It's with enthusiasm that I present this top-10 list for 2010. While there were a few disappointing losses -- most notably the statewide ballot-initiative defeats in Oregon and South Dakota on November 2 -- almost everything else demonstrated positive momentum for the marijuana policy reform movement.
In trying to make this list manageable, I haven't listed (1) developments in clinical research; (2) developments in foreign countries; (3) the passage or defeat of local measures to tax medical marijuana, since these measures can be viewed as either good or bad; and (4) the progress that the Marijuana Policy Project made with moving our bills forward in the Delaware, Illinois, and other state legislatures where we haven't yet achieved the ultimate victories we seek.
(In the interest of full disclosure: MPP, of which I am the executive director, played a significant role in five of the 10 victories below, assisted in an ancillary way in four, and played no role at all in one [the court cases]. They are listed in no particular order.)
- NEW JERSEY LEGALIZES MEDICAL MARIJUANA: 2010 started with a bang when New Jersey's outgoing Democratic governor signed a bill that made New Jersey the 14th state to legalize medical marijuana. (Unfortunately, the new Republican governor has conspired with his state health department to delay and subvert the new law from taking effect and -- now one year later -- patients still do not have legal access to medical marijuana.)
WASHINGTON, D.C. LEGALIZES MEDICAL MARIJUANA: Voters in our nation's capital passed a medical marijuana initiative with 69% of the vote in November 1998. After Congress blocked that law from taking effect 11 years in a row, Congress finally removed the federal ban in the fall of 2009, and in 2010 the D.C. City Council passed legislation to implement the local law. While the D.C. law is more restrictive than we'd like, five medical marijuana dispensaries will be opening up within a short cab ride of Capitol Hill by the middle of 2011. ARIZONA LEGALIZES MEDICAL MARIJUANA: By a mere 50.13% to 49.87% margin, Arizona voters passed MPP's medical marijuana initiative in November, making Arizona the 15th state to legalize medical marijuana. As a result, approximately 125 dispensaries will open up around the state by mid-2011. This campaign was successful despite severely limited resources, with MPP spending only $0.10 for each Arizona resident. CALIFORNIA INITIATIVE DEMONSTRATES RECORD SUPPORT FOR LEGALIZATION: While Prop. 19 failed at the polls on Election Day, this ballot initiative still represents significant progress for our movement. First, the initiative received the highest level of support (46.54%) of any of the eight legalization initiatives ever to be placed on a statewide ballot. Second, the initiative received support from mainstream political institutions, such as the California affiliates of the NAACP and SEIU, the Latino Voters League, the National Latino Officers Association, and the National Black Police Association. Third, the initiative generated gobs of in-state and national news coverage, making marijuana legalization a respectable topic of political debate. Fourth, the campaign inspired the local governments and voters of three cities to pass laws that will automatically tax marijuana sales once they are legal under state law. MARIJUANA-FRIENDLY GOVERNORS ELECTED IN THREE STATES: For the first time in memory, three gubernatorial candidates who are well known to be supportive of decriminalizing marijuana and legalizing medical marijuana were elected on the same day -- Neil Abercrombie (D-HI), Dan Malloy (D-CT), and Peter Shumlin (D-VT). As a result, all three states are likely to pass favorable legislation in 2011. THREE STATES REGULATE/EXPAND MEDICAL MARIJUANA LAWS: While state governments sometimes tweak their existing medical marijuana laws, Colorado's government did much more than that in 2010 when it passed a new law for issuing approximately 2,000 licenses to medical marijuana retailers, growers, and kitchens; as a result, medical marijuana businesses are now scattered around the state like pharmacies. Also, Maine's health department issued regulations to establish eight medical marijuana dispensaries, building on the MPP-authored ballot initiative that Mainers passed with nearly 59% of the vote in November 2009. And, to close out 2010, New Mexico's health department increased the number of dispensaries in the state to 25. LOCAL INITIATIVE VICTORIES IN FOUR STATES: In Massachusetts, voters in nine legislative districts passed initiatives recommending that medical marijuana be legalized on the state level; in another nine legislative districts, Massachusetts voters recommended that marijuana be legalized entirely. In Wisconsin, voters in two local jurisdictions urged their state legislature to legalize medical marijuana. In California, voters in two cities blocked dispensaries from being banned. And in Colorado, voters in 8 cities and counties voted to allow dispensaries (this overt support is significant, even though voters in another 34 Colorado municipalities decided to ban dispensaries). VETERANS AFFAIRS RECOGNIZES MEDICAL MARIJUANA: For the first time since 1978, a federal agency recognized marijuana's therapeutic value when the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs issued a new policy in 2010, stating that veterans who use medical marijuana legally under state law would no longer be denied other prescription medications or treatments. TWO GOOD COURT DECISIONS IN CALIFORNIA: In the "Anaheim" case, a California appellate court found that federal law doesn't prevent cities and counties from licensing medical marijuana dispensaries. And in a separate case, a California superior court blocked an L.A. City Council ordinance that would have wiped out most dispensaries in the second largest city in the U.S. (Neither case has reached its final conclusion yet, however.)CALIFORNIA IMPROVES EXISTING DECRIMINALIZATION LAW: In 1975, California decriminalized marijuana, meaning that people who were apprehended with up to an ounce of marijuana could not face jail time. In 2010, the California government improved this law by changing marijuana possession from a criminal misdemeanor to a civil infraction, meaning that -- in addition to not facing jail time -- small-time marijuana offenders will no longer have to appear before a judge, pay court costs or hire a lawyer, or get stuck with a criminal record.
It's also worth celebrating that 2010 marked the all-time record level of support among U.S. adults for making marijuana legal, which, according to the Gallup organization, is now at 46%. Since support has recently been increasing by 1.5% or 2% annually, we should be looking at majority support nationwide in 2013. However, there is still much work to be done. 2011, here we come ...
Rob Kampia is co-founder and executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C.
The Stakes Have Never Been Higher