A new Marijuana Moment analysis finds that a majority of Americans now live in places where first-time, low-level possession of cannabis will generally not result in jail time.
Fifty-five percent of the population—nearly 179 million people—reside in a decriminalized area where adults mostly don’t have to worry about being put behind bars for being apprehended a first time with a small amount of marijuana, even if they don’t have a doctors’ recommendation for medical use.
Many statistics have been thrown around about how many Americans live in a state where some form of marijuana is legal. How these states are tallied is up for debate, largely because of differing language and laws for medical cannabis. Depending on how one counts, 30 or 31 states have comprehensive medical marijuana programs, and an additional 15 or so allow certain patients to access low-THC cannabis extracts.
For recreational marijuana, only nine states and Washington D.C. have passed laws legalizing possession (and most, but not all of those, allow commercial sales and home cultivation). Seventy million people live in these adult-use states or jurisdictions, or 21.5 percent of the U.S. population.
Aside from these places where marijuana is legal for medical or non-medical use, additional states and municipalities have embarked on decriminalization efforts that generally allow people to avoid jail time for low-level possession, even as the drug remains formally prohibited.
That includes a renewed effort by officials in New York City to stop prosecuting low-level cannabis offenses. Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) said in 2014 that police would begin issuing summonses, rather than arrests, in those cases. But police have since continued to arrest an average of 17,000 people per year for possession, 87 percent of whom are black or Hispanic.
This summer, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. declared that, as of August 1, his department would no longer be prosecuting marijuana possession or smoking cases.
— Cyrus Vance, Jr. (@ManhattanDA) July 31, 2018
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez made a similar move. And the NYPD instituted its own policy of avoiding arrests for low-level cannabis offenses in many cases, an approach that went into effect on September 1.
While marijuana is technically decriminalized in all of New York State, a loophole in the law has allowed police to make arrests for cannabis that is in “public view.” If these new initiatives are successful, the 43 percent of New York State residents who reside within New York City will have a little more freedom.
Which caused us to wonder:
How many Americans now live somewhere they can carry around a joint in their pocket, without an accompanying medical cannabis recommendation, and not have to fear being arrested and sent to jail?
Marijuana Moment decided to tally up all the states and localities where possession of a joint containing the average one gram of weed is, at least in theory, not supposed to result in time behind bars, even if someone had multiple encounters with law enforcement for possession over time. We used NORML’s and the Marijuana Policy Project’s resources for local and state laws.
In addition to the nine legal states and the District of Columbia, at least some jurisdictions in 23 states, plus Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands have passed laws to decriminalize marijuana possession. The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands has passed a legalization bill that is now awaiting the governor’s signature.
We define “decriminalized locations” as ones in which in most circumstances, possession by adults of small (and in some cases large) amounts of cannabis will result in either no penalty, or an infraction or misdemeanor charge plus fine, without the threat of jail time.
We found that at least 146 million Americans live in such legal or decriminalized locations, or 45 percent of the population of the United States. (An additional 1.2 million Michiganders in 16 cities are protected—but only if they are on private property, so are not counted in this total.)
The Impact of Multiple Apprehensions
In addition to the roughly 146 million Americans who live in places where they don’t have to worry about being locked up for low-level cannabis possession no matter how many times they are caught, a further 32.7 million live in a state, county or city where, if it is their first (or in some cases, second or third) time being apprehended, they would face only a civil infraction or misdemeanor charge without jail time. Subsequent offenses carry escalating penalties where incarceration is a possibility.
Several large cities within otherwise criminalized states have opted to enact local decriminalization ordinances. In Florida, for example, six cities and seven counties have decriminalized possession of up to 20 grams of cannabis. Thirty-nine percent of the state’s residents live in those locations. A sizable 34 percent of Texans live in a decriminalized jurisdiction, while 31 percent of New Mexico residents and 27 percent of Wisconsinites are protected by local laws.
If these states (Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina and Rhode Island) and localities are included, 55 percent of Americans who haven’t seen a possession charge before would be “safe” from the threat of being put behind bars for initial run-ins with the police over cannabis.
