Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Thoughts from the SSDP Conference on Marijuana Reform in California

I had a great time in San Francisco this weekend at Students for Sensible Drug Policy's western regional conference.  Though the conference was Saturday, I stayed in the bay area for a few days longer to meet my newly born niece (I'm an Oakland native and most of my family is still in the area.)  The conference was great and featured a fantastic keynote address from San Francisco's Public Defender Jeff Adachi.  

Most relevant to this blog was a panel on the future of marijuana reform in California, featuring Amanda Reiman (Drug Policy Alliance), Paul Armentano (NORML), Dale Sky Jones (Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform), and Perry Rosenstein (Marijuana Majority).

Among the interesting thoughts from the panelists:

• Amanda Reiman talked about the decision to wait until 2016 to run a legalization ballot measure in California.  She said that given the loss in 2010, winning the next campaign in California is especially important.  Two losses would make it tough to run another campaign in the near term.  Because of the cost of running a ballot measure in California, and the fact that demographics make 2014 less certain than 2016, they decided not to go forward with a California ballot measure in 2014.

• Paul Armentano said he thought legalization through legislation may not be too far off, noting that New Hampshire House recently became the first legislative body to vote to legalize marijuana.  He argued, however, that anything passed by legislatures is likely to be much more restrictive than Colorado and Washington's laws.  He believes that this is because law-makers have a tendancy to over-regulate. 

•  Paul also talked about the differences between Colorado and Washington's laws, noting that Washington's was more restrictive (it does not permit home cultivation and included a marijuana DUI provision).  He said that going into the election, the conventional wisdom was that Washington's additional restrictions would make the ballot measure more likely to pass but that the two laws ended up passing with about the same margin.  He said that exit polling indicated this would not have been true in an off-year election.  With an off-year election demographic, Washington's law would have still passed with about 55% of the vote.  Colorado's would have been a toss-up. 

• Dale Sky Jones argued that it is critical for California's legislature to enact medical marijuana regulations by 2015.  She said that if California doesn't get regulations in place by 2015, the legislature will almost surely wait for the legalization measure in 2016.  This would be problematic because, as the experiences in Colorado and Washington reveal, implementing a legalization law is much more difficult when there is a poorly regulated medical marijuana system (as was the case in Washington) than when there is a very robust medical marijuana regulatory system (as was the case in Colorado.)  (Paul discussed the differences between Washington and Colorado in this regard as well.)

• Perry Rosenstein talked about messaging strategies when it comes to marijuana.  He argued that visual design is incredibly important on this issue because anything that looks sloppy can reinforce the perception that advocates for legalization are pot-heads.  

• Perry also raised an interesitng question: what happens if legal marijuana businesses in Washington and Colorado become established and start running legalization ballot measures in other states.  To date, drug policy reform ballot measures have come from advocacy organizations.  If the marijuana "industry" starts to run ballot measures, it could mean change comes more quickly.  But, it could also result in initiatives that are drafted more in the interest of businesses behind the ballot measures than with public policy goals in mind.  In response to this, Amanda mentioned that a vaporizer company has, apparently, been lobbying New York legislators to consider a medical marijuana law that would require patients to use vaporizor pens.  

It was a very interesting discussion all around.  I think the possibility of "industry" players running ballot measures is especially something to watch for.  My own take is that this is unlikely in the near term (meaning 2014 or 2016), mainly because any ballot measure crafted by industry players would be more vulnerable to attacks from political opponents than one that is run by an advocacy organization (e.g., attacks like Project SAM's "big marijuana" argument.)  I suspect that this dynamic may not deter industry-created ballot measures for all that long.  And we may see one or more in 2016.  

But if I had to guess, I would think 2018 is a more likely year for a wave of industry-created measures.  If the current trend continues (and I will grant that this is not gauranteed), we will probably have at least 5 states with marijuana legalization laws after the 2016 election.  By 2018, support for legalization would likely be more like 60% in favor than 50/50 (again if trends continue.)  And, the marijuana industry should be pretty well established by then, at least in Colorado and Washington (and in any states that pass legalization in 2014.)  In any event, if'and when this does happen, it could significantly change the landscape when it comes to marijuana law reform.

Medical Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate | Permalink


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