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How Many Americans Can Hold A Joint Of Marijuana Without Fear Of Going To Jail?

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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.

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.”

State/Territory Status
Alabama criminalized everywhere
Alaska legal for adults
American Samoa criminalized everywhere
Arizona criminalized everywhere
Arkansas some cities/counties decriminalized
California legal for adults*
Colorado legal for adults*
Connecticut decriminalized
Delaware decriminalized
District of Columbia legal for adults*
Florida some cities/counties decriminalized
Georgia some cities/counties decriminalized
Guam decriminalized
Hawaii criminalized everywhere
Idaho criminalized everywhere
Illinois decriminalized
Indiana criminalized everywhere
Iowa criminalized everywhere
Kansas criminalized everywhere
Kentucky criminalized everywhere
Louisiana two cities decriminalized
Maine legal for adults*
Maryland decriminalized
Massachusetts legal for adults*
Michigan some cities/counties decriminalized
Minnesota 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 Hampshire decriminalized
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
Oklahoma criminalized everywhere
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
Tennessee criminalized everywhere
Texas some cities/counties decriminalized
U.S. Virgin Islands decriminalized
Utah criminalized everywhere
Vermont legal for adults*
Virginia criminalized everywhere
Washington legal for adults*
West Virginia criminalized everywhere
Wisconsin some cities decriminalized
Wyoming criminalized everywhere

*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
Census estimate)
Legal or
Decriminalized
New York New York 8,622,698 Y
Los Angeles California 3,999,759 Y
Chicago Illinois 2,716,450 Y
Houston Texas 2,312,717 Y
Phoenix Arizona 1,626,078 N
Philadelphia Pennsylvania 1,580,863 Y
San Antonio Texas 1,511,946 Y
San Diego California 1,419,516 Y
Dallas Texas 1,341,075 Y
San Jose California 1,035,317 Y
Austin Texas 950,715 Y
Jacksonville Florida 892,062 N
San Francisco California 884,363 Y
Columbus Ohio 879,170 Y
Fort Worth Texas 874,168 N
Indianapolis Indiana 863,002 N
Charlotte North Carolina 859,035 Y (first-strike)
Seattle Washington 724,745 Y
Denver Colorado 704,621 Y
Washington District of Columbia 693,972 Y
Boston Massachusetts 685,094 Y
El Paso Texas 683,577 N
Detroit Michigan 673,104 On 2018 ballot
Nashville Tennessee 667,560 N
Memphis Tennessee 652,236 N
Portland Oregon 647,805 Y
Oklahoma City Oklahoma 643,648 N
Las Vegas Nevada 641,676 Y
Louisville Kentucky 621,349 N
Baltimore Maryland 611,648 Y
Milwaukee Wisconsin 595,351 Y
Albuquerque New Mexico 558,545 Y
Tucson Arizona 535,677 N
Fresno California 527,438 Y
Sacramento California 501,901 Y

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.

North Dakota Likely To Vote On Marijuana Legalization In November

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Polly has been creating print, web and video content for a couple of decades now. Recent roles include serving as writer/producer at The Denver Post's Cannabist vertical, and writing content for cannabis businesses.

Culture

Lots Of Politicians And Companies Are Tweeting About Marijuana On 4/20

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It’s 4/20 again, and that means another slew of tweets from politicians and mainstream brands looking to use the marijuana holiday as a hook to get their message out.

Here’s a roundup of some of the best, funniest, most important or otherwise notable cannabis-related tweets of the day…

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), a presidential candidate:

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a presidential candidate:

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), a presidential candidate:

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), a presidential candidate:

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), a presidential candidate:

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), a presidential candidate:

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), a presidential candidate:

Former Sen. Mike Gravel (D-AK), a presidential candidate:

Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee (D), a presidential candidate:

Former San Antonio, Texas Mayor Julián Castro (D), a presidential candidate:

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang:

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY):

House Committee on Small Business:

Congressional Black Caucus:

Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV):

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR):

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN):

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA):

