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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.

Politics

Colorado Governor Touts Marijuana Legalization’s Benefits

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After the 2012 election, which saw Colorado become the first state to legalize marijuana, Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) said he probably would have reversed the vote if he had a magic wand.

But with the perspective of a few years post-legalization, today he says he’d put that wand “back in the drawer.”

“I’m not quite there to say this is a great success, but the old system was awful,” Hickenlooper said at a forum hosted by the Economic Club of Chicago on Wednesday.

What’s more, “the things that we most feared—a spike in teenage consumption, a spike in overall consumption, people driving while high—we haven’t seen them,” he said.

“We had a little increase in teenage consumption, but then it went down. We do think that some of the teenage consumers are using it a little more frequently than they were five years ago before legalization. We have in many ways seen no demographic where there’s an increase in consumption, with one exception: senior citizens. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.”

Hickenlooper, who’s been floated as a potential 2020 presidential candidate, described the challenges his administration faced when Colorado voters approved an adult-use legalization measure. Elected officials and advisors were opposed to it, he said, and plus, “it’s no fun to be in conflict with federal law.”

But he pushed forward with implementation, recruiting the “smartest people” he could find to figure out the best approach to regulation and taxation. And Illinois, which recently elected pro-legalization J.B. Pritzker for governor, will likely be better off if they pursue reform because they can learn from the successes and failures of Colorado’s system, Hickenlooper said.

“Ultimately, I haven’t come to a final conclusion yet, but I think it’s looking like this is going to be—for all of the flaws and challenges we have—a better system than what we had. You guys are going to benefit, I think, having let us make a bunch of the mistakes and deal with it, I think you’re going to be able to have a much better system if indeed that is the direction that the state wants to go.”

Asked what advice he’d give to Pritzker if Illinois does elect to fully legalize cannabis, Hickenlooper offered three tips: 1) don’t overtax marijuana, or else the illicit marketplace will persist, 2) get data from law enforcement on the presence of cannabis metabolites in the blood after highway fatalities to establish “good baselines” for comparison and 3) set limits on THC concentrations in edibles.

“What they’re selling now, they tell me it’s 10-to-12 times more intense than what allegedly I smoked in high school,” Hickenlooper said, pausing before conceding, “I smoked pot in high school and I inhaled, but it was a fraction of the intensity of what these kids are getting now.”

Legal Marijuana Would Generate Hundreds Of Millions For Illinois, New Analysis Finds

Photo courtesy of YouTube/Economic Club of Chicago.

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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The DEA Just Got Scolded Over Its Marijuana Eradication Program

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The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) got a slap on the wrist from a federal watchdog agency over its management of a multi-million dollar marijuana eradication program.

In a report released on Wednesday, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) said the DEA had failed to adequately collect documentation from state and local law enforcement partners that received funds through the federal program. And that lapse could prevent the agency from being able to accurately assess “program performance.”

What’s more, the DEA “has not clearly documented all of its program goals or developed performance measures to assess progress toward those goals,” according to the report.

In other words, the agency expends about $17 million in funds to partners across the U.S. each year to help them get rid of illegal cannabis grows. That includes fully legal states like California, where enforcement efforts are generally limited to public lands—namely national forests. But due to inadequate record keeping, the DEA doesn’t really know if that money is serving its purpose.

To fix the problems, the GAO issued four recommendations:

1. The DEA Administrator should develop and implement a plan with specific actions and time frames to ensure that regional contractors are implementing DEA’s requirement for collecting documentation supporting participating agencies’ Domestic Cannabis Eradication And Suppression Program (DCE/SP) program expenditures in the intended manner.

2. The DEA Administrator should clarify DCE/SP guidance on the eradication and suppression activities that participating agencies are required to report, and communicate it to participating agencies and DEA officials responsible for implementing DCE/SP.

3. The DEA Administrator should clearly document all DCE/SP program goals.

4. The DEA Administrator should develop DCE/SP performance measures with baselines, targets, and linkage to program goals.

The DEA was able to review a draft of the GAO report ahead of its release and, in an October 17 letter, a Justice Department official said the agency concurred with all four of the recommendations and would take steps to address them.

