Efforts to regulate marijuana like alcohol and tobacco are underway at different ends of the country. In Nevada, the Marijuana Policy Project is in the midst of a full-court press to once again bring marijuana regulation and taxation before the voters, while in Vermont, a freshman legislator has introduced a bill that would establish a system of licensed, regulated marijuana sales. Action in either state is unlikely this year -- the Nevada effort is aimed at 2006 -- but the efforts in both states are laying the groundwork for a stronger push in the near future.
Vermont is seeing its first bill ever calling for marijuana legalization. Introduced by Rep. Winston Dowland (Prog-Holland) and now cosponsored by Rep. David Deen (D-Westminster), the aptly named Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act, H. 390, calls for the removal of "criminal and civil penalties for the possession in nonpublic places of up to one ounce of marijuana by adults 21 years and older" and the strictly regulated "cultivation and sale of marijuana, permitting such activity only by licensed wholesalers and retailers."
Under the bill, retailers would be allowed to sell limited amounts of marijuana and those sales would be taxable by the state. The bill would bar retail marijuana outlets from locating within 500 feet of churches or schools and bar them from selling or advertising alcohol. Retail outlets could not include gas stations, convenience stores, grocery stores, or nightclubs. Existing penalties for the unlicensed sale or cultivation of marijuana would be maintained.
In a statement released earlier this month, Rep. Dowland said his purpose in introducing the bill was not so much passage this year as beginning the discussion of regulation and taxation of marijuana. "I do not expect this proposal will be enacted this year," he said. "I hope it will get some hearings in the Legislature, though."
Current marijuana policy in Vermont is not working, Dowland wrote in the bill itself. "A new approach is needed to meet the goals of preventing our children from using marijuana, discouraging adult misuses, and keeping our communities safe," the bill says. "By implementing a system of taxation and regulation, the state will maintain strict control of the cultivation and sale of marijuana, thereby removing its control from the criminal market."
Dowland, who represents a corner of the state long rumored to be a hotbed of marijuana cultivation, told the Vermont Chronicle he was ready to deal with the consequences of introducing a controversial bill. "I didn't come down here to make a career," he said. "The reason why they elected me in the Northeast Kingdom is to come down here and make a difference."
"We don't expect anything dramatic from this in the short term," said Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) communications director Bruce Mirken. "Our Vermont branch will be making some efforts to educate people, and we'll see how the public discussion process goes. We don't have any illusions that it will pass immediately, but this gives us the opportunity to engage the public and have it take a serious look at what the marijuana laws are doing and whether they make any sense," he told DRCNet.
Meanwhile, MPP is fighting the latest battle in its years-long effort to bring regulated, taxed marijuana to Nevada. After losing an initiative vote in 2002 and being thrown off the ballot last year, MPP began a signature-drive even before the November election had occurred to get the issue back before the voters.
Because MPP's latest effort is a statutory initiative -- not a constitutional amendment -- the first stop this time around was the Nevada legislature. If the legislature failed to approve the measure, it would return to the voters in the November 2006 election. Last Wednesday, the Nevada Assembly Judiciary Committee did just that, killing the measure at the state capital and opening the way for a popular vote next year.
Nevada lawmakers and law enforcement are already lining up in opposition to the measure, but MPP is confident of eventual success. MPP executive director Rob Kampia told the Las Vegas Review-Journal he expected a close victory. "We don't expect a landslide victory," Kampia said.
At the committee hearing, Rep. Richard Perkins (D-Henderson), who is also deputy chief of the Henderson Police, testified that he would do everything in his power to stop the measure. He had arrested many people who committed crimes because they were "spurred on by substance abuse and mostly by marijuana," he said. "Does this committee, this Legislature want to send a message to our youth that using a drug is a good thing?" Perkins asked.
Kampia, who also testified, challenged police to create a workable marijuana policy that keeps pot from kids. "I didn't hear a solution," said he said about the police testimony. "If you have tried a war on drugs for 35 years and drug use has gone up, it is time for a new approach."
The current MPP measure calls for the legal possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, with doubled penalties for driving under the influence or providing the weed to minors. It also provides for the regulated distribution of marijuana.
While the November 2006 election is a year-and-a-half away, MPP has already put out the call for volunteers and paid workers to go to Nevada to ensure victory next fall. That work is ongoing.
"It is interesting that we are now seeing this happening all over the country," said MPP's Mirken. "We have a bill in Vermont, we have this measure in Nevada, there is all the things the Seattle bar association is doing," he said. "While nobody imagines we are going to have sudden success and all these proposals will sweep into the law books, we are finally beginning to have a rational discussion about prohibition, and especially marijuana prohibition, about whether it makes any sense at all and whether it is accomplishing anything. We can only benefit from that."