committee, where no action has been taken.
In California, Rep. Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) is not reintroducing his legalization bill, but has introduced Assembly Bill 1017, which would keep marijuana growers out of prison by reducing the offense from a felony to a misdemeanor. It is not exactly decriminalization of cultivation, but it is a step in that direction.
In Connecticut, Gov. Dan Malloy (D) is backing Senate Bill 163, which decriminalizes adult possession of up to an ounce, making it a civil infraction punishable only by a fine. Currently, possession is a misdemeanor worth up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. It has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In Hawaii, Senate Bill 1460 would decriminalize adult possession of up to an ounce, making it punishable by no more than a $100 fine. The law currently mandates a misdemeanor with up to 30 days in jail and a $1000 fine. A similar measure passed the Senate last year, and this bill is moving in that direction, too. It has already been approved by the Senate Joint Committee on Judiciary and Labor and the Senate Committee on Health and awaits a Senate floor vote.
In Illinois, House Bill 100 would decriminalize the adult possession of up to an ounce with a fine of $500 for first-time offenders. Current law makes it a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary II -- Criminal Law Committee.
In Maryland, House Bill 606 would decriminalize the adult possession of up to an ounce by making it a civil offense punishable only by a $100 fine, with no criminal record. The bill has been endorsed by the Maryland Black Caucus and had a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on February 22. The committee has yet to take action on the bill.
In Rhode Island, House Bill 5031 would decriminalize the adult possession of up to an ounce by making it a civil offense with a maximum $150 fine and no criminal record. Under current law, it is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $500 fine.
In Texas, House Bill 548 would decriminalize the adult possession of up to an ounce by making it a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a maximum $500 fine and no criminal record. The offense is currently a Class B misdemeanor punishable by 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine. It was set for a hearing in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Tuesday.
In Vermont, a decriminalization bill is yet to be filed, but is expected shortly. Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) has endorsed the notion. The bill is expected to reduce the penalty for pot possession from a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $500 fine to a fine only civil infraction.
In Virginia, House Bill 1443, which sought to reduce penalties for first-time pot possession offenders, was killed in January by the House Courts of Justice Criminal Subcommittee. It would have reduced the current $500 criminal fine to a civil penalty and removed the possible 30-day jail sentence.
And then there are the legalization bills:
In Massachusetts, House Bill 1371 would legalize and regulate the possession, production, and distribution of marijuana for adults 21 and over. The bill would impose licensing requirements and excise taxes on the commercial, for-profit retail sale of marijuana. It has been referred to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.
In Washington, House Bill 1550 would legalize and regulate marijuana distribution, with pot being sold through the existing state liquor store system. The bill had a hearing before the House Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee February 8, and has picked up the endorsement of the Seattle Times, the state's largest newspaper, and the Seattle city prosecutor, but has yet to have a committee vote.
MPP is most directly involved in Rhode Island and Vermont, said O'Keefe, and, not surprisingly, she said she
thought those two states had the best chances of passing decriminalization bills this year. She also said chances were good in Hawaii.
"In Vermont, the new governor is a vocal proponent of decriminalization, so that has increased our chances there, and in Rhode Island, about half the House has signed onto the decriminalization bill. They will have a hearing there on March 16," said O'Keefe. "Things are looking good in Rhode Island," she added.
"In Hawaii, the Senate last year passed decriminalization, but the governor was hostile," said O'Keefe. "This year, the new governor is favorable, or at least not hostile. We expect a floor vote there soon."
"The bill is moving nicely in the Senate," said Pam Lichty of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii. "It passed unanimously and unamended out of its last committee and awaits a floor vote. It will likely pass there," she said.
"But prospects are dicier in the House," Lichty continued. "There are some new and/or conservative committee chairs who will likely get the referrals. If it reaches Gov. Ambercrombie's desk, he will probably sign it, but that's a big if."
While the Drug Policy Alliance and the A Better Way Foundation are working for reform in Connecticut, the decriminalization bill came from a governor who has also been influenced by the ongoing Campaign for Restorative Justice and who said on the campaign trail that he planned to introduce the bill.
"I talked with Malloy when I was running for governor, and he said he was going to do just what he did with the bill," said Cliff Thornton of Efficacy, who has also been a long-time reformer there. But marijuana decriminalization is only a half-step, Thornton said, and one that allows Malloy to look reformist on drug policy without addressing the fundamental problem: prohibition.
"The decriminalization bill in Connecticut is seen by many as a great bill proposed by Gov. Dan Malloy, but for seasoned reformers like myself, it doesn't go far enough," said Thornton. "My main problems with the bill are that it leaves the criminal black market intact, there's little reason for people who do not use illegal substances to support the bill, and it supports the lie that there's something wrong about illegal drug use," said Thornton.
The Massachusetts legalization bill is "not going to pass this year," said Bill Downing of MassCann. "If it got out of committee, it would be a great surprise to all of us, but stranger things have happened."
Patience is a virtue, said Downing. "We're trying to advance the conversation, and we want to use that conversation to produce legislative language that makes sense to everybody," he said.
Things are looking a little better in Washington. "We had a great hearing on the cannabis regulation bill last month and educated a lot of people," said Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland), a cosponsor of the bill. "It's another step in the process of reform."
Goodman said he had prepared an amendment to the bill that would make its implementation effective upon the changing of federal law, either through rescheduling or amending the Controlled Substances Act. "That would deal with the chair's objections and get it out of committee," he said. "If we delay implementation under federal law changes, we can do it. We will then have a system in place."
And then there's California. While Rep. Ammiano broke ground last year when his legalization bill became the first to ever win a legislative committee vote, he's leaving legalization to others this year. "We will not be reintroducing the legalization bill, but have introduced a bill decriminalizing cultivation, and we are potentially looking at the possibility of statewide regulation of marijuana," said Ammiano spokesman Quintin Mecke.
California will likely have another marijuana initiative on the 2012 ballot, said Mecke, and Ammiano will leave it up to the voters. "We talked to our allies, and there didn’t seem to be any strategic rationalization for reintroducing the bill," he said. "It will be decided at the ballot box one more time in 2012."
While California waits for the voters to decide, in state houses across the country, legislatures are beginning to move on marijuana reform. Whether we end up four successful decriminalization bills or three, or even one or two, each bill is a step in the right direction. And even bills that don't make it into law this year lay the groundwork for next year and the year after. The times are indeed changing.