Marijuana at the State House 2003: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly 2/28/03

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With most state legislatures either now in session or about to begin proceedings, marijuana-related legislation is cropping up at state houses across the country. From hemp to medical marijuana to decriminalization, marijuana reform bills continue to pop up -- sometimes for the second or third year in a row -- while at the same time, the prohibitionists continue their now rearguard struggle to occasionally increase marijuana penalties.

According to information compiled primarily by the Marijuana Policy Project (, hemp bills have been filed in two states, medical marijuana bills in 10 states, bills to lessen penalties for marijuana offenses in eight states, and bills to increase penalties in six states.

"Overall, it's a mixed bag in the states this year," said MPP Communications Director Bruce Mirken. "We're still seeing strong support for medical marijuana, and there is no sign that the drug czar's anti-marijuana ad blitz has had any effect. Whatever John Walters is trying to do, it doesn't seem to be working," he told DRCNet.

Keith Stroup, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (, agreed that medical marijuana is the issue that is moving this year. "If there is any identifiable trend, it is that we appear close to seeing state legislators embracing medical marijuana," he told DRCNet. "Only Hawaii has done it through the legislative process so far, and it's important we get to the point where we can pass this the old-fashioned way, because we don't want to have to rely on voter initiatives -- they don't even have them in half the states, anyway."

MPP's Mirken told DRCNet the group is focusing on two states. "We're putting a lot of emphasis on Vermont and Maryland," he said. "Those are states where our bills got closer than ever last year, and in Maryland we now have a governor, Bob Ehrlich, who supports medical marijuana, while in Vermont, Gov. Howard Dean, who was our greatest obstacle, is no longer in office. The new governor, James Douglas, has made some comments against medical marijuana, but has not closed the door like Dean did."

"That's right," said Stroup. "At least Dean is off running for president, and while Douglas says he opposes it, he hasn't threatened to veto it."

A medical marijuana bill has already been defeated in one state this year. A first-time effort to pass a medical marijuana bill was defeated Wednesday by a 60-40 vote in the Montana House. Sponsored by Rep. Ron Erickson (D-Missoula) and drafted by Erickson, Montana NORML director John Masterson, and Missoula-based medical marijuana authority Dr. Ethan Russo, the bill would have provided patients certified by the state to grow or buy limited amounts of marijuana to help ease their pains.

The Montanans should not be discouraged, said Stroup, adding that such efforts often take two or three tries and that success could come this year in states that had laid the legislative groundwork in earlier sessions. "I think there is a reasonable chance of passing medical marijuana bills in Massachusetts, Maryland, Vermont, and Wisconsin, and probably New Mexico," he said. More medical marijuana bills could yet be filed, he said, pointing to possible efforts in Missouri and Texas as well.

Meanwhile, the cultural battle over marijuana continues to be played out in the legislatures, with bills calling for greater penalties, bills calling for lesser penalties, and sometimes both in the same state. "Drugged driving" initiatives modeled on the drug czar's national campaign have become a favored new venue for attacking pot-smokers, along with old standbys like revocation or suspension of drivers' licenses.

"Obviously we oppose bills like the drugged driving bills," said Mirken, "but, like everyone else in the movement, we have to decide how to allocate our limited resources, and we don't want to spend all our money fighting defensive battles." In other words, local people will have to pick up the challenge. But, as noted in a newsbrief (see below) this week, local efforts sufficed to block one of those bills in Utah. "These zero tolerance drugged driving bills are a legal atrocity," said Mirken, "they treat people who smoked a joint last week as if they were impaired and charge them like drunk drivers, and when people understand the implications of these bills, they understand that this is nuts."

If victories for marijuana reform at the state houses are few and slow in coming, it is at least a measure of progress for the movement that the battle has moved from the streets into the legislative chambers. Below we list the states where various marijuana bills are active.


