As we begin this new year, which looks wonderfully promising for the adoption of marijuana legalization by more and more states, we need to begin to focus on some of the more subtle areas of legalization policy. We must insist that these new laws do more than stop the arrest of smokers; we must insist that they treat marijuana smokers fairly.
Here are my resolutions for the New Year.
1. We must double-back to those states that have legalized marijuana, to fix the child custody and employment issues. This is essential as we continue to move towards a public policy that treats responsible marijuana smokers fairly.
No parent should be presumed to be an unfit parent simply because he/she smokes marijuana. Before challenging the parents’ right to maintain custody of their minor children, the state child welfare agency must be required to have evidence of actual child abuse or neglect, not the mere us of marijuana, regardless of marijuana’s legal status in a state.
These child custody cases continue to arise far too frequently, and in most states today, the child welfare agency unfairly treats all marijuana-smoking parents as if their use of marijuana were presumptive evidence they are unfit parents. If a nosy neighbor complains about the smell of marijuana smoke, for example, the parents are required to have a humiliating home inspection (the presumption being that marijuana smokers are likely to have a filthy house, unfit for children); and to take (and pay for) essentially useless parenting and drug education courses; and to promise never to smoke marijuana in front of the minor children.
It is past time for the child welfare agencies throughout the country to ignore the use of marijuana by parents of minor children, unless there is evidence of abuse or neglect.
And the same is true for an individual marijuana smoker’s employment rights. No employer should be allowed to fire an employee for testing positive for THC, without a showing that the individual came to work in an impaired condition.
Marijuana smoking causes a degree of impairment for approximately 90-minutes after use, but today an employee can be fired for having THC in their system, even if they smoked the marijuana days earlier. And it happens to thousands of marijuana smokers each year, people who are good, hard-working, talented workers, who would never show-up for work in an impaired condition.
This is clearly unfair job discrimination against those who smoke marijuana, by any rational definition of discrimination. It’s time for legislation to fix this problem in all states, but especially in those that have legalized medical or recreational use.
2. Let’s find a way to legalize marijuana lounges in the states that have legalized marijuana smoking. Marijuana smoking is a social activity, and there is absolutely no valid reason to deny marijuana smokers the right to congregate and enjoy their favorite herb in a social setting. We should not be limited only to smoking in our homes.
During 2015, an effort to license certain bars in Denver, CO, to permit marijuana smoking in areas where tobacco smoking is permitted, was circulated as a municipal voter initiative, before being mysteriously withdrawn by the sponsors only a day before it was to be certified for the ballot. No public explanation was ever provided for the strange turn of events, but it is now time for supporters to renew the effort for marijuana lounges, in Denver and in the other states that have legalized marijuana.
Only Alaska has begun to move in the direction of allowing marijuana smoking in venues outside the home. In late 2015, Alaska’s Marijuana Control Board changed the definition of the term “in public” to allow marijuana use at certain marijuana retail stores (which are not yet up and running, but should be shortly). The board also voted to table a proposal to ban marijuana clubs in the state, and if this initial step to allow smoking in retail marijuana stores works as intended, marijuana lounges would seem like the next logical step.
As this trend moves forward, we need to decide whether we prefer marijuana-only lounges, or marijuana smoking to be permitted at selected bars. It would be instructive if different jurisdictions tried different models, providing us some guidance as we move forward.
3. Let’s win full legalization this year in states that are NOT on the west coast, including the possibility of Maine, MA, and MI.
Marijuana legalization is a policy that makes sense for smokers and non-smokers alike, and it should not be limited only to specific sections of the country. But the reality is most progressive trends in this country start on the west coast, then surface on the east coast, before being accepted in the Midwest, and finally in the south.
True to form, to date, our full-legalization victories have all come in west coast states. Now it is time to make our mark in the east. The Midwest and the south are important, but legal change in those states will generally take longer. They are next, and will benefit from any victories we achieve this year on the east coast.
Winning legalization in at least a couple of east coast states by voter initiative in 2016 must be a high priority.
4. Let’s find a way to pass a full legalization bill through a state legislature; it’s important in the 26 states that do not offer a voter initiative. The first state is always the most difficult, and a legislative win would embolden supportive state legislators all across the country.
We all understand that most elected officials are cautious when it comes to supporting potentially controversial issues, fearing taking a stand might cost them votes at the next election. That is why the marijuana legalization movement has initially focused on moving forward in states that offer a voter initiative to get around a balky state legislature.
But only 24 states offer that option, which means we are unable to move legalization forward in half the country, until we can gather majority support in a state’s legislature.
We are getting closer; eight states considered full legalization via their legislatures during 2015, but none have yet succeeded. Let’s make a special effort to win in one of these states during 2016, opening up the possibility of full legalization in the rest of the country.
5. Let’s encourage more mainstream, middle-class marijuana smokers to come out of the closet, to overcome the remaining negative stereotypes many of our friends and neighbors still hold.
I am frequently reminded that many non-smoking Americans (approximately 86% of the population) continue to have a negative impression of recreational marijuana smokers, the result of decades of “reefer madness” propaganda from the federal government. In a 2015 national poll by Third Way, a DC think-tank, while a majority of the respondents nationwide supported full marijuana legalization, when asked whether they had a favorable or unfavorable impression of recreational marijuana smokers, only 36% viewed smokers favorably; 54% held an unfavorable impression of smokers.
Apparently the “stoner stupid” stereotype, which we smokers have largely learned to laugh at, has nonetheless had an impact on the attitudes of far too many non-smokers.
The best and quickest way to overcome that negative impression is for more mainstream marijuana smokers to come out of the closet and demonstrate that responsible marijuana smokers are just ordinary Americans, who work hard, raise families, pay taxes, and contribute to their communities in a positive fashion; but who prefer to smoke a joint when they relax at the end of the day, just as tens of millions of Americans enjoy a beer or a glass of wine at the end of the day. So if you are a marijuana smoker, and you are still in the closet, it’s time to consider “coming out” to your friends and neighbors and co-workers.
We must overcome those remaining stereotypes if we are serious about treating responsible marijuana smokers fairly in this country.
6. And finally, let’s get the banking and 280E issues fixed under federal law, so legal marijuana businesses can operate as other legal businesses do.
Currently provisions in federal law intended to criminalize money laundering and other nefarious activities make it impossible for state-compliant legal marijuana businesses to operate in a responsible manner. They cannot have a bank account; cannot accept credit cards; and cannot deduct many business-related expenses from their income, when reporting their federal income taxes.
No one with a wit of intelligence believes we should be requiring (or allowing) the multi-billion dollar legal marijuana industry to operate as a cash-only business. It encourages crime, corruption, underreporting of income, and is simply unfair to those businesses trying in good faith to operate in full compliance with relevant state laws and regulations.
There are bills pending in Congress that would fix these problems, and it’s time those proposals were enacted into law by Congress. NORML is a consumer lobby, and we will leave to the industry lobby the principal burden of moving these proposals forward. But it is in the best interests of consumers, as well as the industry, that the legal marijuana industry be regulated fairly, like other legal businesses.