The Vermont House of Representatives Friday approved a bill that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. The bill passed on a vote of 98-44.
[image:1 align:left]The bill now moves to the Senate. It is supported by state Attorney General William Sorrell and Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn, both of whom testified for it in the House. Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) has also expressed support for decriminalization.
Introduced by Rep. Christopher Pearson (P-Burlington) with a tri-partisan group of 38 cosponsors, House Bill 200 would decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of pot, making it only a ticketable offense, like a traffic citation. Minors under 21 would additionally have to undergo substance abuse screening.
Under current Vermont law, possession of up to two ounces is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail, and up to two years in jail if it's not a first offense.
"Vermont is another step closer to adopting a more sensible approach to marijuana policy," said Matt Simon, a legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project. "The support demonstrated by members of the House reflects that of the state's top law enforcement officials and the voters."
Marijuana is decriminalized in 17 states, including Vermont's neighbors, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, and New York.
At the California Democratic Party convention in Sacramento Saturday, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom called for marijuana legalization and described the war on drugs as "an abject failure." (Watch the speech here.)
[image:1 align:right caption:true]The famously well-coiffed former San Francisco mayor is one of the key contenders for the Democratic Party gubernatorial nomination in 2014 -- if Gov. Jerry Brown (D) decides not to run again. The other leading contender is state Attorney General Kamala Harris, who did not broach the topic in her convention address.
"It's time to decriminalize, tax, and regulate marijuana," Newsom said to raucous cheers and applause. "In 2011 alone in this country, three quarters of a million people in the United States were arrested for marijuana law violations, 87% of them for simple possession. And listen to me closely on this -- African-American children are ten times more likely to get arrested for drug crimes than their white counterparts even though white children are more likely to abuse drugs."
"You can't make this up," Newsom said. "We send a higher percentage of African American males to prison and jail in this country than we send to colleges and universities in California. After 42 years of failure, I think it's time we concede that if we continue to do what we've done, we'll continue to get what we've got. I think you and we deserve better. It's about standing up on principle, having the courage of our convictions, about saying publicly all too often what we say privately."
The lieutenant governor's speech wasn't all high seriousness. Jokingly referring to his role as acting governor while Brown is on an overseas trip, he said, "I'm thrilled to be here… on the sixth day of the Newsom administration," he said. "This is the right time and the appropriate time to reflect on our cornucopia of landmark accomplishments over these magical six days." Among those was the creation of hundreds of new jobs, "notably in the now-booming hair gel industry," he said, patting his hair.
"All of these wonderful achievements will one day be studied by scholars at the Newsom Acting Governor Library, currently being constructed in the back of a medical marijuana dispensary in the Haight-Ashbury," he said to laughter and applause. "I'm looking forward to it as well," Newsom said, smiling.
A bi-partisan group of US representatives led by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) Friday introduced legislation that would end the enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that have either legalized it or adopted medical marijuana laws. That would bring 18 medical marijuana states and two legalization states -- Colorado and Washington -- out from under the shadow of the Controlled Substances Act when it comes to marijuana law reform.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]The bill is House Bill 1523, the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act. It was not yet available online as of press time.
"This bipartisan bill represents a common-sense approach that establishes federal government respect for all states' marijuana laws," said Rohrabacher. "It does so by keeping the federal government out of the business of criminalizing marijuana activities in states that don't want it to be criminal."
Joining Rohrabacher as cosponsors of the bill were Reps. Justin Amash (R-MI), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Jared Polis (D-CO), and Don Young (R-AK).
That brings to at least five the number of marijuana reform bills introduced in the 113th Congress, six if you count an industrial hemp bill. Three of those bills deal with medical marijuana, one with the ability of states to tax marijuana commerce, and one would end federal marijuana prohibition.
Reps. Polis, Blumenauer, Rohrabacher, and others also introduced that latter bill, House Bill 499, the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act, H.R. 499, which would set up a federal regulatory process -- similar to the one for alcohol -- for states that decide to legalize. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has said he will hold hearings to examine Colorado and Washington’s new marijuana laws and explore potential federal reforms.
Marijuana law reform efforts in the Congress are being propelled not only by the continuing spread of medical marijuana laws and the impressive victories in Colorado and Washington -- each state saw 55% of voters approve legalization -- but also by ever-mounting evidence that public opinion nationwide is swinging in favor of legalization, and against federal interference in states undertaking marijuana law reforms.
A Pew poll released earlier this month had support for marijuana legalization at 52%, the highest ever for a Pew poll and the first time a Pew poll showed majority support for legalization. Five other recent opinion polls have shown support for legalization hovering at the tipping point, with two of them just under 50%, one at 50%, one at 54%, and one at 57%.
That same Pew poll also found considerable skepticism about enforcing the marijuana laws, with 72% agreeing that "government efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more than they are worth" and 60% saying that the federal government should not try to enforce marijuana laws in states where it is legal.
"The people have spoken and members of Congress are taking action," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "This bill takes conservative principles and applies them to marijuana policy; in terms of the national debate it’s potentially a game-changer."
"This bill is a win for federalism and a win for public safety," said Neill Franklin, a former Maryland narcotics detective and now executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "In a time of bitter partisanship, it is quite telling that both Republicans and Democrats are calling for respect for the reform of marijuana laws. Polls show this is a winning issue for politicians, and change is inevitable. We applaud those legislators who, rather than trying to impede this progress, stand with the vast majority of Americans who believe these laws should be respected."
"Marijuana prohibition is on its last legs because most Americans no longer support it," said Steve Fox, national political director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "This legislation presents a perfect opportunity for members to embrace the notion that states should be able to devise systems for regulating marijuana without their citizens having to worry about breaking federal law. If a state chooses to take marijuana sales away from cartels and the criminal market and put them in the hands of legitimate, tax-paying businesses, it should be able to do so without federal interference."
"We've reached a tipping point," said Jasmine Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, "and it is time Congress acknowledge what voters, law enforcement, and state officials have been telling us for years: the feds should stop wasting money interfering when the states are more than capable of regulating marijuana effectively."
Even though this and the other federal marijuana reform bills have been introduced with bipartisan support, their future in the Republican-dominated House this session is murky at best. Some key committee chairs, such as Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), head of the House Judiciary Committee, are very hostile to any reform efforts. But the pressure is mounting.