“Jailing people for consuming cannabis is not only unpopular, but widely viewed as a ludicrous idea,” Karen O’Keefe, state policies director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), told Marijuana Moment. “It is no longer just voters calling for decriminalization, but also police chiefs, prosecutors, and other officials at every level of government.”
|Alaska||legal for adults|
|American Samoa||criminalized everywhere|
|Arkansas||some cities/counties decriminalized|
|California||legal for adults*|
|Colorado||legal for adults*|
|District of Columbia||legal for adults*|
|Florida||some cities/counties decriminalized|
|Georgia||some cities/counties decriminalized|
|Louisiana||two cities decriminalized|
|Maine||legal for adults*|
|Massachusetts||legal for adults*|
|Michigan||some cities/counties decriminalized|
|Mississippi||1st offense only decriminalized|
|Missouri||1st offense only, three cities decriminalized for subsequent offenses|
|Montana||one county first offense decriminalized|
|Nebraska||1st offense only decriminalized|
|Nevada||legal for adults*|
|New Jersey||criminalized everywhere|
|New Mexico||two cities decriminalized|
|New York||1st and 2nd offense decriminalized, New York City not prosecuting|
|North Carolina||1st offense only decriminalized (jail time suspended for 2nd to 5th offenses)|
|North Dakota||criminalized everywhere|
|Northern Mariana Islands||legalization bill awaiting governor’s signature|
|Ohio||decriminalized, some cities no penalty|
|Oregon||legal for adults*|
|Pennsylvania||some cities decriminalized|
|Puerto Rico||illegal everywhere|
|Rhode Island||1st and second offense decriminalized|
|South Carolina||criminalized everywhere|
|South Dakota||criminalized everywhere|
|Texas||some cities/counties decriminalized|
|U.S. Virgin Islands||decriminalized|
|Vermont||legal for adults*|
|Washington||legal for adults*|
|West Virginia||criminalized everywhere|
|Wisconsin||some cities decriminalized|
*No jail time for those under 21
Decriminalization Often Still Involves Penalties
Decriminalized doesn’t mean “fine-free.” In New Hampshire, if you are caught possessing four times in three years, you won’t go to jail, but you could be fined up to $1,200. Several Wisconsin locales have passed laws where jail time is omitted, but you might have to shell out up to $1,000. Minnesota has a hefty fine of $1,000 if more than 1.4 grams of cannabis is found inside a vehicle (not secured in the trunk).
The patchwork of policies across the country and within individual states, and the unclear terminology often attached to these proposals (“decriminalization,” “lowest law enforcement priority,” “civil violation”) means that these laws are often poorly understood by consumers and inconsistently enforced by police. The uncertainty surrounding those terms and the policies they apply to also meant that Marijuana Moment had to make some decisions about which jurisdictions to include in our analysis; generally, we counted places where the clear intent of policymakers was to let people avoid jail time for possessing small amounts of cannabis in most cases.
A further wrinkle is the fact that in many municipalities that have enacted decriminalization ordinances, local police can continue to enforce and charge people under overarching state marijuana criminalization laws, and state law enforcement agencies can of course continue to bring charges that come with jail time. People living in or visiting those cities shouldn’t necessarily be too brazen about possessing small amounts of cannabis—or consuming it in public, which is legal exactly nowhere.
“The rate of local governments acknowledging the futility of marijuana criminalization has accelerated greatly in the last few years,” Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “But sadistically, many in law enforcement still will seek any justification possible to escalate a confrontation with a civilian that they have made a personal judgement upon—and can still rely on state-level criminalization statutes to do so. While the policy of local decriminalization is a step in the right direction, even in those jurisdictions, many consumers still live under threat by uniformed officers who allegedly are sworn to protect and serve those very communities.”
What’s more, in some “decriminalized” jurisdictions, a conviction still may result in a criminal record which can carry life-altering collateral consequences—including making it harder to get employment or housing—even if time behind bars isn’t a possibility.
It should also be noted that some states where adult-use sales have been legalized actually have more stringent possession laws than states that have merely decriminalized possession. In Colorado, for example, penalties—including jail time—are on the books for possession of more than two ounces. In Ohio, where cannabis prohibition is still in effect, up to 100 grams (roughly 3.5 ounces) is a misdemeanor with no incarceration.
“While public policy and the public’s perceptions are moving in the right direction, there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done,” O’Keefe, of MPP, said. “Marijuana is still illegal in 41 states, and consumers are still subject to potential jail time and life-altering criminal records in about half of U.S. jurisdictions.”
