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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

Four Governors Talk Marijuana Reform During Major Speeches In A Single Day

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Governors in at least four states talked about their goals for marijuana reform during separate speeches on Tuesday.

The day kicked off with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) offering details on planned cannabis legalization legislation in a State of the State speech outlining his annual budget proposal.

“Legalize adult-use cannabis,” Cuomo, who previously called marijuana a “gateway drug,” said. “Stop the disproportionate impact on communities of color and let’s create an industry that empowers the poor communities that paid the price and not the rich corporations who come in to make a profit.”

His plan involves imposing a 20 percent state tax and 2 percent county tax on cannabis transfers from wholesalers to retailers. The plan would also tax cultivators $1 per gram on dry flower and a $0.25 per gram on trim.

Across the border, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) dedicated a significant portion of his State of the State address to marijuana policy.

The governor started by touting medical cannabis expansion in the state, which has “given more of our veterans have access to medical marijuana to treat their [post-traumatic stress disorder] so they can get their lives back, and go to work or school.” He then pivoted to the broader benefits of full legalization.

“By legalizing adult-use marijuana—first and foremost—we can reverse the inequality and unfairness left from years of failed drug policies and shift public safety resources to where they can do the most good,” Murphy said. “We must ensure that those with a past mark on their records because of a low-level offense can have that stain removed, so they can move forward to get a stable job or an education.”

Legal marijuana “will also allow us to broadly benefit from creating an entirely new and legal industry, much as we did last year with sports betting,” he said. “We are learning from the states that went before us on what not to do, but we are also seeing the positive economic impacts.”

“Massachusetts’ new industry is creating an estimated 19,000 new jobs. And, in Colorado, legalization fostered an industry that has an annual statewide economic impact measured at $2.4 billion, with 18,000 new jobs created in research, agriculture, processing, and retail. We can do that here, and in a smart way that ensures fairness and equity for minority-owned businesses and minority communities.”

In New Mexico, newly sworn-in Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) reiterated her pledge to make opioid addiction a qualifying condition for medical cannabis in the state.

She said she will “direct my Health Department to adopt the longstanding recommendation from the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board” to add the condition as a means to reduce opioid abuse.

And in Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) talked about his recently launched Marijuana Justice Initiative, which allows individuals with a simple possession marijuana conviction going back to 1998 to apply for an expedited pardon. An estimated 3,500 Washington residents qualify for a pardon under the program.

“We are going to write an even brighter chapter of our Washington story,” Inslee said during his State of the State address. “We’re the state offering to pardon thousands of people with misdemeanor marijuana convictions.”

If there were any questions about whether marijuana was going to be a hot political topic in 2019, these and a flurry of other recent speeches from governors across the country should put those doubts to rest.

Besides the four who spoke about marijuana in major addresses on Tuesday, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) again committed to fully legalizing cannabis during his inaugural address on Monday. And last week, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) said in his State of the State speech that the lack of action on medical cannabis was “hurting” patients, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) advocated for decriminalization in his State of the Commonwealth address and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) touted hemp and legal marijuana during his State of the State address.

Illinois Governor Pledges To Legalize Marijuana In Inaugural Address

Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.

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Trump Attorney General Nominee Won’t Go After Legal Marijuana Businesses And Urges Congress To Act

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At his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, attorney general nominee William Barr said he would not go after marijuana companies that have operated in compliance with earlier Justice Department guidance that was rescinded last year by his predecessor, Jeff Sessions.

He also encouraged Congress to address the conflict between federal and state cannabis policies.

“My approach to this would be not to upset settled expectations and the reliant interests that have arisen as a result of the Cole memorandum,” Barr said, referring to a memo on federal marijuana enforcement priorities that Sessions revoked in early 2018. “However, I think the current situation is untenable and really has to be addressed. It’s almost like a backdoor nullification of federal law.”

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) asked Barr what he would do to address the issue and whether he felt it was “appropriate to use federal resources to target marijuana businesses that are in compliance with state law.”

