Why efforts to soften pot laws are at an all-time high

Nationwide, more than 100 million Americans have reported using marijuana and nearly 15 million people report use at least monthly.

At any given moment, it is estimated that tens of thousands of people are in jail on marijuana charges. According to the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana, more than 800,000 people were arrested last year and more than 5 million Americans were arrested in the past decade on marijuana-related charges.

Between 1990 and 2002, marijuana arrests nationwide increased by 113 percent, while overall arrests decreased by 3 percent. In New York alone, there was an 882 percent growth in marijuana arrests during that time. Further, African-Americans are disproportionately criminalized by the enforcement of marijuana prohibition — and not because they have elevated rates of usage. Nationwide, African-Americans are 14 percent of marijuana users in the general population, but they comprise 30 percent of marijuana arrests.

Given these and other disparities, the public pressure is mounting to end the criminalization associated with marijuana usage.

State responses to marijuana use has varied from the more punitive responses found in states like Texas, where possession of two ounces or less of marijuana can result in 180 days of incarceration and a $2000 fine, to the decriminalization efforts of states that have established regulated medical marijuana dispensaries — including California, which under state law also offers those convicted of first- and second-time drug offenses with an opportunity to receive treatment. Earlier this month, Vermont became the eighth state to authorize and regulate such dispensaries.

Recently, Connecticut, which had been spending $130 million a year on marijuana prohibition enforcement, restructured its marijuana law so as to decriminalize possession of the drug. Supported by Governor Dan Malloy, the new Connecticut law eliminates the misdemeanor offense that was once associated with possession of less than a half ounce of marijuana. Now the penalty associated with that amount will be a $150 fine for a first offense and $200-$500 fine for subsequent offenses.

Still, federal marijuana laws complicate these state efforts. For example, efforts to decriminalize medical marijuana usage were stalled when Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee received a letter from the U.S. Attorney’s Office threatening to prosecute anyone affiliated with medical marijuana dispensaries under federal drug-trafficking laws.

In California, where there are at least 200 medical marijuana dispensaries openly operating, there have been a number of Drug Enforcement Administration raids. Most recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police could conduct a search a home without a warrant if they smell marijuana and suspect that evidence is being destroyed.

Though not enough to change the course of federal opinion on this matter, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg argued in her lone dissent that, “police officers may not knock, listen and then break the door down” without violating the 4th Amendment. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Decriminalizing marijuana should be part of a suite of drug policy reforms that can help our communities heal from the failed War on Drugs; however, advocating for the decriminalization and regulation of marijuana should not be confused with advocating for its usage.

To be clear, there are negative health risks associated with using marijuana — just as there are for using other drugs, including alcohol and tobacco. In other words, no drug is harmless, but criminalizing the personal health risks associated with marijuana use just doesn’t make sense.