Pubdate: Fri, 15 Mar 2013
Source: Austin Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2013 Austin Chronicle Corp.
Author: Jordan Smith


A Wave of Marijuana Laws Surges Toward a National Consensus

Three weeks ago, Allen St. Pierre ducked out of his Washington, D.C., 
office for a midday dentist appointment. For 22 years, St. Pierre has 
worked for the National Organ-ization for the Reform of Marijuana 
Laws, or NORML, the granddaddy of pot-law reform advocacy groups; he 
came on board in 1991 and rose through the ranks to become executive 
director  a job that in recent years has become increasingly busy. 
And since the historic November 2012 votes in Colorado and Washington 
state to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana for casual use by 
adults, things have been downright hectic.

As of this writing, marijuana legalization measures have been filed 
in seven states and in the U.S. Congress; overall, legislatures in 26 
states  including Texas  now have pending before them some type of 
marijuana-law reform measure(s).

With all the pot-law action, just finding the time to get to the 
dentist has become tricky  sitting in the dentist's office last 
month, St. Pierre fielded calls from reporters seeking comment on the 
news that Mary-land Democratic Delegate Curt Anderson had just filed 
a bill that would, as in Colorado and Washington, legalize marijuana 
for recreational use and have it regulated and taxed like alcohol. 
St. Pierre was caught off-guard: "Nobody knew [Anderson] was going to 
drop a bill to legalize in Maryland," he says. NORML staffers had 
very recently met with Anderson, a long-time supporter of medical 
marijuana and marijuana decriminalization, "and he never said a word 
about legalization."

The point, says St. Pierre, is that right now even advocates are 
having a hard time keeping up with the explosion of pro-marijuana 
reforms being considered across the country in the wake of the 
Colorado and Washington votes.

Ultimately, for the reformers it's an encouraging problem: In 
addition to the eight legalization measures currently pending, 10 
states are considering decriminalization legislation, and 12 are 
considering various medical marijuana measures.

Whether most of the currently filed measures pass in the short term, 
the sheer volume of bills and the strengthening sentiments behind 
them signal to drug-law reformers that the days of pot prohibition 
are seriously numbered.

Pot Goes Mainstream

Possibly the only reform advocate not surprised by the post-November 
pot-bill explosion is Rob Kampia. Kampia is a politically shrewd, 
libertarian-minded advocate who put in a short stint at NORML before 
breaking off with several others in 1995 to form the Marijuana Policy 
Project, which has become the most influential pot advocacy group in 
the country.

The group bankrolled the successful initiative in Colo-rado and has 
been the driving force behind medi-pot legalization in 18 states.

Indeed, Kampia says 2013 is looking a bit like 1997, the year after 
California passed the country's first medi-pot law. "When California 
was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, there was 
an explosion of activity in state legislatures on medical marijuana 
in 1997," he recalls. "I remember that vividly because I predicted it 
would happen and we were completely underfunded at the time. And 
that's an understatement  we were working out of my bedroom." Kampia 
went to donors after the California vote and told them an onslaught 
of bills was coming; he listed the states and asked for money.

He didn't get any  and all the bills failed, he recalls. "When they 
were introduced there was no real media coverage, no one was 
promoting [them], none of them passed. Everything died."

That was 16 years ago and Kampia  and his donors  have long since 
learned the lesson of that first go-round. "I already knew this was 
going to happen, so we were ready to go. If we were going to win in 
Colorado or Washington, we were ready for the juggernaut in the 
legislatures," he says. Now, he says, MPP's operation is a well-oiled 
machine; they draft many of the measures that lawmakers file, and 
they've learned how to lobby effectively, how to generate media 
coverage, and how to recruit and train good witnesses for committee 
hearings. And this year, he says, some of the dozens of filed bills 
"will actually get pretty good votes in committee." Patrick Kennedy

Take, for example, Maine, where Portland Democratic state Rep. Diane 
Russell has again filed legislation, co-authored by her Republican 
colleague, Rep. Aaron Libby, that would legalize possession by adults 
of up to 2.5 ounces of pot, or six plants, and would regulate and tax 
cultivation and sales.

The bill got out of committee last year, reported the Portland Press 
Herald, but was killed on the House floor. This time around, Kampia 
is confident the House will vote in favor of the measure  and then 
the bill will almost certainly die. There's been no lobbying for it 
in the Senate, and even if it does survive both chambers, it is 
unlikely the bill would be signed by the "ultra-conservative 
Republican governor," he says.

