The marijuana lobby’s national plan for victory

Rob Kampia Executive Director, Marijuana Policy Project
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By my estimation, Congress has held only five hearings on marijuana policy in the 20 years I’ve worked to end marijuana prohibition in Washington, D.C. I testified at two of these hearings, which former Congressman Mark Souder (R-Indiana) largely staged as forums for he and I to do battle with each other.

The fifth hearing, held Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee, was the most important, because it marked a new high-water mark for the movement to regulate marijuana like alcohol in the U.S.

Just 12 days after the U.S. Justice Department announced that it wouldn’t challenge Colorado’s and Washington’s new laws that regulate marijuana like alcohol, Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) indicated that they agree with DOJ’s position. And two key witnesses representing the governors of Colorado and Washington also agreed.

And the American people also agree: According to a Gallup poll in November 2012, 64 percent of American adults believe “the federal government should not take steps to enforce federal anti-marijuana laws in states where marijuana use is legal.”

So now that the public, the U.S. Justice Department, a fair number of U.S. senators, and state government officials are in happy alignment, what’s the plan for actually ending marijuana prohibition?

To mark the significance of the Senate hearing, the largest marijuana-policy-reform organization in the country, the Marijuana Policy Project –of which I am executive director — unveiled its “five plus five” plan.

We’re launching a major campaign to pass at least five statewide ballot initiatives from 2014 to 2016, while simultaneously passing bills through at least five state legislatures between 2014 and 2017. All ten measures will be similar to the new Colorado law, which will soon allow adults 21 and older to buy marijuana in establishments that operate similarly to liquor stores.

The first of the five initiative states will be Alaska, which will vote on a legalization measure during the August 2014 primary election.

The next four initiative states will be Arizona, California, Maine, and Nevada, with all four states voting on marijuana in November 2016 — the same day as the presidential election.

More than 50 percent of voters support legalization in four of these five states, and Maine is hovering at around 50 percent. As such, we expect to win in all five states.

As for the state legislatures, we have lobbying firms on retainer in four states:

I predict that Rhode Island will be the first state to legalize marijuana through the legislative process, possibly as soon as this coming spring. Already, half of the necessary votes in the lower chamber of the statehouse have cosponsored the legalization bill – including Judiciary Committee Chair Edith Ajello and House Republican leader Brian Newberry.

In Vermont, Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) recently signed into law a bill that decriminalized marijuana possession, and he recently indicated he’s open to legalization.

In New Hampshire, Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) just signed medical marijuana legalization into law, and the House of Representatives has voted four times to decriminalize marijuana possession – including once when it was controlled by Republicans. Starting next week, a legislative committee will be conducting a study on regulating marijuana like alcohol.

In Maryland, after 13 years of growing support for medical marijuana and marijuana decriminalization in the state legislature, the cry for change has now reached a boiling point and will explode into a full-throated scream for legalization even before a new governor is elected in November 2014.

The fifth state that will see movement in its state legislature is Hawaii, where House Speaker Joseph Souki (D) has staked out his turf as being the leading supporter of legalization in the state capitol.

Given that state policymakers are now routinely bucking the federal government, the notion of passing legalization bills through state legislatures isn’t unrealistic. Just this summer, New Hampshire and Illinois became the 19th and 20th states to legalize medical marijuana; at the same time, Nevada and Oregon both expanded their “grow your own” medical marijuana laws by legalizing medical marijuana pharmacies.

And sometimes things go even better than we might plan. For example, the Maine House almost passed a legalization bill that was sponsored by the indefatigable Rep. Diane Russell (D-Portland). With a 71-67 vote, the bill came three votes short of making U.S. history, as no state legislative chamber has ever passed a bill to legalize marijuana.

This “five plus five” plan is the floor — not the ceiling — of upcoming progress in the states.

For example, there will probably be a credible effort to pass a ballot initiative in Oregon, but it’s not clear whether a possible loss in November 2014 would sabotage a likely victory in November 2016. And if additional funding becomes available, Massachusetts and Montana could be added to the list of initiative states for November 2016.

Remember, the ultimate goal has two parts: First, federal law should allow states to determine their own marijuana policies without federal interference; and second, all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the five U.S. territories should choose to regulate marijuana like alcohol.

So the “five plus five” plan serves two purposes. First, we intend for Colorado, Washington, and at least 10 other states to erase marijuana prohibition from their statutes by 2017. And, in so doing, this would put unbearable pressure on Congress to change federal law, which I predict will happen in 2019.

Rob Kampia is executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C., which led the campaign that legalized marijuana in Colorado.