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The State of Marijuana Reform in America

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Pandy Arrieta, an intern at Oaksterdam University, the nation's first marijuana trade school, takes care of marijuana plants on September 23, 2010 in Oakland, California.
Pandy Arrieta, an intern at Oaksterdam University, the nation's first marijuana trade school, takes care of marijuana plants on September 23, 2010 in Oakland, California.
Tony Avelar/Getty Images

As a few of our readers may be aware, "420" is a quasi-mystical number for pot smokers. According to stoner lore, it was the time of day, in the 1970s, that a small group of smokers at San Rafael High School in California would meet to get high. Somehow, the number has come down to us as "the universal time to get high" and/or a convenient shorthand for marijuana. For our purposes, it's a flimsy but welcome pretext to spend this week -- hinged as it is by Wednesday, 4/20 -- digging into the politics of pot in America. We start, below, with an overview of developments from the past year.

Under federal law, it's illegal to possess or use, cultivate or sell marijuana. Period. True, in 15 states (plus the District of Columbia) using pot on the recommendation of a doctor for medical purposes -- say, to manage symptoms of HIV or glaucoma or cancer -- is perfectly legal under state law; as is growing and dispensing it, for those same purposes. But the feds reserve the right to prosecute, right along the supply chain -- state laws be damned.

America's prisons are crammed full of low-level drug offenders; most were collared for having on them a drug, marijuana, that's arguably less harmful -- to themselves and anyone else -- than tobacco and alcohol. (Of course, for people dealing with, say, chronic pain, it has health benefits.)

There are advocates of more liberal marijuana laws who want legalization outright--that is, not just for medical uses but for... stoner uses; others want to soften the unduly harsh penalties for marijuana possession, which tend to fall heaviest on minorities; others want more states to pass medical marijuana laws. Some want all of these things -- one as a means to another. All agree that the status quo cannot stand.

Liberalizers have had a busy 12 months -- since the last 4/20 -- and so have their opponents. Here's a quick overview of the year, covering both "progress" (from the liberal reform standpoint) and "setbacks."

Progress

2010

May: The District of Columbia Council voted unanimously to allow people with certain chronic illnesses -- including HIV, glaucoma, and cancer -- to obtain medical marijuana, on a doctor's recommendation, from city-approved dispensaries. (More)

July: The Department of Veterans Affairs announced it would formally allow patients treated at VA hospitals and clinics to use medical marijuana in states where it is legal, a policy clarification veterans had long sought. (More)

October: A Gallup poll found a record 46 percent of Americans approving of legalization, compared with 50 percent opposing. (More)

October: California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill changing the crime of marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to an infraction, the lowest level of offense under state law. (More)

Ari Berman: Why California's Proposition 19 Had a Real Shot at Passing

November: With the narrow passage of Proposition 203, Arizona became the 15th state to approve medical Marijuana for people with chronic or debilitating diseases. (More)

2011

March: The San Francisco-based ArcView Group formed the medical marijuana industry's first investment network to link cannabis entrepreneurs to qualified investors with "seed" money. (More)

March: Medical marijuana industry leaders launched a Washington-based trade association, the National Cannabis Industry Association, focused primarily on lobbying Congress. (More)

March: A high-profile report predicted the U.S. medical marijuana market would reach $1.7 billion in sales in 2011 and double in size in the next five years as the number of patients grows and more states allow medical marijuana. "We're witnessing the beginning of a legal business ecosystem forming around medical marijuana," said the editor of the report. (More)

MarijuanAmerica: From California to downtown Detroit, there's a green revolution sweeping across the nation

March: According to a Harris poll, three quarters of Americans say they support legalization of marijuana for medical treatment (74%) with almost half saying they strongly support it (48%).  Opposing: 18% (More)

April: A bill legalizing medical marijuana in Delaware sailed through the state senate, 18-3, moving on to the House. (More)

April: Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed a Republican-backed bill that would have repealed the state’s voter-approved medical marijuana law, calling it “frivolous, unconstitutional or in direct contradiction to the expressed will of the people of Montana." (More)

April: Arizona's medical-marijuana law came into effect, allowing  people to apply with the state health agency  for permission to use marijuana to treat debilitating medical conditions. (More)

Setbacks

2010

June: Hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles were forced to close up shop for failure to comply with a new anti-pot city ordinance. (More)

November: Attorney General Eric Holder said his Justice Department would prosecute federal marijuana laws in California aggressively even if state voters went ahead and approved a legalization initiative on the November ballot. (More)

A Drug War Truce? Obama's new drug czar says the administration won't legalize pot — but pressure for real reform is growing

November: Californians defeated Proposition 19, a ballot measure that would have legalized possession and growing of marijuana outright, and taxed and regulated its use. (More)

November: Medical marijuana ballot measures went down to defeat in Oregon and South Dakota.

2011

February: The Montana House of Representatives voted to repeal the state’s six-year-old medical marijuana law. (More)

February: An analysis by the Drug Policy Alliance found that arrests for marijuana possession in New York City had risen for six years in a row, with 2010's numbers 69 percent higher than 2005's. Last year, 50,383 people were arrested, or 140 a day, at a cost to the city of $75 million. (More)

March: Los Angeles city told 60 marijuana dispensaries they must shut down immediately, two weeks after the city attorney's office ordered another 141 pot shops to shutter. (More)

April: Washington State Gov. Chris Gregoire said she wouldn't sign legislation to create licensed medical marijuana dispensaries after the Justice Department warned it could result in a federal crackdown. (More)


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