By Ben Brewin
An increasing number of states are considering marijuana decriminalization efforts. It is a begrudging acknowledgment that pot use is not a significant threat to public safety, and not worthy of the time and attention of the court system.
Most of these efforts eliminate criminal penalties for use of a limited amount of marijuana and impose civil fines if individuals are caught. Civil citations are the equivalent of a speeding ticket.
The argument for decriminalization is marijuana use is prevalent and has been for many years. Many advocating for decriminalization say states could be generating revenue by taxing use of small amounts and saving money by reducing police manpower spent on arrests of a drug more and more people believe should be legal.
Two Gallup polls published in a 2010 USA Today article show the shift in opinion. In 2009, 44 percent of respondents said marijuana use should be legal, compared to just 12 percent in 1969.
Law enforcement and mental health organizations are among the top opponents. Police associations oppose because they argue it will increase drug-driving related accidents and other societal problems. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has come out and said marijuana use can cause heart irregularities and lung problems along with addiction.
Marijuana Decriminalization: A Look at a Few States
Individuals caught with larger amounts would still be charged with criminal offenses in most states. Some states have already passed such laws and others, such as California, have sought to go further and outright legalize use of marijuana.
Oregon became the first state to decriminalize cannabis possession back in 1973. In recent years, California, Massachusetts, Colorado, Nevada, New York, Nebraska and other states have passed marijuana decriminalization laws. Under Oregon’s law, possession of more than an ounce is a Class B felony. Possession of up to an ounce of marijuana is a violation punishable by a fine of $500 to $1000. The only exception is for possession within 1000 feet of a school, which is a misdemeanor. Here is how the law works in a few other states:
California: On Sept. 30, 2010, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law S.B. 1449, which decriminalized the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Use is now a civil infraction punishable by a $100 fine. Another measure to legalize the recreational use of marijuana and its related activities failed at the ballot box that same year.
Massachusetts: Voters adopted the Massachusetts Sensible Marijuana Policy Initiative on November 4, 2008. Previously, an individual found with an ounce or less of marijuana was charged with a misdemeanor punishable by up to 6 months in jail and a $500 fine. With the new law, someone caught with that amount of marijuana receives a civil infraction and $100 fine.
Nevada: In 2000, residents vote to change the state Constitution to allow for medical marijuana production and possession. Under the new law, patients would be required to obtain a doctor’s certificate for use, but the process for how patients would receive the marijuana was challenged in the courts. A district court judge issued a ruling in March 2012 which is expected to be appealed up to the state’s highest court.
Arizona: Voters adopted Proposition 203 in November 2010, legalizing the use of medical marijuana. The state has also seen proposals to decriminalize marijuana use, including a 2011 bid to make possession of two ounces or less punishable by no more than a $100 fine.
Texas: For the past few years, Mexican officials to the south have considered legalizing marijuana and other U.S. states have decriminalized it, but Texas has kept its law criminalizing cannabis use intact. Possession of two ounces or less is a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by not more than 180 days in a county jail and/or a fine $2,000 or less. Penalties increase for greater amounts.