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The American South is generally more conservative than much of the remainder of the US. Polls consistently show self-identified conservatives and Republicans as significantly less likely to support marijuana legalization than moderates, independents, liberals, or Democrats.1 It should come as no surprise, then, that the South is less supportive of legal marijuana than any other region of the country. The South is now the only region in the country without a single medical marijuana state.2 The current unprecedented wave of enthusiasm for reform, though, has recently spread to the South as well. This is undeniably a mainstream issue at this point, and Americans can expect to see more states follow the model of Colorado and Washington as early as this year.
Polling shows 62% support for decriminalizing low-level possession in the largely socially conservative southern state of Georgia. Support for medical marijuana in the same poll, strangely, is slightly lower, at 57%. A full 54%, however, supported legalization along similar lines to the situation in Colorado and Washington state.
A member of the Texas House of Representatives has promised to reintroduce for the fourth time a bill that would decriminalize simple possession of cannabis in the state. Such a reform has the support of an estimated 61 percent of Texas voters, with 58 percent supporting full legalization. As an index of the conservatism in Texas on social issues, not only are both gay marriage and gay civil unions prohibited, but the state far surpasses all other US states in executions, and ranks second in executions per capita. By contrast, 18 states plus the District of Columbia have abandoned the death penalty entirely.
The state’s governor, Rick Perry, made comments last month to the effect that although he does not support marijuana legalization, he had already implemented “policies that start us toward a decriminalization” as governor.
A bill is also under consideration in Georgia which would legalize the medicinal use of a non-intoxicating variety of the plant. This variety is high in a chemical called cannabidiol, or CBD, but very low in tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Without the THC, the substance is of little interest to recreational users, but still has some important medical applications such as preventing seizures. Similar measures are under consideration in Alabama, another one of the top 10 most conservative states, as well as in Florida.
Also in Florida, a referendum for this fall’s ballot was cleared last week by the state’s Supreme Court. Voters would be asked whether to approve “the medical use of marijuana for individuals with debilitating diseases as determined by a licensed Florida physician.” Support for reforms along these lines is estimated at 70 percent in the state.
Medical marijuana bills have recently been introduced in the state legislatures of Tennessee and West Virginia. In Gallup polls from last year, based on self-identification, both states narrowly missed the top 10 list of most conservative states, at 11th and 12th place, respectively.
The state of Louisiana convened a House committee meeting last month to discuss the possibility of legalizing medical marijuana. Currently there are no bills on the topic up for discussion. The state is considering one bill, however, that would decriminalize possession for personal use. This is particularly notable given recent polling data suggesting that 44% of the state identifies as “conservative,” with another 36% identifying as “very conservative.”3 It is also notable considering the state has some of the harshest marijuana laws in the country.
Louisiana voters do not seem to approve of this state of affairs. Recent polling shows that 59% “oppose the penalty of long prison terms for those convicted of the simple possession of marijuana,” while 56% support “a change in the law providing for a $100 fine without jail time for those who possess an ounce or less of marijuana.” Fifty-three percent said they would support “changing Louisiana law to regulate and tax marijuana, with stricter regulations than for alcohol,” while only 37% were opposed.
Like Louisiana, Oklahoma made it onto a recent list from Gallup of the top ten most conservative states in the US. Slightly over 47% of respondents identified themselves as conservative, as compared to 38% nationwide. However, 57% of Oklahoma voters in a recent poll supported decriminalizing minor marijuana offenses. A full 71% supported legalizing the medical use of marijuana in the state, where current laws allow for the possibility of life in prison for distributing the drug.
Neighboring Missouri is considered part of the Midwest rather than the South, but still more conservative than most. Bills dealing with legalization, decriminalization, and medical marijuana are being considered in the state legislature. A legalization ballot initiative is also being proposed for the fall, and an estimated 54% of Missourians would support such a move.
Polling in the midwestern state of Indiana shows 52% of voters supporting regulating marijuana like alcohol and tobacco. Strangely, there was dramatically higher support (78%) for the similar proposal of taxing marijuana like cigarettes. Perhaps this is an indication that current regulations on cigarettes are more popular than those on alcohol. Legislation is pending in the state to make possession of small quantities a class C infraction, a lesser offense than the misdemeanor in current law.