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA):

Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL):

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN):

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM):

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D):

Los Angeles, California City Council President Herb Wesson (D):

Cook County, Illinois State’s Attorney Kim Foxx (D):

The American Civil Liberties Union:

Ben & Jerry’s:

Denny’s:

Hidden Valley Ranch:

Carl’s Jr.:

Boston Market:

George Washington’s Mount Vernon:

Bill Maher:

Miley Cyrus:

311:

The Onion:

Ben & Jerry’s Stands Out From Companies Just Trying To Make Money From 4/20

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Politics

State-Legal Marijuana Use Makes Immigrants Morally Unfit for Citizenship, Trump Administration Warns

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A federal immigration agency clarified on Friday that using marijuana or engaging in cannabis-related “activities” such as working for a dispensary—even in states where it’s legal—is an immoral offense that makes immigrants ineligible for citizenship.

When applying for naturalization, the process of gaining citizenship, individuals must have established “good moral character” in the five years preceding the application. Good moral character is a vague requirement that has been criticized by scholars and civil rights advocates, as assessing morality is arguably subjective.

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), state-legal marijuana consumption renders individuals morally unfit for citizenship. The new policy clarification reflects a sentiment once expressed by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who said that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

The USCIS memo says that “violation of federal controlled substance law, including for marijuana, established by a conviction or admission, is generally a bar to establishing [good moral character] for naturalization even where the conduct would not be a violation of state law.”

Further, an applicant “who is involved in certain marijuana related activities may lack GMC if found to have violated federal law, even if such activity is not unlawful under applicable state or foreign laws,” the document says. The policy also applies to individuals who worked in the state-legal cannabis industry.

There have already been reports of people being denied citizenship due to their proximity to state-legal marijuana businesses. Earlier this month, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock hosted a group of immigrants who said their work in the state’s cannabis industry was being used as justification by federal officials to deny them citizenship.

“In Colorado, cannabis has been legal for 5 years. For work in a legal industry to be used against an individual trying to gain citizenship is a prime example of why we need to harmonize our state and federal laws to ensure that states like Colorado that have moved to legalize cannabis can act in our own authority to expand and regulate our cannabis industry,” Rep. Joe Neguse (D-CO), told Marijuana Moment in reaction to the Trump administration memo.

Legalization activists also criticized the move.

“The cruel treatment of immigrants for offenses related to something as minor as marijuana is illustrative of the way this administration has used the war on drugs to pursue communities of color,” Michael Collins, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “It also shows that pursuing a state by state approach to federal policy doesn’t work for these communities. Federal descheduling is essential.”

While the federal policy deeming marijuana use a violation of “good moral character” standards for immigration purposes was already on the books, it seems the spread of state-level cannabis legalization has prompted the agency, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, to issue the clarification.

“A number of states and the District of Columbia (D.C.) have enacted laws permitting ‘medical’ or ‘recreational’ use of marijuana. Marijuana, however, remains classified as a ‘Schedule I’ controlled substance under the federal CSA,” the updated USCIS policy manual now reads. “Schedule I substances have no accepted medical use pursuant to the CSA. Classification of marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law means that certain conduct involving marijuana, which is in violation of the CSA, continues to constitute a conditional bar to GMC for naturalization eligibility, even where such activity is not a criminal offense under state law.”

“Such an offense under federal law may include, but is not limited to, possession, manufacture or production, or distribution or dispensing of marijuana. For example, possession of marijuana for recreational or medical purposes or employment in the marijuana industry may constitute conduct that violates federal controlled substance laws. Depending on the specific facts of the case, these activities, whether established by a conviction or an admission by the applicant, may preclude a finding of GMC for the applicant during the statutory period. An admission must meet the long held requirements for a valid ‘admission’ of an offense. Note that even if an applicant does not have a conviction or make a valid admission to a marijuana-related offense, he or she may be unable to meet the burden of proof to show that he or she has not committed such an offense.”

The underlying policy does provide an exception for “a single offense of simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana.”

