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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

Andrew Yang Wants To Legalize Psychedelic Mushrooms For Military Veterans

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Andrew Yang says he wants to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for military veterans to help them combat mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

During a town hall event at an Iowa college on Thursday, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate was asked whether he would take initiative and allow veterans to access medical marijuana if elected. Yang replied he “will be so excited to be that commander-in-chief” that he would not only end federal cannabis prohibition but would go one step further by legalizing the psychedelic fungus for veterans as well.

“We need to get marijuana off of the Controlled Substances Act and legalize it at the federal level, make it freely available,” he said. “I say this because I’ve talked to hundreds of veterans and other Americans who benefit from marijuana as a pain relief treatment, and it’s much less deadly than the opiates that many, many people are using for the same conditions.”

“I’ve talked to veterans who’ve also benefited from psilocybin mushrooms,” he added. “They said it was the only thing that actually has helped combat their PTSD. I’m for legalizing psilocybin mushrooms for veterans as well. Pretty much if it’s going to help a veteran, we should make it easier, not harder, for them to get access to it.”

Yang’s drug policy reform platform is unique in that respect. While the majority of Democratic candidates support marijuana legalization, he’s pushed unique proposals such as decriminalizing possession of opioids and making psilocybin mushrooms “more freely available” for therapeutic purposes. The candidate also wants to invest federal funds in safe injection facilities where individuals can use prohibited drugs in a medically supervised environment and receive help getting into treatment.

He hasn’t gone so far as embracing the decriminalization of all drugs, as former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg has, however.

That said, Yang did signal that he’s open to legalizing and regulating “certain drugs” beyond cannabis, which he argued would disrupt international drug cartels. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) recently said she backs “legalizing and regulating” currently illegal controlled substances to protect public safety and combat the illicit market.

At the Iowa town hall, Yang went on to say that he’s particularly interested in legalizing marijuana, and he again pledged to “pardon everyone who’s in jail for a non-violent marijuana-related offense because they shouldn’t be in jail for something that’s frankly legal in other parts of the country.”

“And I would pardon them all on April 20, 2021, high-five them on the way out of jail and be like, ‘things got a lot better in the last year,'” he said, referencing the unofficial cannabis holiday 4/20.

Tom Steyer Calls For Marijuana Legalization And Opioid Decriminalization

Photo element courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
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Tom Steyer Calls For Marijuana Legalization And Opioid Decriminalization

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Billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer is calling for the legalization of marijuana and decriminalization of opioid possession.

In a criminal justice reform plan released on Thursday, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate laid out a vision for ending the drug war, which he said has contributed to mass incarceration and is enforced in a racially disproportionate manner.

“Tom believes we must end the failed War on Drugs. Based on the flawed idea that incarceration is the answer to addiction, federal and state elected officials passed severe sentencing laws that encouraged incarceration for low-level drug offenses,” the plan states. “Unfortunately, communities of color were and continue to be disproportionately affected and targeted by these laws, even when other ethnicities were committing the same drug crimes at the same rates.”

There are six proposals in the drug war section, including legalizing cannabis and expunging prior marijuana convictions, ending mandatory minimum sentences and empowering judges to use more discretion in non-violent drug cases, diverting people convicted of drug offenses to treatment or drug court, ending the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, sealing the records of certain drug convictions and decriminalizing opioids while investing $75 billion in treatment programs and holding pharmaceutical companies accountable.

Steyer specifically endorsed House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler’s (D-NY) Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which would deschedule cannabis, expunge prior convictions and set aside tax revenue to support communities most impacted by the drug war.

“Policing marijuana use has led to too many unfair incarcerations and predominantly impacted communities of color,” the plan says. It also criticizes then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s 2018 move on “repealing leniency given to states for marijuana laws.”

“A Steyer Administration will also open equitable pathways to banking for marijuana businesses,” it continues. “The federal government—including the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation—should not be a barrier to marijuana businesses receiving support from their local banks.”

“Incarceration is not the answer to addiction, and low-level drug offenses should not carry a severe sentence. Tom will legalize marijuana, let states pass their own policies, expunge past records, and direct the federal government to open banking services to the marijuana industry. Tom’s administration will end the disparity between crack and cocaine sentences, decriminalize opioid possession, and invest $75 billion to address the opioid crisis.”