An Ohio poll from last year puts support for medical marijuana at 63% in the midwestern state. The Ohio Rights Group is hoping to put the issue before the voters in a ballot initiative this year. Ohio passed its particularly liberal decriminalization reform in 1975.
In Arizona, where a medical marijuana distribution system is already in place, recent polling shows 56% of respondents in support of removing criminal penalties for low-level marijuana possession. Arizona, according to the Gallup polls already mentioned, does not identify as significantly more conservative than the national average. However, Republicans hold the majority of seats in both houses in the legislature, and some of the state’s social policies are notably conservative. Gay marriage is not recognized in the state, and this is supported by a constitutional amendment which passed by referendum in 2008. The state also passed one of the nation’s most conservative immigration laws, SB 1070, in 2010.
Similar decriminalization legislation has been introduced in the small western state of Wyoming by Representative James Byrd (D-44). Although this would affect a smaller number of people given that Wyoming is the smallest state in the US, the move would still be meaningful in a state tied for second-most conservative state in the country.4
In more liberal states, marijuana reform continues to advance as well. This includes several East Coast states as well as several “blue” states in the Midwest.
Governor Andrew Cuomo of the solidly blue state of New York announced last month that he will issue an executive order allowing limited medical use of marijuana in the state. This comes after numerous attempts to make such reforms, which are overwhelmingly popular among New Yorkers, through the legislature. A bill to more thoroughly legalize the drug was introduced in the state legislature in December. Due to questionable behavior by the NYPD, New York City is currently notable for having a very high rate of arrests for marijuana possession, despite the state having ostensibly decriminalized the substance in 1977.
Another bill to legalize the cannabis industry has been introduced by a New Jersey state senator. Polls of voters in the state suggest this would be at least as popular in New Jersey as among the US population as a whole.
A legalization proposal has similarly been introduced to the legislature in Maryland, although the current governor states that he opposes such a move. A slight majority in the state supports legalizing cannabis for adults 21 and older. The state currently has a very limited medical marijuana law, which allows a legal defense for medical marijuana patients and caregivers, but does not actually establish a legal system of cultivation or distribution. Last year, the state considered a decriminalization measure regarding possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana, although it was ultimately not successful.
Oregon, the site of a failed legalization initiative in November 2012, is now again considering three similar measures, including SB 1556. The West Coast state was the first to decriminalize marijuana in 1973, and tied with Washington state for the position of second in passing an effective medical marijuana law in 1998.
A similar measure has been proposed as a referendum in neighboring Washington, DC for the fall of this year. Polling from January of this year shows 63% of respondents supporting legalizing small-scale possession, while a poll from last year showed the same percentage supporting legalization along similar lines as Colorado and Washington state. A less ambitious decriminalization proposal was recently unanimously approved by a city council panel.
A bill to set up a medical marijuana program is being considered in the midwestern state of Minnesota, where a decriminalization law was first passed in 1976. In the neighboring state of Wisconsin, a non-binding cannabis legalization measure will be considered by the residents of Dane County, the location of the state capitol Madison. A bill introduced last year would set up a regulated medical marijuana system in the state.
Another measure under consideration in the Illinois legislature would decriminalize not only possession but the “knowing manufacture, delivery, or possession with intent to deliver, or manufacture” of up to 10 grams of “any substance containing cannabis.” The bill goes even further in proposing that “the production or possession of not more than 5 cannabis sativa plants is a petty offense with a fine not exceeding $100,” and downgrades several other cannabis offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. Illinois’s legislature passed a bill to establish a medical marijuana program in the state last year, making it the 19th medical marijuana state.
A poll from January of last year shows majority support in Hawaii for legalization, and a bill along those lines was introduced last year, though it has yet to come up for a vote. A bill to decriminalize possession of up to 20 grams was also introduced last year, but it also failed to come up for a vote before the end of the session. Hawaii already has a medical marijuana program in effect. The island state is one of the most liberal in the nation according to how residents describe themselves, lagging behind only four or five other states and the solidly blue District of Columbia.