An additional update to the policy manual stipulates that the exception “is also applicable to paraphernalia offenses involving controlled substances as long as the paraphernalia offense is ‘related to’ simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana.”

That detail wasn’t included in an earlier 2014 version of the USCIS policy manual.

The policy alert is similar to an update the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) issued in 2017 when the federal gun purchase application form was revised to include a warning that the “use or possession of marijuana remains unlawful under Federal law regardless of whether it has been legalized or decriminalized for medicinal or recreational purposes in the state where you reside” and therefore disqualifies applicants.

But the USCIS clarification also reflects a recent ratcheting up of anti-immigration policy moves under the Trump administration.

Jason Ortiz, vice president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, told Marijuana Moment that the new memo reflects a “callous and irrational decision” by the administration and “is a reminder that without comprehensive cannabis reform our communities of color will continue to be prosecuted and subject to deportation for activity that is legal for affluent communities around the country.”

“Proposals such as the STATES act which seek to simply ease the risk on business do not address these deeper issues related to federal prohibition,” he said. “Considering the devastating effects our war on drugs had on Latin America, immigration reform must be a necessary component of any comprehensive cannabis legalization policy.”

People Could Use Marijuana In Public Housing Under New Congressional Bill

This story has been updated to include comment from Neguse.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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USDA Clarifies That Farmers Can Import Hemp Seeds From Other Countries

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) clarified on Friday that hemp seeds can be imported into the U.S., and that the Justice Department no longer has a role in that process.

While USDA is still developing regulations for hemp cultivation under the 2018 Farm Bill, which federally legalized the crop and its derivatives, farmers can still obtain seeds in the meantime.

The agriculture legislation “removed hemp and hemp seeds from DEA authority for products containing THC levels not greater than 0.3 percent” and “DEA no longer has authority to require hemp seed permits for import purposes.”

“U.S. producers and hemp seed exporters have requested assistance from USDA to provide an avenue for hemp seed exports to the United States,” the department wrote in a bulletin. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates the importation of all seeds for planting to ensure safe agricultural trade. Under this authority, USDA is providing an alternative way for the safe importation of hemp seeds into the United States.”

Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) is among those who’ve requested assistance related to hemp importations. Earlier this month, he told Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue that the DEA was blocking Montana farmers from importing hemp seeds.

Perdue said during the hearing that the matter was “news to me” and explained that farmers can import and cultivate hemp under the research-focused provisions in the prior 2014 version of the legislation while the USDA worked to enact new regulations.

In a letter sent to the acting administrator of Customs and Border Protect (CBP) on Tuesday, Tester and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) raised the concern again, imploring CBP to update its policy to reflect that hemp seeds can be lawfully imported. The letter was obtained by the industry advocacy group Vote Hemp.

The USDA bulletin specified how the process works for imports from Canada and other countries.

Importation of Hemp Seed from Canada

“Hemp seeds can be imported into the United States from Canada if accompanied by either: 1) a phytosanitary certification from Canada’s national plant protection organization to verify the origin of the seed and confirm that no plant pests are detected; or 2) a Federal Seed Analysis Certificate (SAC, PPQ Form 925) for hemp seeds grown in Canada.”

Importation of Hemp Seed from Countries other than Canada

“Hemp seeds may be imported into the United States from countries other than Canada if accompanied by a phytosanitary certificate from the exporting country’s national plant protection organization to verify the origin of the seed and confirm that no plant pests are detected.

Hemp seed shipments may be inspected upon arrival at the first port of entry by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to ensure USDA regulations are met, including certification and freedom from plant pests.”

The rulemaking process for hemp may take some time, as Perdue said the department would not expedite the regulations and will be “taking this slow.” Once the USDA has a regulatory framework in place, it will begin approving state plans, and those states will be the primary regulators.

For the time being, however, there’s nothing stopping farmers from collecting certified hemp seeds. Not even the DEA.

Trump Agriculture Secretary Accepts Invitation To Tour Hemp Farms

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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