Still, he argues, the situation in Maine is a "win-win." "From our 
perspective, it's useful to work on a bill that we think is not going 
to pass, because we're able to raise the level of dialogue across the 
state, get our message into the news media, [and learn what people] 
like and what they don't like about the bill, which will help inform 
the ultimate" goal: Getting Maine's voters to pass a Colorado-style 
legalization initiative in 2016.

Maine is among as many as seven states  including Arizona, 
California, Massachu-setts, Montana, Oregon, and Nevada  where Kampia 
and others expect to see legalization measures on the ballot in 2016. 
(Kampia says it's likely that Alaska voters will go to the polls on 
pot even earlier, in a midterm initiative in 2014.) Legislator-backed 
reforms may ultimately pass in some states  perhaps Hawaii, where 
advocates say they expect pot will be legal by 2015, and perhaps 
Rhode Island, quite possibly the country's most progressive 
legislature when it comes to marijuana, says Tom Angell, chairman of 
Marijuana Majority. Rhode Island lawmakers have overridden vetoes of 
medical marijuana bills, last year decriminalized pot possession, and 
are now debating legalization. But in most places, for now, 
citizen-backed initiatives will generate most of the pot-law changes.

That's because, at least at present, lawmakers are still wary of 
sticking their necks out on an issue they perceive to be too 
sensitive politically, says Kampia. That's long been a problem for 
pot-law reformers, notes Angell, whose Marijuana Majority is 
dedicated to the notion that marijuana decriminalization and 
legalization are actually mainstream, majority-supported positions. 
That's a fact exemplified most recently in Colorado, where marijuana 
legalization "got more votes than President Obama did," Angell says. 
"That says a lot."

Still, Kampia says he doesn't mind being the one to come up with the 
language of the laws that would decriminalize, or legalize marijuana. 
"Ultimately, I think most legislators would prefer for us to deal 
with the problem, or the solution, so that they don't have to," he 
says. "I think they'd rather have a law on the books that they don't 
think is very good [than] stick their necks out on all this kind of 
stuff they worry about  stuff they shouldn't be worried about because 
marijuana is probably more popular than they are."

Indeed, voters in the presidential battleground state of Colorado 
went 51.5% for Barack Obama, 46.1% for Mitt Romney, and 55% for 
Amendment 64, which legalized marijuana.

That kind of support for pot-law reform is increasing across the 
country: In Washington, pot legalization Initiative 502 earned nearly 
56% of the vote, strongly outperforming the 51.5% for new Democratic 
Gov. Jay Inslee. In Massachusetts, pot decriminalization earned just 
over 63% of the vote in November, easily beating both GOP Sen. Scott 
Brown and his Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren, who won with 
just under 54%.

In Illinois, 63% of voters say they favor medical marijuana, nearly 
double the current approval numbers for Gov. Pat Quinn; in Maryland, 
63% of voters last year said they would favor legalizing medical 
marijuana, a full point more than voted for Obama in November. And in 
Indiana, just under 50% of voters cast ballots last year for 
Republican Gov. Mike Pence; a month later, 53% said they would vote 
in favor of decriminalizing marijuana. Rob Kampia

Austin Dem Rep. Elliott Naishtat says he believes the pattern holds 
in Texas, where polls have consistently shown strong support for 
medi-pot reform.

For the fifth time in as many sessions, Naishtat has filed a proposal 
that gently moves in that direction, offering seriously ill patients 
an affirmative defense against prosecution for marijuana possession. 
The bill last got a hearing in 2005, when it was heard by the House 
Criminal Jurisprudence Committee; since then it's been dumped in the 
Public Health Committee and languished without even a hearing.

Naishtat, ever the optimist, is confident that this year the bill 
will not only get a hearing, but will make it to the House floor.

Ultimately, he says, passing the measure is the right thing to do. 
"This is a very modest approach."

Skipping the Middleman

Of course, the growing popularity of these proposals doesn't mean the 
journey ahead is clear sailing.