  • Arkansas -- HB 1321: An act to permit the medical use of marijuana. The bill would exempt medical marijuana patients with doctors' recommendations from prosecution under state law. Current status: Referred to the Committee on Public Health, Welfare, and Labor; hearing set for March 11.
  • California -- SB 295: The California Marijuana Research Program. The bill would eliminate the three-year limit on California's medical marijuana research program at the University of California. Current status: Introduced; not set for action until after March 22.
  • Connecticut -- HB 5100: An act concerning medical use of marijuana. The bill would allow Connecticut residents to cultivate and use marijuana for medical purposes when a treating physician certifies that the patient's condition would benefit from the medical use of marijuana. Current status: Referred to Joint Committee on Judiciary; hearing set for March 3.
  • Hawaii -- HB 1218: An act to clarify statutory provisions relating to medical marijuana. The bill clarifies and restricts certain provisions of the state's medical marijuana law, includes penalties for physicians who violate certain provisions of the law, and raises the fee ceiling for program participants. Current status: Deferred by Committee; no action on calendar.
  • Maryland -- HB 702: Darrell Putman Medical Marijuana Research Act. This bill removes criminal penalties and threat of arrest for medical marijuana patients (and caregivers) who have doctors' recommendations. The bill also establishes a research program whereby doctors must report on the safety and effectiveness of medical marijuana treatment. Current Status: Passed first reading of Judiciary Committee; hearing set for March 4.
  • Massachusetts -- SB 676: An Act relative to the medical use of marijuana. This bill allows for the experimental use of medical marijuana. Current status: Referred to Committee on Health Care.
  • Montana -- HB 506: An act authorizing the medical use of marijuana by individuals diagnosed with debilitating medical conditions. The bill would authorize the medical use of marijuana by individuals diagnosed with debilitating medical conditions; provides for a registry for patients and caregivers; provides exemptions for medical use of marijuana; and restricts search and seizure related to the authorized medical use of marijuana. Current status: Passed House Judiciary Committee; defeated in House, 60-40.
  • New Mexico -- HB 242: The Lynn Pierson Compassionate Use Act. The bill allows patients who have their doctors' recommendations to use and possess medical marijuana. The bill also provides for a registry system and ID cards for patients and their primary caregivers. Status: Passed out of House Business and Industry Committee to House Judiciary Committee.
  • Vermont -- SB 76: An Act Relating to the Medical Use of Marijuana. The bill proposes to exempt seriously ill people from prosecution and prison for using medical marijuana under their doctors' supervision. Current status: Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Feb. 14. Also HB 111: An Act Relating to Medical Marijuana. This bill proposes to exempt seriously ill people from prosecution and prison for using medical marijuana under their doctors' supervision. Status: Referred to Health and Welfare Committee.
  • Wyoming -- SF 44: An act to create a medical marijuana program and registry system in Wyoming. The bill would exempt medical marijuana patients with doctors' recommendations from prosecution under state law. Status: Bill referred to Senate Judiciary Committee.
  • California -- SB 131: Marijuana possession penalty. This bill would make the possession of less than 28.5 grams a civil infraction rather than a misdemeanor on the first offense. Current status: Referred to Public Safety Committee; no action yet on calendar.
  • Connecticut -- SB 356: An act concerning the penalty for possession of a small amount of marijuana. The bill would remove all criminal penalties for possession of less than four ounces of marijuana. Current status: Referred to Joint Committee on Judiciary, no action yet on calendar. Also, HB 5260: An Cct concerning the penalty for possession of drug paraphernalia or small amounts of marijuana. This bill reduces the penalty for possession of less than four ounces of marijuana or drug paraphernalia to a fine. Current status: Referred to Joint Committee on Judiciary; no action yet on calendar.
  • Massachusetts -- SB 207: To Impose a Civil Fine for the Possession of Marijuana. The bill would make possession of less than an ounce of marijuana punishable by a $100 civil fine. Current status: Referred to Committee on Criminal Justice.
  • Michigan -- SB 197: An act to amend the public health code. The bill would allow courts to mandate participation in and completion of an appropriate drug treatment program for first time drug offenses, including marijuana. The court may also impose, as a condition of probation, participation in vocational training, family counseling, literacy training, or community service, but may not impose incarceration as a condition of probation. Status: Referred to Judiciary Committee; no action yet on calendar.
  • Montana -- H.B. 510: An act abolishing imprisonment as a punishment for certain drug possession offenses and substituting home arrest and other sentencing alternatives for imprisonment. The bill would abolish jail time for marijuana offenses for possession of up to 60 ounces and replace that with not more than six months of house arrest. In addition, for any case involving drug treatment, current law would be amended so the defendant pay the costs of treatment and stay in the facility if found able to do so by the court. Status: Referred to Judiciary Committee; tabled.
  • Oklahoma -- SB 779: An act relating to the Uniform Controlled Substances Act. The bill would remove the threat of arrest for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Current status: Referred to Senate Appropriations Committee; no action on calendar.
  • Texas -- HB 715: An act relating to the penalty for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana. The bill would reduce punishments for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana to a Class C misdemeanor from a Class B misdemeanor. Current status: Referred to Criminal Jurisprudence Committee; no action on calendar yet.
  • Georgia -- HB 196: An act to reduce the quantity eligible for certain penalties under marijuana trafficking. The bill would apply enhanced penalties for "trafficking in marijuana" to quantities as low as 25 pounds. Current status: Introduced.
  • Illinois -- SB 456: An act in relation to drugs. The bill would add selling marijuana within 1,000 feet of a school bus stop to enhanced penalties under "drug free school zone" ordinances. For selling marijuana in prescribed locations at certain times, the charge of Class I felony would apply. Current status: Referred to Rules Committee; postponed, no action on calendar.
  • Mississippi -- HB 714: Controlled substances; would suspend certain state licenses for possession of. This bill would lengthen license suspension for a second conviction of marijuana possession to two years, and would also suspend a convicted individual's permits to hunt or fish. Current status: Dead, defeated in committee, February 4.
  • Nebraska -- LB 176: An act relating to controlled substances... to change provisions relating to possession of marijuana. This bill would recriminalize marijuana possession in a state where it has been decriminalized for 25 years, giving first-time marijuana offenders a criminal record and a maximum fine of $500. Current status: Referred to Judiciary Committee; hearing "indefinitely postponed" as of February 24.
  • New York -- A 2454: Relating to requiring revocation of driver's license or driving privileges upon conviction of drug or marijuana offense. The bill would amend the penal law and the vehicle and traffic law to require the revocation of the drivers license or driving privileges of persons convicted of controlled substance or marijuana related offenses. Status: Referred to Assembly Codes Committee; no act yet on calendar. Also S 1184: Relating to expanding the class E felony of criminal possession of marijuana in the third degree to include possession with intent to sell more than two ounces. The bill provides that any person who knowingly and unlawfully possesses two or more ounces of one or more preparations, compounds, mixtures or substances containing marijuana with the intent to sell the same shall be guilty of the class E felony of criminal possession of marijuana in the third degree. Current status: Referred to Senate Codes Committee; no action yet on calendar. And finally, A 2038: Relating to imposing an additional five years of imprisonment for certain offenses. The bill would amend the penal law, in relation to imposing an additional term of imprisonment for the sale of a controlled substance or marijuana to a person under the age of sixteen and for committing a felony while possessing a loaded firearm. Current status: Referred to Assembly Codes Committee; no action yet on calendar.
  • South Dakota -- HB 1144: An act to broaden the application of drug free zones to include additional offenses and to provide for penalty enhancements. The bill enhances the penalties for repeat marijuana offenders by one degree. Status: Referred to Judiciary Committee; deferred to "41st day" (killed), February 12. Also HB 1153: An act to change South Dakota's laws on marijuana distribution to include "intent to distribute." The bill revises the current penalties for marijuana distribution to include "intent to distribute." Status: Passed House of Representatives, February 10; passed Senate, February 27; awaiting governor's signature.
  • Maine -- HB 61: An Act to allow experimentation in the cultivation of agricultural hemp. The bill authorizes, but does not require, the Director of the Maine Agricultural Experiment Station to obtain the appropriate federal permits to study the feasibility of growing industrial hemp. Current status: Referred to the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry; no action on calendar.
  • New Hampshire -- HB 653: An act authorizing the production of industrial hemp. The bill provides for legal and authorized production of industrial hemp.

