Marijuana votes produce legal haze and hope for reforms | Bleader

Marijuana votes produce legal haze and hope for reforms


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Legal marijuana wont sprout in Illinois anytime soon, but reform advocates remain optimistic.
  • Ted S. Warren/AP
  • Marijuana legalization won't spread to Illinois anytime soon, but advocates remain optimistic.
One of the most revealing statements about Tuesday's election results came from Colorado governor John Hickenlooper:

"The voters have spoken and we have to respect their will. This will be a complicated process, but we intend to follow through. That said, federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug so don't break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly."

Let's face it Hickenlooper could have been talking about any number of races whose outcomes inspired supporters to celebrate, or console themselves, with a puff or two. But in this case he was reacting to the passage of Colorado Amendment 64, a ballot initiative that legalizes the use and regulated sale of marijuana.

It wasn't the only victory for advocates of reforming drug policies.

Though Oregon voters rejected a legalization measure, another passed in Washington state. Voters made Massachussetts the 18th state to legalize medical marijuana, and a number of cities across the country took steps to decriminalize or soften the penalties for pot possession.

"I definitely see it as a positive step," says Dann Linn, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

Yet Linn and other reform advocates are also heeding Hickenlooper's advice. While public sentiment has shifted in their direction, marijuana regulation remains tangled in a thicket of confusing and often contradictory laws and political agendas.

Under President Obama the one who was just re-elected federal officials have raided medical marijuana dispensaries in California, Montana, and Oregon, throwing state rules into chaos. No one is sure what's going to happen now. Hickenlooper told the Denver Post that he hopes to talk with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder as soon as today. "My sense is that it is unlikely the federal government is going to allow states one by one to unilaterally decriminalize marijuana," the governor said.

But that's essentially what they're doing anyway as the feds refuse to change their pot policies. Marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, the same category as heroin and peyote, and a level higher than morphine, opium, and cocaine.

There are too many legal knots to count. Medical suppliers and patients who use it for pain relief can find themselves locked up even when they think they're adhering to the law.

Voters in Detroit backed a ballot proposal Tuesday that ends penalties for adults caught with less than an ounce of pot on private property. But if you drive to Flint, beware of the cops. While voters there approved a similar measure, authorities have already said they're bound by state and federal law to keep making arrests.

Policies are at least as hazy in Illinois.

Over the summer Chicago enacted a law to give police the option of ticketing low-level possessors instead of hauling them to the station for a full booking. But police aren't using the law, saying it's cumbersome and doesn't help them clear dangerous drug corners. So the busts continue: arrests for misdemeanor marijuana possession outnumbered tickets by a ten-to-one ratio in the first six weeks the law was on the books. Nearly 80 percent of those arrested were African-American.

The busts this year have cost local taxpayers big bucks: at least 44,000 police hours and $37 million in court costs.

Chicago isn't the only place this is happening. Marijuana arrests statewide have gone from about 19,000 annually in the 1970s to 51,000 in recent years. In response, more than 90 other Illinois municipalities have passed laws to lessen the penalties and costs.

Illinois doesn't have a ballot initiative process, and repeated attempts to change marijuana laws in the general assembly have withered, as both Democrats and Republicans fear looking soft on crime.

Nevertheless, Election Day could end up changing the dynamic. President Obama doesn't have to worry about another reelection, which means politicians in his home state no longer have to fret as much about putting him in a bad spot if they work around federal law.

"It's going to be tough for lawmakers in Illinois to continue to resist doing anything on this," says Linn, the NORML leader.

He thinks it's possible the general assembly will act soon on medical marijuana. If it peters out again, though, reform-minded lawmakers may turn their attention to a decriminalization or legalization bill.

"We have a couple of tax-and-regulate bills drafted," Linn says. "No one has been willing to step forward as a sponsor. But we've had people who were interested behind closed doors. I'd be very surprised if there weren't more conversations about this in the next year."