The Marijuana Policy Project, a prominent Washington, DC-based advocacy organization that supports a legally regulated market for the drug, has plans for legalization attempts in 10 states. These include not only West Coast and New England states, but also Arizona, Alaska, Texas, Delaware, Maryland, Montana, and Nevada. Mason Tvert with the MPP explains that “we’re confident that if it qualifies for the ballot, voters will very likely make Alaska the third state to end marijuana prohibition.” The measure has since qualified for the ballot, and one poll indicates 54 percent support.
Tvert also predicts that Rhode Island will become the first state to successfully legalize cannabis through its legislature, although the state’s current governor, Lincoln Chafee, seems to be opposed. The state already has a medical marijuana program in place, and last year a law went into effect making it latest state at the time to decriminalize personal possession.
On the federal level, then, when can we expect real reform? There are some positive signs from the administration, such as Obama’s recent admission that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer.” The president has also made vaguely positive statements about the recent reforms in Colorado and Washington state, saying “it’s important for it to go forward because it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished.”
President Obama, however, recently denied that his administration even has the authority to remove marijuana from its current position in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, the strictest classification under which drugs can be legally prohibited. This suggests he is not considering even moving it to Schedule II, a modest reform that would improve prospects for medical and scientific use of the drug but still classify it alongside cocaine and methamphetamine.
As for action by Congress, the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2013 was introduced last year, and was ranked as the most-viewed bill on Congress’s website, but has yet to come up for a vote.
It may be a question of reaching a critical mass of states with more sensible policies. It is hard to imagine from looking at the numbers, though, that critical mass has not already been reached. Clearly the issue has broad and growing support, both across states and across demographic groups. Currently, as Rob Kampia with the Marijuana Policy Project points out, a slight majority of Americans live in states which have deviated to some degree from federal cannabis prohibition. This includes not only Colorado and Washington, but the 21 jurisdictions with medical marijuana laws in effect, as well as the 14 states with decriminalization statutes on the books. Since there is overlap between these groups, they add up to only 28 jurisdictions, but this is still both a majority of states and the majority of the US population.
To break it down further, approximately 125 million Americans live in jurisdictions with effective medical marijuana laws, if we include New York and the borderline case of Maryland. This is about 40 percent of the total US population. About 130 million, or 41 percent of the population, live in decriminalized states, not counting Colorado and Washington. Including Colorado and Washington, where the substance was decriminalized before being legalized, brings this total closer to 45 percent.
Although there are clearly reforms in the works for this year, though, advocacy organizations such as the MPP are deliberately focusing much of their energy on 2016.5 This is based on the calculation that voters who show up to the polls in a presidential election year are more likely to belong to the demographics most supportive of legalization. This includes younger voters, about two thirds of whom are in favor, as well as African Americans and Hispanics. An estimated 70 percent of Latino voters in Colorado supported Amendment 64, the successful 2012 initiative to legalize marijuana in the state, compared to an overall yes vote of only 55 percent.
The MPP also plans to wait until 2015 to push legalization efforts in Vermont, one of the most liberal US states, where decriminalization and medicinal marijuana laws are already in effect. State senator David Zuckerman (P-Chittenden) has introduced a bill to that effect, but admits it is not likely to pass this year. The state’s governor, Pete Shumlin (D), though, is an open advocate for marijuana reform, who has been endorsed by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
Major activists have differing predictions on the prospects for wide-ranging reform. Judge Jim Gray, vice-presidential nominee for the Libertarian Party in 2012, suggests that “the prohibition of marijuana will be ended by the end of 2016.” Morgan Fox with the MPP predicts that “probably by the end of 2019, we sill see the end of federal marijuana prohibition,” although this may not make the drug legal in every state. Allen St. Pierre with NORML makes the more cautious prediction that “by mid-2024 or so, well over half the population base” will live in states with legal cannabis.
1. A majority of Republicans do, however, oppose any attempts by the federal government to impose federal law on states which have chosen an alternative course.
2. There are, however, two Southern states which have decriminalization laws in effect, dating from the first wave of marijuana reforms in the 1970s. In North Carolina and Mississippi, minor possession is punished by only a small fine, at least for first offenses.
3. In contrast to the Gallup polls, this poll did not include “moderate” as an option, which may explain the discrepancy between the two.
4. Another recent Gallup poll put Wyoming at the single most conservative state in the country.
5. Specifically, legalization target states for 2016 include Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Montana. Nevada will be a target for either 2015 or 2016.