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Issue #276, 2/28/03 Peruvian Government Attacks Cocalero Movement -- Leaders Arrested, Others in Hiding as Protests Spread | The Road to Vienna: International Narcotics Control Board Annual Report Attacks Reformers, Reformers Scratch Back | Ashcroft's Pipe Dream, Bongmaker's Nightmare: Feds Arrest 55 in Paraphernalia Crackdown | Parallel Power Flexes Muscle in Brazil: Rio's Drug Commands in Pre-Carnival Show of Force | In Thailand, Clamor for Investigation Grows as Killings of Drug Suspects Continue | Marijuana at the State House 2003:00:00 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly | Alert: HEA Reform Legislation Re-filed, Needs Your Support | Mérida Footage, Photos Now Online | Newsbrief: Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Coop Head Gets Three Months in Jail for Trying to Inform Jurors | Newsbrief: Belgium to Legalize Marijuana Possession, Use | Newsbrief: Switzerland Marijuana Legalization Moving, Opposition Mobilizes | Newsbrief: "Kiddie Meth" Legislation Spreads to Illinois, Missouri | Newsbrief: MPP Releases TV Ads on Harms of Marijuana Prohibition in Third Phase of Group's "War on Drug Czar" Campaign | Newsbrief: Utah Drugged Driving Bill is DOA in House | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cop Story | The Reformer's Calendar

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