The Big Cities
Citizens and visitors to any county in 18 states, Puerto Rico and American Samoa face jail time for any amount of cannabis on their person. But possession of a joint is legal or effectively decriminalized in 24 of the 35 largest cities in the United States:
|City||State||Population (July 2017
|New York||New York||8,622,698||Y|
|Charlotte||North Carolina||859,035||Y (first-strike)|
|Washington||District of Columbia||693,972||Y|
|Detroit||Michigan||673,104||On 2018 ballot|
The totals in Marijuana Moment’s analysis seem poised to grow later this year and into 2019 as more cities and states vote on reform measures. In November alone, Michigan and North Dakota have legalization measures on the ballot, while Missouri and Utah voters will consider medical cannabis initiatives.
White House Drug Officials Say Legal Marijuana Is Up To States
Two top federal drug officials, including the White House drug czar, recently said that marijuana legalization should be left up to states.
The comments stand out coming from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which has historically played a central role in defending blanket federal prohibition.
Jim Carroll, the Trump-appointed drug czar who directs the administration’s drug policies, told Fox 59 reporter Kayla Sullivan that he considers legalization a states’ right issue. He added that he’d like to see targeted education campaigns concerning cannabis use during pregnancy and underage usage as well as research into impaired driving.
Got the answer: He believes it should be left up to the state. However, he does want to educate people on the effect marijuana has on young brain development, pregnant women and wants to come up with better guidance & testing for marijuana while driving. https://t.co/eifryNJB1j
— Kayla Sullivan (@KaylaReporting) August 14, 2019
It’s a particularly notable position given that federal law stipulates that the drug czar is required to “take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a substance” listed as Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act, including marijuana.
Even if Carroll’s remarks arguably don’t directly violate that statute, they are significant in that he doesn’t seem to have taken the opportunity to proactively oppose state legalization efforts when asked by a reporter.
Anne Hazlett, senior advisor at ONDCP, also weighed in on cannabis legalization on Wednesday, telling CentralIllinoisProud.com that marijuana legalization is “a state decision.”
“Marijuana is an ongoing challenge that is being addressed in many of our states,” she said. “This is a state decision, and we would like to see additional research done so that these decisions being made at a state level are being made in a manor that is fully informed.”
Though the comments from Carroll and Hazlett seem to reflect an evolving understanding of the federal government’s role in imposing prohibition on the states, the ONDCP director has previously made clear he’s not enthusiastic about the burgeoning legal market.
During a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing in May, Carroll raised concerns about THC potency in marijuana products, saying “the marijuana we have today is nothing like what it was when I was a kid, when I was in high school.”
“Back then the THC, the ingredient in marijuana that makes you high, was in the teens in terms of the percentage,” he said. “Now what we’re seeing is twice that, three times that, in the plant.”
He also said that more research is needed and that the Drug Enforcement Administration as well as the Department of Health and Human Services are “working hard to make sure that we understand the impact of legalization of marijuana on the body.”
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
New Industry-Backed Marijuana Legalization Measure Filed In Florida
Another measure to legalize marijuana has been filed in Florida—and this one is being spearheaded by a major industry stakeholder, the multi-state dispensary chain MedMen.
Make It Legal Florida—a political committee that was registered earlier this month and is chaired by Nick Hansen, MedMen’s director of government affairs in the Southeastern U.S —filed the 2020 ballot initiative on August 6.
The campaign shared language of the measure, which isn’t yet available on the Florida Department of State elections division site, with Marijuana Moment.
“Make it Legal Florida is proud to present a ballot initiative that will legalize the safe, adult use of marijuana,” Hansen said via email. “Public opinion is on our side, and the time to act is now. Florida voters on every side of the aisle overwhelmingly support this initiative and at Make it Legal Florida, we are committed to ensuring Floridians have a chance to have their voices heard.”
The proposed constitutional amendment would legalize the possession, use, transportation and retail sale of up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis for adults 21 and older. Medical marijuana dispensaries in the state would be permitted to sell marijuana to adults. The initiative doesn’t mention a licensing system to establish separate recreational shops, though the legislature will likely enact more detailed regulations consistent with the constitutional amendment’s text should it pass.
It also requires cannabis products to be “clearly labeled and in childproof packaging” and prohibits advertisements that are targeted at those under 21.
There’s also no mention of a home cultivation option, which is something that many advocates regard as a necessary civil liberties component but that some industry players have resisted or actively opposed.
A medical cannabis industry association based in New York faced backlash from advocates earlier this year after it was reported that it sent a document to Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recommending that the state prevent consumers from growing their own marijuana at home. MedMen was among the companies listed as members of the association at the time, though a representative later told Marijuana Moment that the business supports giving adults the right to grow their own cannabis.