You can listen to a podcast about the GAO report here:

Just because it’s the DEA’s program doesn’t mean it’s the only agency dropping the ball on marijuana eradication efforts. In April, a report from the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that agents weren’t adequately cleaning up public lands after cannabis busts, which can pose threats to humans, animals and the environment.

Feds Don’t Properly Clean Up After Marijuana Raids, Report Finds

Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.

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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Politics

Here’s How Much Legal Marijuana Supporters And Opponents Spent Per Vote In Last Week’s Election

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Political committees concerned with marijuana law reform in four states have waged an information war over the past year, first to qualify cannabis initiatives for the ballot, and then to support or oppose those measures in the lead-up to last week’s midterm elections. In total, over $12.9 million in cash and in-kind services was spent attempting to convince voters about these marijuana ballot measures.

Now that voters have had their say, Marijuana Moment decided to calculate how much each “yes” and “no” vote cost the committees on either side of the debate. Our calculations are based on dollars raised and disclosed before the election, since final totals of actual expenditures won’t be available until December or January reports required in the states that voted on cannabis.

Michigan

In Michigan, where voters approved marijuana legalization, our calculations show that the two anti-legalization committees spent about $1.28 per “no” vote, as they raised $2.37 million for the 1.85 million votes against the measure. The proponents spent 19 percent more per vote, or $1.52 for each of 2.35 million “yes” votes.

Missouri

In Missouri, three separate medical cannabis initiatives competed in the run-up to Election Day, resulting in the highest funding levels of the four states we looked at. There, committees raised a total of $5.4 million dollars to influence voters. Across all the committees, the average cost per “yes” vote was $1.82.

Amendment 3, which was supported by Find the Cures PAC, spent $2.91 for each of its 747,977 votes. Proposition C, supported by Missourians for Patient Care, spent $1.44 for each of its 1.03 million votes. New Approach Missouri, which supported winning Amendment 2, which garnered the support of 1.57 million voters, spent the least, at $1.10 per vote. Only Amendment 2 received a majority and was approved.

Given that there were three competing measures on the ballot, vote costs cannot be parsed in the same binary “yes” or “no” on marijuana reform that is possible for initiatives in the other states. A “no” vote for one measure in Missouri was often paired with a “yes” vote for another.

North Dakota

In North Dakota, there were many fewer votes cast on the state’s marijuana legalization initiative as compared to cannabis measure elsewhere, a total of 324,550. The two committees that opposed Measure 3 heavily outspent the pro-reform committees, to the tune of $629,648 to $94,308. With 131,585 people voting for the initiative, the cost per “yes” vote was 72 cents. On the opposing side, winning came at a high price: Each “no” vote cost four and a half times as much, or $3.26, the most costly per-vote expense on a marijuana ballot measure in the nation this year.

Utah

In Utah, a relatively state where proponents of medical cannabis measure Proposition 2 were narrowly outspent by opponents, the cost per vote was higher. Votes are still being counted more than a week after Election Day, but preliminary vote totals show opponents spent $908,464, or $1.99 for each of the 455,879 votes against the initiative. The prevailing “yes” committees spent $831,471 for 493,060 votes, or $1.69 each. About 8 percent of precincts are yet to be counted, so both of these figures will decrease as more votes are added to both the support and opposition tallies.

Overall in the three states that had a straight up-or-down vote (Michigan, Utah and North Dakota), the average cost per “no” vote was slightly more than each “yes” vote, with prohibitionist committees spending an average of $1.56 for each “no” vote, versus $1.51 spent on average for each “yes” votes. It should be noted that those costs include millions of dollars in in-kind services. In Michigan, for example, The Coalition to Regulate Cannabis like Alcohol reported $706,900 in in-kind services, or 23 percent of their total fundraising.

Looked at another way, the average per state cost (rather than total votes average) for “yes” votes was $1.31 while “no” votes cost 67 percent more: $2.18. And with the total number of “yes” votes in those states outnumbering “no” votes by 19 percent, it would seem that in the state-by-state marijuana legalization battle, you don’t always get what you pay for.

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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