The end of the year is a natural time to review our progress advancing legalization over the past 12 months, and to look ahead to what we hope to achieve in the coming year.
Compared to our recent dramatic electoral victories in 2012 and again in 2014, 2015 was a slow year. We made some modest gains, but nothing dramatic.
During the current phase of legalization, when our victories primarily come by way of voter initiatives, we have become accustomed to expecting more progress in election years, especially presidential election years when the youth vote is highest, than in non-election years. Those basic rules still apply.
But even with that caveat, 2015 moved us forward and positioned us well for 2016.
Public Support Remains Strong
We are legalizing marijuana because we finally enjoy the support of a majority of the American public, both smokers and non-smokers alike. And that majority support, which first began to register in the national polls three years ago, is holding firm.
National polling in the past year by Gallup (58% support), PEW (53%), CBS (53%), Morning Consult (55%), Fox (51%), General Social Survey (52%) and Beyond The Beltway (61%) have all demonstrated marijuana legalization continues to have the support of a majority of the nation.
As the authors of the latest Gallup Poll concluded: “These trends suggest that state and local governments may come under increasing pressure to ease restrictions on marijuana use, if not go even further like the states of Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Alaska in making recreational marijuana use completely legal.”
So the foundation for continued progress remains in place, and appears to be growing: most Americans have concluded that marijuana prohibition is a failed public policy.
Some Statewide Progress
The one most significant statewide victory during 2015 came in Delaware, where the state legislature decriminalized minor marijuana offenses ($100 civil fine for possession of up to one ounce), the 19th state in the country to stop arresting marijuana smokers. The new law became effective on Dec. 18th.
And in Oregon, where the state legalized marijuana in 2014, the legislature became the first of the legalized states to take steps to minimize the impact of prior marijuana convictions, imposed under the old law. Democrat Gov. Kate Brown signed legislation in June allowing those with past marijuana possession convictions to have their criminal records expunged, if those offenses are no longer illegal. That’s an area that each legalization state needs to revisit and address.
In a somewhat unexpected development, the state of Louisiana, traditionally one of the harshest states in the country for marijuana offenses, took significant steps to mitigate penalties for repeat marijuana offenders—defendants who, in the past, faced up to two decades in prison. Under the new law, second-time possession offenders face a maximum sentence of six months in jail (reduced from five years); and third-time offenders see their potential maximum sentences reduced from 20 years to no more than two. The new law also permits these possession offenders to have their records expunged if they remain arrest-free for two years. It is surely only incremental change, but in Louisiana, it represents real progress.
Much of the progress made in 2015 came at the municipal level. In East Lansing, MI 65% of the voters approved a local ordinance eliminating penalties for the possession or transfer of up to one ounce of marijuana on private property. Lansing is the seventeenth Michigan city to approve an initiative de-penalizing minor offenses.
In Milwaukee, WI, members of the City Council reduced penalties for marijuana possession (up to 25 grams) to a fine of no more than $50.00. Nine of the state’s 10 largest cities have now adopted decriminalization ordinances.
And in Miami-Dade County, FL, Commissioners in Florida’s largest county approved an ordinance that permits police to cite rather than arrest minor marijuana offenders (up to 20 grams), with a civil fine of $100. Previously misdemeanor marijuana arrests accounted for 10 percent of all cases filed in the Miami-Dade County criminal court system.
Marijuana Arrests Drop in Several Major Cities
And marijuana possession arrests dropped dramatically in several big cities during 2015. In the District of Columbia, marijuana arrests fell roughly 99%, from nearly 900 arrests in 2014 to less than 10 arrests in 2015.
In Philadelphia, where marijuana was decriminalized by municipal ordinance in 2014, marijuana arrests for simple possession dropped from 3,700 in 2014 to just over 1,000 in 2015, a drop of 73%.
And in New York City, where more than 30,000 New Yorkers were arrested on marijuana charges in 2014, marijuana arrests fell 40%, to less than 19,000 in 2015. Still far too many, but a substantial step in the right direction.
The Bad News in 2015
The most obvious political disappointment in 2015 was the ill-fated legalization initiative (Issue 3) in Ohio. Brought in a non-election year (assuring a low youth vote turnout) and drafted to enrich the investors who put-up the $23 million spent in the campaign, Issue 3 was met with widespread opposition, even among many who support the legalization of marijuana. The proposal won the approval of only 35% of the voters, making it likely that Ohioans will continue to face arrest and jail for several more years.
Another disappointment was the failure of the legislature in IL to override the veto by Governor Bruce Rauner of a decriminalization bill approved by the legislature earlier in the year. The proposal would have reduced penalties for possession of up to 15 grams of marijuana to a $125 civil fine. Police in IL arrest some 50,000 individuals annually for simple marijuana possession. In Chicago, 95% of those arrested for marijuana possession are either Black or Hispanic.
Nationwide, decriminalization proposals were introduced, but failed to be approved by the legislatures, in HI, KY, NE, NH, SC, TX and VA.
Full legalization proposals were introduced, but failed to be approved by the legislatures, in CT, FL, HI, MD, ME, MO, NM, RI and VT.
Looking Forward to 2016
As we look ahead to 2016, the best news for those who support marijuana legalization is the agreement reached by most of the major players in the nation-state of California to coalesce behind one legalization initiative. California is the big prize, and a win there will add significant momentum to the legalization movement nationwide.
Most of us presumed California would be the first state to fully legalize marijuana, as it has historically been the breeding ground for progressive marijuana policy. But in the recent past, the sheer size of the state has resulted in several competing proposals being advanced, with marijuana remaining illegal in the Golden State. The same possibility loomed large for 2016 as well, with several differing versions of legalization being circulated by different interest groups, and no assurance that anyone would be willing to compromise.
With crucial leadership provided by current Democratic Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, a consensus has now formed around a single proposal, the Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act, and it now appears California voters will likely approve legalization in November of 2016.
Other states that appear poised to approve full legalization via voter initiatives in 2016 include Arizona, Massachusetts, Maine, and Nevada. Needless to say, were all five states to approve full legalization, 2016 would truly be a break-out year, and would set the stage for several additional states to adopt legalization in 2018. But even if we fail to win them all, it promises to be a banner year for legalization around the country.
And it is possible that 2016 may give us our first state legislative approval of full legalization. A breakthrough in this area would be especially important for those 26 states that do not offer a voter initiative option. The states that appear most likely to take this step in 2016 include the three northeastern states of Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
So as we look forward to the new year, those of us who smoke marijuana, and all who support marijuana legalization, can anticipate a string of victories that should catapult the movement well past the political tipping point in America. Our momentum continues to grow with each election cycle
We are finally winning this long fight to stop the senseless arrest of responsible marijuana smokers, and establish a legally regulated market where consumers can obtain their marijuana. As we prepare for 2016, the smell of personal freedom is in the air.
This column first appeared on Marijuana.com.