The new Florida language is “currently being reviewed by the Florida Division of Elections to ensure the petition is in the proper form and we are awaiting their approval, per the usual process,” a spokesperson told Marijuana Moment.
It’s not clear to what extent MedMen will be funding or running the campaign, but the cannabis company appears to be taking a more active role in legalization efforts this election cycle.
In Arizona, an adult-use legalization measure filed at the beginning of the month is also reportedly being backed by MedMen, as well as other existing medical cannabis companies in the state.
Make it Legal Florida will be competing against at least one other campaign that’s working to legalize cannabis in Florida. Sensible Florida, another advocacy group, announced last month that it had collected enough signatures to prompt a state Supreme Court review of the ballot language. It’s collected about 80,000 signatures so far.
To qualify for the ballot, the campaigns will have to gather a total of 766,200 valid signatures. If an effort clears that hurdle, passing a constitutional amendment requires 60 percent support from voters.
“Floridians are ready to legalize marijuana,” Ben Pollara, a political consultant who worked on 2014 and 2016 medical cannabis measures in the state, the latter of which was enacted, told Marijuana Moment. “If this measure makes it on the ballot in 2020, it is almost certain to pass.”
Personal injury attorney John Morgan, who bankrolled the state’s previous medical cannabis initiatives but only recently expressed interest in contributing to this recreational push, told The Miami Herald that Sensible Florida’s challenge will be raising millions of dollars to push their measure forward, whereas Hansen’s operation is well supported by the industry.
“Last time I did, I was the lone trombone player marching down the street,” he said of his role in medical marijuana legalization. “This will be the University of Miami marching band with trumpets and tubas and snare drums. I’ll just be one trombone player, marching with them.”
Read the full text of Make It Legal Florida’s marijuana proposal below:
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
Defense Department Official Stresses CBD Ban For Military Members
A Department of Defense (DOD) official is reiterating that military service members are barred from using CBD products despite the legalization of hemp and its derivatives under the 2018 Farm Bill.
Patricia Deuster, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the federal government-run Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, said in a call with reporters this week that the non-intoxicating compound is “completely forbidden for use by any service member in any of the services at this point of time.”
While CBD products are widely available—in grocery stores, gas stations and online—the lack of regulations for these items from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) creates uncertainty about levels of THC in the preparations. And military members who test positive for THC can be punished with an other-than-honorable discharge and the potential loss of other benefits.
“It’s a real conundrum, and it’s going to be a major issue for the military because it is available [nearly everywhere],” Deuster said, according to Military.com, which first reported her remarks. “You go into any store, and you can find gummy bears with a supplement fact panel on it.”
Though the Tuesday press call simply provided clarity on existing military CBD policy, it represents the latest example of DOD interest in preventing the use of cannabis among service members.
The Navy released a notice earlier this month stipulating that “all hemp and CBD products are strictly prohibited for use by Sailors” no matter the legal status. And the Coast Guard said its members aren’t even allowed to visit marijuana shops or use online or delivery cannabis services, according to an order released last month.
That order didn’t specify policy around hemp-derived CBD, but a Coast Guard official told Mililtary.com that if members “have a desire to use a product that may or may not fall into the definition of what’s prohibited, they should seek guidance or use caution.”
Last year, the Air Force wrote in a post that “consumption [of marijuana] is not permitted in any fashion, period.” It emphasized the need to take caution as more states legalize, with one risk factor being your “friend’s grandma’s miracle sticky buns” that “might look mighty tasty and get rave reviews at the big shindig,” but could contain THC.
In a memo released in April, the Air Force said that “Airmen are advised against using CBD products” and could face disciplinary action if they use CBD that isn’t the FDA-approved drug Epidiolex.
The Army issued a similar notice in November 2016 that stated service members may not use marijuana, hemp or hemp oil.
Though not a military branch, NASA also sent a warning to its workforce this month that the unregulated nature of CBD products means employees could inadvertently consume THC that could get them fired.
“The problem is there is no regulatory framework to ensure that the CBD products being sold meet the Farm Act,” Deuster said on the call this week. “[CBD] is everywhere. We are waiting for the FDA to do something,”
She added that service members shouldn’t “believe what [the companies] are telling you” about the benefits of CBD.
Photo by Sam Doucette on Unsplash.