“I’m not going to go after companies that have relied on Cole memorandum,” Barr replied. “However, we either should have a federal law that prohibits marijuana everywhere, which I would support myself because I think it’s a mistake to back off marijuana. However, if we want a federal approach—if we want states to have their own laws—then let’s get there and get there in the right way.

Booker, who has sponsored a bill to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and penalize states where marijuana enforcement is disproportionate, said he was glad to hear Barr’s comment on not taking action against state-legal marijuana businesses.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) also pressed Barr about his stance on federal marijuana enforcement. She asked whether the nominee intended to use the limited federal funds at his disposal to go after cannabis businesses in compliance with state law.

“No, I thought I answered that by saying that to the extent that people are complying with the state laws—distribution and production and so forth—we’re not going to go after that,” Barr said. That said, “I think it’s incumbent on the Congress to make a decision as to whether we’re going to have a federal system or whether it’s going to be essential federal law. This is breeding disrespect for the federal law.”

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), who has sponsored broad marijuana reform legislation that last year earned an endorsement from President Trump, said he is “encouraged” by Barr’s statements.

Michael Collins, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment that “Barr’s comments on not going after state-legal marijuana are a welcome development, and a break with his predecessor.”

“He should now commit his department to working with Congress on a solution to the state vs. federal conflict, so that we can reform our outdated marijuana laws in a way that is consistent with racial justice values,” Collins said.

Other advocates saw the comments as positive, though one noted that Barr seems to personally opposed marijuana law reform even while he indicated he wouldn’t interfere with the implementation of state laws.

“While it is encouraging that William Barr committed to not enforce federal prohibition, his insistence that he believes in the policy of prohibition is a clear signal that the Department of Justice will continue to be led by an individual who refuses to acknowledge the successful implementation of reforms in states throughout the nation,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment.

Strekal said Barr’s pledge not to interfere in state-legal marijuana activities gives Congress “a clear mandate to take action and end the underlying policy of federal criminalization.”

Don Murphy, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that Barr’s newly stated stance effectively “green lights the marijuana industry” in spite of concerns reform advocates expressed about the Trump administration after the 2016 presidential election. He said the exchange represented a “big win for marijuana policy reformers.”

“Senator Booker delivered for advocates and AG nominee Barr delivered for the industry.”

Also at the hearing, Booker questioned the nominee’s broader views on mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Barr defended his earlier call for increased incarceration in the 1990s, saying it was made in the context of historically high crime rates and was directed at chronic, violent offenders.

But he also agreed to commission a Justice Department study about racial disparities in the criminal justice system and recognized that harsh penalties for non-violent drug crimes have specifically “harmed the black community—the incarceration rate on the black community.”

Harris also challenged Barr to “take a look at the more recent perspective on the drug crisis that is afflicting our country.”

She said there’s “now an understanding that the war on drugs was an abject failure, that America frankly has a crisis of addiction and that putting the limited resources of our federal government into up locking people who suffer from a public health crisis is probably not the smartest use of taxpayer dollars.”

One of the last senators to question Barr during the first round, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), also brought up cannabis. He asked whether it was fair to characterize the nominee’s statements as essentially imploring Congress to settle the issue, regardless of where he personally stands on marijuana policy.

“That’s generally fair, yes,” Barr said.

This story has been updated to include additional comments from Barr, Booker, Gardner, Harris and Tillis, as well as marijuana policy reform advocates.

Where Trump’s Pick For Attorney General Stands On Drug Policy

Photo courtesy of The Washington Post/YouTube.

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New York Gov. Cuomo Releases Marijuana Legalization Details

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who only recently flipped from calling marijuana a “gateway drug” to endorsing its legalization, released details on Tuesday that shed light on exactly how he wants to end cannabis prohibition in 2019.

