2014: A Banner Year for Legalization of Pot?

2014: A Banner Year for Legalization of Pot?
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Aida Hernandez felt sick. The 2-year-old -- who earlier had been nibbling on a cookie she found on the grass outside her home -- could barely walk. So her parents took her to a hospital near their apartment in Longmont, Colo., where she spent the remainder of New Year's Eve. Doctors conducted a toxicology screening, which showed Aida's urine tested positive for tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana. Apparently, she had been chewing on a pot cookie.

The story was exactly what supporters of Colorado’s new marijuana law were hoping to avoid when the substance became legal for recreational purposes on Jan. 1. Though the Hernandez family’s misadventure did get some national coverage, early reporting in Colorado has focused primarily on the huge interest in legalized cannabis: prices being driven up, new businesses opening, pot tourism, and more.

National Cannabis Industry Association Executive Director Aaron Smith -- whose group represents marijuana-related businesses such as VonDank, The Joint Cooperative, and Green Buddha -- said that “there was no outrage” after legalization went into effect in the Centennial State. He acknowledged “isolated cases” of improper labeling of marijuana products, but added that “strict labeling and packaging standards” have prevented it from becoming a major issue.

The Hernandez case notwithstanding, supporters of legalization say that their public relations victory signifies important progress for the movement.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, noted that the “Today” show gave a “straightforward news report about how there could be a shortage of marijuana because it’s so popular. That’s a huge leap from when I got to NORML [in 1990].”

Indeed, these are heady times for those working to end marijuana prohibition. A Gallup poll last October showed 58 percent of Americans support legalizing cannabis, and another recent survey from CNN suggested that such support is “soaring.” Reform advocates are scoring victories throughout the country. New York just became the 22nd state to allow marijuana for medicinal purposes. Meanwhile, more than a dozen states have decriminalized possession. And, of course, Washington state and Colorado have embraced full legalization.

(Although exact definitions vary, activists typically draw a distinction between legalization and decriminalization. Legalization allows for the sale, production, use, and regulation of marijuana for recreational purposes. Decriminalization simply removes criminal penalties for possession, and sometimes production, of the drug.)

With even more states considering full legalization, 2014 could end up as a banner year for pot. In Alaska -- where possession of less than four ounces and personal cultivation has been already been decriminalized -- residents will likely have the chance to vote on an initiative that would regulate and tax marijuana and allow for the opening of recreational cannabis shops. A poll from last year showed 60 percent of the state’s residents support full legalization. In Oregon, voters are also expected to consider legalizing the substance, just two years after a similar initiative failed in a statewide vote. As with the 49th state, a poll taken last year in Oregon showed strong support for legalization. Advocates and opponents of legalization both point to Oregon and Alaska as the likely battlegrounds for the issue this year. Though that excites activists, the two states have a combined population of less than 5 million.

To really send a message to federal lawmakers in 2014 -- who activists hope will become increasingly deferential to states as more enact legalization -- and create momentum going forward, advocates are looking for a major victory. And the already pot-friendly state of California (where medicinal usage has been permitted since Proposition 215 passed in 1996), with its population of nearly 40 million, might provide it. After all, if California legalized marijuana, then roughly one in five Americans would live in a recreational-use state.

“The big enchilada that we’re all waiting for … is California. Reformers could reform five or 10 more states, but none would have the same significance as California alone,” said NORML’s St. Pierre.

California-based legalization activist Berton “Buddy” Duzy went further, asserting that “California will set the agenda for the rest of the states, and probably for the rest of the world.”

But legalizing pot in the country’s most populous state is a significantly more complex undertaking than in Colorado or Washington. A network of growers and medical marijuana collectives complicate sharp divisions among reform advocates, and infighting threatens to derail California’s legalization chances in 2014 -- as happened in 2010. That could set the broader movement back at least two years, when the next opportunity for a referendum on the issue would arise.

“There’s a fair amount of blood being bled at the table right now,” St. Pierre said. “There are mainstream reformers . . . who are in the legalization business. There are those who are in the medical marijuana business who are used to the status quo.”

As a result, “there could be two or three rival initiatives” on the ballot this November, he warned.

Currently, several coalitions have proposed four different ballot initiatives in the Golden State: The Cannabis Policy Reform Act (CPRA), The California Cannabis Hemp Initiative (CCHI), The Control, Regulate, and Tax Marijuana Act (CRTM), and The Marijuana Control, Legalization and Revenue Act (MCLR).

Though the propositions have similar titles -- and the backers all broadly agree about legalization -- there are key differences that have fueled animosity among the groups.

