In a country where each state sets its own drug laws, America has become quite a melting pot for… well, pot laws. At this point, 19 states allow marijuana to be used medicinally, 14 states have decriminalized the possession of marijuana, and 2 have finally legalized and regulated the substance.
This past summer, as I drove across the country, I found myself keenly aware of these differences. Nothing makes my hair stand on-end like driving through Kansas, where simply getting busted twice for marijuana possession is classified a felony that will land you with a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 months in jail. Although I had nothing to worry about, a deep sigh of relief followed the sighting of the “Welcome to Colorado,” a sign that I had entered a land where possession of less than an ounce of marijuana resulted in zero jail time and no fine. After a few more days of driving, I ended at my final destination- California, the first state to legalize medical marijuana. This drive across the country inspired me to ask young people what it’s like for them to live in states with ranging pot laws.
Kat Humphries, a resident of the state of South Carolina, describes living in a state where marijuana is completely criminalized. “The criminalization of marijuana in South Carolina has led to users living in a perpetual state of fear. In a state where retribution is inevitable, there is no speculating on what will happen if you are caught. Plagued by mandatory minimums and outdated stamp laws, South Carolina is unsurprisingly behind the times on drug policy.” Kat tells me that it’s not uncommon to hear of people being reported to law enforcement for smoking pot at home by pizza deliverymen who were unhappy with their tip.
According to the Marijuana Policy Project
, South Carolina leads the country in marijuana arrests, 91% of which are for possession alone. And the sad truth is that “Some of the most intelligent people I know have been stripped of financial aid, kicked out of their houses, and disowned by their families because of the taboo surrounding marijuana in the South. This not only brings their lives to a screeching halt, but frequently leads to a downward spiral involving what many consider ‘hard drug’ abuse and ultimately a very difficult life that they are told will end in one of two ways: institutions or death.”
Unfortunately, Kat doesn’t see the policies in South Carolina changing until “a consensus has been reached by the rest of the country.” She hopes that as other states shift to a more sensible perspective, her state will slowly inch in the right direction along with them.
Mitchell Colbert is a proud resident of California and a staff member of Harborside Health Center, the world’s largest medical marijuana dispensary. He is also a medical marijuana patient and says that this medicine makes his life much less stressful and more manageable.
Unfortunately, Mitchell comments, “Things are not perfect in California, and we continue to face interference not just by federal agents, but also local authorities.” Even though he works in a medical marijuana dispensary that abides all state laws to a tee, the federal government is still trying to shut them down, which in turn, can upset local officials.
Mitchell believes that medical marijuana programs are often too restrictive and difficult to enroll in, which prevents patients who would otherwise greatly benefit from the medicine from accessing it. These patients end up either going to illegal routes to get their medicine, or end up being prescribed pharmaceutical drugs, which tend to be much more damaging and addictive.
Alec Foster has spent the past few years living in New York, a state that has recently decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Although he admits that this is a huge step, he clarifies that decriminalization “does not mean that there is no punishment for possession. Rather, those who are caught carrying cannabis are subject to a $100 fine.” Not everyone can afford to pay such a steep price.
He goes on to add, “Furthermore, there are legal loopholes that allow law enforcement to charge marijuana users with misdemeanors, such as bringing the marijuana into pub¬¬lic view or catching someone smoking in public. These arrests can be expunged if you are not charged with another crime within a year. People who come into contact with law enforcement more often, which in NYC are the poorer communities in Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, are much more likely to have a lasting criminal record as a result of cannabis laws.”
Although decriminalization tends to come off as a good middle ground “hands-off” approach to marijuana policy, as Alec pointed out, it unfortunately just gives law enforcement another way to target the poor and people of color. Not to mention, allowing people to possess small amounts of the drug without giving them a safe access point reverts people back to the uncertainties and risks of the illegal black drug market.
Danny Garcia is a proud native of Colorado, one of the two first states to legalize and regulate marijuana. “Living in the state that is the vanguard of marijuana legalization has been an awesome cultural experience. The stigma of using marijuana is almost non-existent in Colorado, which manifested itself when more people in the state voted for marijuana regulation than Barack Obama for president.”
Danny recognizes that his state is at the front-line of a huge tipping point. “It's nice to see my home state transform itself from a region known for its extreme social conservatism to one known for its leadership in sensible reform.”
In Colorado, folks will soon be able to legally buy, use, and sell marijuana for both medical and recreational use. They’ll be able to buy it from a trusted source in a regulated market, so there will be no more questioning what is in the product and where it came from. Danny adds, “Fellow marijuana users and I can feel secure knowing we cannot be prosecuted for making the safer choice. This is especially true for my law school classmates and me, since our future careers could have been on the line. Now, we can stop worrying about losing that future and instead focus on building our legal careers.”
And I’m sure nobody in Colorado is complaining about the estimated $60 million they’re about to save.
America is obviously heading in the right direction with legalization on a state level, but what do we do about the federal government getting in the way?
And if you’re a student trying to become more involved in the drug policy reform movement, check out Students for Sensible Drug Policy
to see if they have a chapter in your area. If they don’t, start one up! SSDP has changed dozens of college, local, and state policies while deeply impacting the lives of students (including myself).
I became involved in the drug policy movement in 2007 and I can say that now is one of the most exciting times to dive headfirst into what’s happening. Through trial and error of different state policies, we’ve figured out that marijuana legalization and regulation is the safer, smarter, and most sensible option. While many activists never live to really see the fruits of their labor, I’ve found myself in a very lucky position where I can actually see the work everyone has put into this paying off, big-time. And this is only the beginning.