California has long led the nation in passing measures to decriminalize marijuana for medical purposes. California’s landmark medical cannabis law was approved by voters way back in 1996, and further action by the state legislature in 2003 resulted in passage of SB 420, the Medical Marijuana Program Act, which helped identify qualified patients and established “safe harbor” amounts to protect users from criminal liability.
Since then, 17 other states have enacted medical marijuana laws, and the 2012 elections brought further developments due to grassroots action and voter approval of referendums. Massachusetts became the latest when voters approved Question 3 by a 63 to 37 percent margin, eliminating statewide criminal and civil penalties and authorizing a 60-day supply of cannabis for qualified patients. However, statewide initiatives aimed at expanding or establishing marijuana possession and growing rights failed in Oregon, Montana and Arkansas.
The biggest news in the November elections was passage of referendums in Washington and Colorado authorizing adult recreational use of marijuana. Colorado’s Amendment 64 allows adults 21 and over to possess one ounce and cultivate up to six plants. Washington’s Initiative 502 got rid of criminal penalties for possession of one ounce or less but did not expand rights to grow marijuana beyond authorized patients under its existing medical marijuana law. Both measures received the support of 55 percent of voters.
A closer look at Washington’s new law reveals the details as well as some complications that still must be resolved to make marijuana commercially available:
- Starting in December, adults age 21 and over will no longer be subject to criminal penalties for possessing an ounce or less (or 72 liquid ounces of a marijuana-infused product)
- State liquor licensing authorities will have one year to establish a system to license and regulate stand-alone marijuana stores, which will be similar to state-run liquor stores
- People who use marijuana in public will be subject to a civil penalty but not arrest
- Employees could still be subject to drug testing, and I-502 establishes metabolite levels that focus on active THC that can impair driving skills but not inactive marijuana metabolites that do not lead to impairment
- The federal response to state law decriminalization remains to be seen, and federal enforcement could still take place if the U.S. Department of Justice chooses not to respect state law
California marijuana possession defense
Washington and Colorado’s recent marijuana legalization referendums certainly raise the bar for decriminalization efforts. While many California citizens are protected by medical cannabis provisions, most others still face arrest and prosecution for possession, use or sale of marijuana. A California drug crimes defense attorney can explain a client’s rights and strategies for avoiding or reducing charges.