John Lee of Americans for Policy Reform, which is sponsoring the MCLR, said his group’s “open source initiative” was the product of a Google Doc that slowly morphed into a viable document, which was later reviewed by lawyers and then submitted to the state.

The measure legalizes cannabis for anyone 21 and older -- essentially a universal feature in all proposals -- and is compliant with the most recent Department of Justice guidelines that require strict regulatory schemes and strong enforcement from local authorities. (Other groups have cast doubt on its compliance.) It also legalizes hemp farming and grandfathers existing medical marijuana collectives. The measure would create a commission to oversee the process, with members appointed by the governor. (Other propositions use the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control for this purpose.)

Asked about divisions, Lee said that “we tried to unify” with other groups, and that they even attended conferences together, but that there are “some core differences in our beliefs.”

Duzy is supporting CCHI, which he calls “probably the most comprehensive initiative ever written” because it addresses recreational and medical use, and immediately allows for industrial hemp production. (Last year, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that legalizes the production of hemp plants, which contain a small amount of tetrahydrocannabinol. But the law’s enactment is currently contingent upon federal approval.)

“The other three tend to take much smaller, less pro-active legalization methods. … They’re all baby steps, and ours is full-on legalization. That’s what keeps them from supporting us and us from supporting them.”

Longtime California activist Ed Rosenthal is leading the charge for the CPRA, which allows for significantly more marijuana to be cultivated for private use. Rosenthal has submitted the language for his initiative and could begin collecting signatures in February.

The Drug Policy Alliance, a national group, has also written a proposition, and will decide whether to begin signature-collecting within weeks. Stephen Gutwillig, who previously served as the DPA’s California director, said the group has “drafted a highly responsible, well-written initiative” to keep their options open.

Rosenthal said his goal “is to stop the Drug Policy Alliance initiative, because it’s a terrible initiative. If the DPA decides to go [ahead with their initiative], we have people who will back our initiative.”

Complicating matters further for advocates, Gov. Brown -- easily the most influential politician in California -- opposes legalization, telling the Washington Post recently that he won’t be “leading any charge for further chemical interactions.”

Despite these problems, national legalization proponents are still optimistic. If 2014 isn’t a watershed year, they say, 2016 certainly will be. Presidential elections typically bring out a younger, more diverse electorate, the constituency that most strongly supports legal pot. And many reformers have made the strategic decision to wait until then to try passing their initiatives in states where support for legalization is less overwhelming.

So when might pot become legal everywhere, or at least readily available for the vast majority of Americans? Opponents and proponents all offer different predictions.

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and Jim Gray, the Libertarian Party’s 2012 presidential ticket, made legalization a centerpiece of their campaign. Gray, a former Orange County Superior Court judge, was perhaps the most bullish on pot’s prospects.

“The prohibition of marijuana will be ended by the end of 2016,” he predicted. There will be a “flood of initiatives” in different states, “and the federal government will have to face the reality that their position [against legalization] is unenforceable.”

Marijuana Policy Project spokesman Morgan Fox foresees a more distant date: “Probably by the end of 2019, we will see the end of federal marijuana prohibition. We’ll see marijuana controlled, at least at the federal level, very similarly to the way alcohol is.”

As for when it will be legal throughout the country, Fox pointed out that several states maintained alcohol prohibition well into the 20th century.

NORML’s St. Pierre acknowledged that he probably won’t live long enough to smoke a legal joint in places like Utah or South Carolina, but he predicted that “by mid-2024 or so, well over half the population base” will live in states where marijuana use is legal.

Amid these competing pro-pot voices is Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an organization founded by Kevin Sabet and former Rep. Patrick Kennedy that opposes both the demonization and usage of marijuana.

“We both felt like there needed to be a more rational voice in this whole debate,” Sabet explained, adding that national legalization is “not an inevitability.” He argued that legalization advocates are “overplaying their hand a bit” following the enactment of Colorado’s new law and that he expects a backlash that will make legalization more difficult elsewhere.

“In Colorado . . . they ran on, ‘We want strong regulations and strong control. Keep it away from kids.’ Yet, they have fought every provision that would have restricted access to kids.”

Of course, marijuana has only been legal in Colorado for two weeks. And it will take time before anyone can assess how the new law will shape opinions throughout the country. In addition, if California groups aren’t able to sort out their differences and unify behind one law -- this year, in 2016, or any time in the future -- federal legalization may end up taking much longer than reformers have predicted or hope for. 

Adam O'Neal is a political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at aoneal@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearAdam.

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