The opioid decriminalization proposal is similar to that of entrepreneur Andrew Yang, another 2020 candidate who said removing criminal penalties for possessing the substance is necessary in order to help get people into treatment and curb the opioid crisis. Former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) have gone further, calling for the decriminalization of all drug possession and, in Gabbard’s case, also the legalization and regulation of illicit drugs.

“Tom supports decriminalizing small amounts of opioid possession for personal use at the federal level,” the plan states. “He will address the opioid crisis through $75 billion in new funding over ten years to resource state and local treatment programs, hold big pharmaceutical corporations and their executives accountable, and strongly enforce laws that end the illicit distribution and sale of opioids.”

This is a notable development for Steyer, who hasn’t discussed drug policy reform as much as many other candidates in the race and whose views on decriminalization of substances beyond marijuana were previously unknown.

Last year, Steyer said he supported creating a national referendum process so that Americans can made decisions about a wide range of policy issues, including cannabis legalization.

He also previously discussed his support for ending marijuana prohibition and providing the industry with access to banking, saying that he and his wife wanted to provide financial services to minority- and women-owned cannabis firms through their community bank, but federal prohibition means the business would be put at risk if they did that.

Steyer’s new plan also calls for juvenile justice reform, ending cash bail, banning facial recognition technology in policing, demilitarizing law enforcement, improving prison conditions and eliminating the death penalty, among other reforms.

Wisconsin Governor Blasts Lawmakers For Not Legalizing Medical Marijuana Despite Public Support

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Austin City Council Approves Measure To End Most Marijuana Arrests

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The decision to back away from pursuing criminal charges against people with small amounts of pot comes after state lawmakers last year legalized hemp in a way that threw marijuana prosecution into chaos.

By , The Texas Tribune

The Austin City Council approved a resolution Thursday that will largely end arrests and fines for low-level marijuana possession. This comes after Texas’ legalization of hemp last June threw marijuana prosecution into chaos since the plants look and smell identical.

The resolution directing Austin police not to spend city resources on newly necessary lab tests to distinguish marijuana from now-legal hemp passed unanimously with nine votes. Council member Jimmy Flannigan and Mayor Steve Adler were absent. Debate on the measure lasted just under an hour and a half. Of about 20 people who spoke on the resolution, only Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday was against it.

The council’s resolution states that it stems directly from Texas’ new law legalizing hemp. Last summer, following a federal hemp bill, state lawmakers approved a measure to create an agricultural industry for the crop in Texas. But the law also complicated marijuana prosecutions by narrowing the legal definition of the drug from cannabis to cannabis that contains more than 0.3% THC, the psychoactive ingredient in the plant.

All of a sudden, some district attorneys were dropping hundreds of low-level pot possession cases and not accepting new ones, arguing they couldn’t tell without lab testing if something was marijuana anymore. New misdemeanor marijuana cases filed by Texas prosecutors have dropped by more than half. And numerous Texas prosecutors, including those in Austin’s Travis County, require police to submit lab reports on a substance’s THC concentration before they will pursue misdemeanor marijuana charges. They argue circumstantial evidence like smell can no longer be used to authoritatively say something is marijuana.

Part of what prompted the Austin resolution — which prohibits spending city funds on such testing except in felony cases — is that public state labs are still working on establishing a way to test for that THC concentration. Right now they can only tell if something is cannabis. For some counties and cities, that has meant putting more money into shipping seized cannabis to private labs that can tell if it’s hemp or marijuana.

Even in places where police don’t have or aren’t spending funds on such testing and new cases aren’t being accepted by prosecutors, people are still being cited or arrested. They are sometimes taken to jail but then released with no charges being pursued. Austin police said this month that they still arrest or cite people who are suspected of possessing marijuana.

This resolution changes that, directing the city to get as close as possible to eliminating enforcement action for low-level cannabis possession.

The measure prohibits spending city funds on testing in low-level possession cases, and it directs police not to arrest or cite people in such cases — unless there is a safety concern — if they know the district attorney will automatically reject the charges or testing won’t be approved. It clarifies that lab testing can be used for suspected felonies or when the cannabis is not for personal use, like trafficking cases. A revised version also specifies that the measure will not affect toxicology testing.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Texas Marijuana Prosecutions Have Dropped By More Than Half Following Hemp’s Legalization

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