With New Jersey recently becoming the 14th medical marijuana state, activists in marijuana law reform have been celebrating. After all, over 82 million Americans now live in states where medical use of marijuana is legal – that’s 27% of the US population! Last election, Massachusetts became the 13th decriminalization state, which means over 107 million Americans live in a state where possession of small personal amounts of marijuana no longer merit an arrest – that’s 35% of the US population.
However, after watching fourteen years of marijuana activism focused solely on those who use cannabis for medicine, I must warn activists that medical marijuana is not getting any better and the time for re-legalization of cannabis for all adults – even the healthy ones – is now.
Medical marijuana was a great 20th century strategy to get the sick and dying off the battlefield in the war on drugs. It was the perfect vehicle to enlighten the public, who for so long have been indoctrinated into the reefer madness that classifies cannabis like LSD and heroin. But in the 21st century the idea that marijuana is only a medicine is beginning to take hold and governments and voters are crafting ever-more-restrictive medical marijuana laws. For the vast majority of cannabis consumers this threatens to move us from the category of “illegal drug users” to “possessors of medicine without a prescription” – a step up, perhaps, but still left facing criminal prosecution.
California legalized medical marijuana in 1996. That initiative, Prop-215, established what is clearly the most liberal medical marijuana statute to date:
If we consider these five attributes of the law the baseline, then in the past fourteen years, all thirteen medical marijuana states that have followed have failed to achieve all five. Eight states only offer three or four of those liberties and the rest offer two or only one. Most disturbingly, the right of patients to grow their own medicine (or have a caregiver do it for them), which has been a bedrock principle in medical marijuana law, was taken away from patients in the most recent medical marijuana state, New Jersey. Bills that were considered but vetoed in 2009 in Minnesota and New Hampshire, and those moving forward in New York, Pennsylvania, as well as an initiative in Arizona, all sacrifice this core right.
A comparison of plant and possession limits also shows the decline from the original starting point in California, where 12 plants and 8 ounces are allowed. Oregon and Washington passed their laws next and have the highest statutory limits: 24 plants and 24 ounces in Oregon and 15 plants and 24 ounces in Washington. (To be fair, all the West Coast states started with lower limits or more vague limits that were modified by the legislature.) But since then, only one state has allowed more than 3 ounces (New Mexico with 6 ounces) and average number of plants allowed is a little less than ten.
Another decline in medical marijuana freedom appears when we look at the conditions for which medical marijuana protection is afforded in the various states. There are eight conditions which could be considered the “standard” ones: cancer; HIV/AIDS; seizure disorders, like epilepsy; spastic disorders, like multiple sclerosis; glaucoma; chronic nausea; cachexia; and chronic pain. Most medical marijuana states recognize all eight conditions; a couple (Vermont and Rhode Island) recognize seven of eight.
The latest law in New Jersey, however, eliminated chronic pain, chronic nausea, and cachexia, making it the most restrictive list in the nation. The bill proposed but vetoed in New Hampshire required one to try all other remedies for chronic pain before trying medical marijuana. The vetoed Minnesota bill wouldn’t even allow cancer and HIV/AIDS patients to use medical marijuana unless they could show they were terminal (about to die). The lists in the latest proposed bills continue to become more restricted.
Until we do have legalization for all, every medical marijuana law is going to fail to adequately serve all medical users and subject them to increasing restriction and scrutiny. Additionally, medical marijuana laws make patients an attractive target for criminals because prohibition maintains huge profits for stolen medical cannabis, as well as becoming targets for overzealous anti-marijuana cops and prosecutors.
Obviously, those states without medical marijuana protection should be fighting for that goal. But for those patients already protected in the fourteen medical marijuana states, it’s time to focus our attention on legalization in at least one state. Only then can those who really need cannabis as medicine be assured of a safe, reliable, low-cost source of relief without the fear of home invasions and garden rip-offs.