Indeed, while there could be nearly a dozen states by the end of 2016 
that have legalized marijuana for use by adults, it remains illegal 
under federal law  regulated more strictly than cocaine or opium, and 
officially considered to be without any medicinal use whatsoever. Not 
surprisingly, there are plenty of folks who want to keep it that way. 
Chief among them, apparently, are eight former administrators of the 
Drug Enforcement Administration who have several times now written to 
the Obama administration in an attempt to sway the president and 
Department of Justice to reject legalization efforts.

The group's latest letter, sent to Attorney General Eric Holder on 
March 5, implored the feds to "nullify" the new Colorado and 
Washington laws. "If they don't act now, these laws will be fully 
implemented in a matter of months," signatory and former DEA 
Administrator Peter Bensinger told the Associated Press. "This is a 
no-brainer. It is outrageous that a lawsuit [seeking to rescind the 
laws] hasn't been filed in federal court yet."

While the old-guard DEA may be playing the same straightforward 
prohibition game that anti-pot crusaders have waged for more than 
seven decades, there is also a gang of newer "antis" that may prove 
more formidable opponents  at least in the short term. Chief among 
these reform foes is former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who has had 
his own share of substance abuse issues and run-ins with the law. 
Kennedy is one of the founders of the group Smart Approaches to 
Marijuana. SAM's approach to fighting legalization is not to advocate 
tough criminal justice policies, but to argue that reform presents a 
serious risk to "public health." Kennedy told MSNBC earlier this year 
that his group favors neither "lock 'em up [nor] light 'em up," but 
instead chooses a third way  promoting education and public health as 
an answer to drug use. This may sound moderate, says Angell, but 
really it's old wine in new bottles.

In the face of the renewed popularity of drug-law reform, opponents 
have simply chosen different rhetoric for the same old policies. 
"They've reevaluated and revamped their approach  not in terms of 
their policies, but in terms of how they're talking about it," Angell 
says. "They're doing the same thing, but talking about it 
differently. It's up to our movement to shed light on the disconnect 
between their rhetoric and their actions."

So far, the feds have had no response except to say that they're 
reviewing the laws in Colorado and Washington. In late November 2012, 
Kampia told us that MPP would like to see that review stretch 
throughout Obama's second term, giving the states a chance to enact 
their individual laws and offering the country a two-state pot 
legalization laboratory. Indeed, St. Pierre says that NORML and other 
advocates have been asked more than once by Obama's domestic team 
what their thoughts are on how to proceed. "Our advice to them, when 
they've asked, is two words: Do nothing," he says. "Zip. Zippo."

Thus far, that's exactly how things are going.

Responding to the former DEA administrators' latest letter, a Holder 
spokesperson told the AP only that the DOJ "is in the process of 
reviewing those initiatives."

How the feds will proceed next is anyone's guess.

But with three marijuana bills pending, and a fourth that would 
reauthorize farming of industrial hemp, pot's non-narcotic cousin, 
there's a good bet something will happen sooner rather than later.

To St. Pierre, the best bet is a proposed  but, to date, 
not-yet-filed measure that would create a commission to study 
marijuana legalization. This has happened before, most recently 
during the administration of President Richard Nixon, whose National 
Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse concluded in 1972 that the 
drug should be decriminalized. "[T]he criminal law is too harsh a 
tool to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage 
use," the commission, chaired by Pennsylvania Gov. Raymond Shafer, 
concluded. "It implies an overwhelming indictment of the behavior 
which we believe is not appropriate. The actual and potential harm of 
use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the 
criminal law into private behavior."

St. Pierre says he has no doubt any future commission would reach at 
least the same conclusions as those who have come before.

And offering Obama the commission route would essentially buy 
Colorado and Washington  and any other state readying for the 2016 
ballot - the time needed to make it that much more difficult to put 
the genie back into the bottle.

To Kampia, the time for tiptoeing around with commissions and studies 
is over. The best way for the feds to proceed, he said, is simply to 
take action to legalize marijuana.

He notes that the recommendations of the Shafer Commission were 
completely ignored  instead the feds have spent more than 40 years 
pursuing marijuana users in exactly the fashion the Commission said 
was unwarranted. "So let's just skip the middleman here," says 
Kampia, "and go right for legalization in Congress." (Indeed, Sen. 
Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, has said that there will be discussion of 
marijuana in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, even 
though no bills on the topic have yet been filed in the Senate, Kampia notes.)

Either way, says St. Pierre, time is on the side of reformers. "We're 
totally convinced that the science, and the will of the people, will prevail."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom