The Cities, Not the States, Are Leading on Marijuana Legalization
Proactive cities choosing to decriminalize marijuana is rapidly paving the way towards legalization.
The next state to legalize recreational marijuana, which would become the eleventh state in the country to buck federal prohibition and allow adults to use cannabis, might be Maryland. Then again the next domino to fall could also be New York. Yet another good prediction is New Jersey.
All three have qualities in common that make them a logical and likely choice. All three are blue states where a majority of citizens want state lawmakers to do what they cannot — in these states, there is no ballot-initiative process, the method through which all legal states except for Vermont have turned the trick — and legalize marijuana. In the cases of New Jersey and in New York, both states are run by governors who have promised to legalize marijuana (though both states are also demonstrations of separation-of-power and show how no governor, not even Andrew Cuomo, can enact such policy by decree).
But more important than any of that, all states have big cities where local officials are taking initiative and decriminalizing marijuana on some level. Demonstrations in urban areas that marijuana-policy reform can and does work gives timid state lawmakers an argument in favor.
The cities are the laboratories; in states where citizens don’t have direct democracy, the cities — where citizen power is more keenly felt — are leading the states.
In New York City, district attorneys in Manhattan and Brooklyn announced last year that they’d stop arresting (mostly black and brown) New Yorkers for small amounts of marijuana. The reaction was an explosion in cannabis industry activity and interest, and a grand relaxation in attitudes towards the drug among the public — both a precursor to and a sort of trial run for legalization. (It seems to be working.)
In New Jersey, enough cities announced they were decriminalizing that the state attorney general was forced to take notice and take action by announcing that he was superseding them all, and decriminalizing statewide.
And now Maryland is following suit. This week, local prosecutor Marilyn Mosby, the state’s attorney for Baltimore, announced she would halt marijuana possession prosecutions.
Prosecuting possession cases presents “no public safety value,” she said, according to NBC News, and only serves to further punish already struggling people of color, who are “consistently arrested at higher rates for marijuana in every county,” she added.
“If you ask a mother who lost her son where she would like you to use those resources, she will tell you, ‘l want you to use those resources to find my son’s killer,’ as opposed to jailing and incarcerating people for possession of marijuana,” Mosby said at a press conference.
These are all good and solid arguments, even if we have heard them before, repeatedly — and even if the police say they won’t listen and will continue to make arrests in accordance with state law, as Baltimore Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle said he would.
How that tug-of-war will play out remains to be seen; Mosby would seem to have the upper hand, as it’s up to her to ensure an arrest turns into a conviction, and if cops can’t get convictions, what’s to compel them to keep making arrests?
But Mosby went one further. She announced that she would go ahead and vacate approximately 5,000 past marijuana convictions dating back to 2011.
Clearing marijuana users’ criminal records — thus removing barriers to employment, student loans, and housing — is generally something that waits until after legalization, as happened in California and Washington. What Mosby is doing shows that it needn’t be so. A city or a county can recognize what it’s done wrong and how it’s hurting its citizens and reverse course. A city can’t change state law, but it can choose to stop enforcing it.
And since a city is where the jobs and media and influence are concentrated, in states and in countries, a city taking the initiative and starting the legalization experiment is a proven and potent way to jump-start the process on the state level. Talk to your city council, start bugging your mayor.
TELL US, are you seeing positive changes in cannabis policy in your state?