“Legalize adult-use cannabis,” Cuomo said in his State of the State speech. “Stop the disproportionate impact on communities of color and let’s create an industry that empowers the poor communities that paid the price and not the rich corporations who come in to make a profit.”

Under the plan, which the governor is including in his annual budget request to lawmakers, marijuana would be legal for adults over the age of 21.

Cuomo is proposing a 20 percent state tax and 2 percent county tax on marijuana transfers from wholesalers to retailers, in addition to a $1 per gram tax on dry flower for cultivators, along with a $0.25 per gram tax on trim.

The governor said that legalization “will create the good union jobs that we need.”

His administration estimates that the move will eventually generate roughly $300 million in annual tax revenue, though counties and large cities would be allowed to opt out of legal sales—something that could potentially impact revenue.

Speaking of revenue, funds would be earmarked for a state traffic safety committee, small business development, substance abuse services and other programs.

The proposal would create a new Office of Cannabis Management to regulate the marijuana industry and would prohibit cultivation license holders from also operating retail outlets.

The plan would also create a process to review and seal prior marijuana conviction records.

The governor is proposing to ban home cultivation of marijuana by recreational consumers, though the plan would allow medical cannabis patients and their caregivers to grow their own medicine.

Cuomo formally endorsed legalizing cannabis for the first time in a December speech in which he laid out his priorities for New York’s 2019 legislative session. It was the culmination of his evolution on cannabis issues over the course of the past year or so.

Earlier, in August, during the course of a contentious primary race with the pro-legalization actress Cynthia Nixon, the governor formed a working group to draft a legalization bill after a state Department of Health report, which he commissioned, found that the benefits of legal cannabis outweigh its potential consequences.

Earlier this month, Cuomo reiterated the promise to enact legalization during his inaugural address at the start of his third term as governor.

The prospects for legalization are believed to have gotten a significant boost from the fact that Democrats took control of the state Senate in November’s midterm elections after years of being in the minority.

Senate Republicans, for their part, seem poised to accept the fact that legalization is on the way and are taking steps to focus their efforts on arguing how cannabis tax revenue is earmarked rather than trying to oppose the end of prohibition.

“If New York State legalizes marijuana, we will propose that all tax revenues from marijuana sales go to tax relief – not to fuel more spending,” the caucus wrote in a budget document of their own on Tuesday.

The Cuomo administration, for its part, released several lengthy documents outlining the governor’s marijuana proposal.

See below for excerpts of explanatory documents from the governor’s office:

“Enact the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act. The Executive Budget proposes to regulate and control the manufacture, wholesale, and retail production, distribution, transportation, and sale of cannabis, cannabis related products, medical cannabis, and hemp cannabis within the State of New York, for the purposes of fostering and promoting temperance in their consumption, to properly protect the public health, safety, and welfare, and to promote social equality.

“This bill would impose three taxes on the adult-use of marijuana. The first tax is imposed on the cultivation of cannabis at the rate of $1 per dry weight gram of cannabis flower and $0.25 per dry weight gram of cannabis trim. The second tax is imposed on the sale by a wholesaler to a retail dispensary at the rate of 20 percent of the invoice price. The third tax is imposed on the same sale by a wholesaler to a retail dispensary at the rate of 2 percent of the invoice price, but collected in trust for and on account of the county in which the retail dispensary is located.

“Revenues from the State cannabis taxes will be expended for the following purposes: administration of the regulated cannabis program, data gathering, monitoring and reporting, the governor’s traffic safety committee, small business development and loans, substance abuse, harm reduction and mental health treatment and prevention, public health education and intervention, research on cannabis uses and applications, program evaluation and improvements, and any other identified purpose recommended by the director of the Office of Cannabis Management and approved by the Director of the Budget.”

New York Marijuana Plan by on Scribd

More New York Marijuana Plan by on Scribd

The full legislative language is available here.

Illinois Governor Pledges To Legalize Marijuana In Inaugural Address

Photo elements courtesy of Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Carlos Gracia.

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