Marijuana Decriminalization: Recent State Law Changes

There has been movement on the decriminalization front in various states in 2015, with a number of bills advancing through several state legislatures in recent weeks. Let’s take a look at some of the developments.

Marijuana DecriminalizationIn Illinois, a cannabis decriminalization bill is on Governor Rauner’s desk awaiting his signature. HB218 is significant for several reasons. First of all, the proposed law would make up to 15 grams of cannabis possession a civil infraction that carries a fine of $125. Secondly, and this is a unique feature of the law, the bill allows for civil offenses to be automatically expunged from a person’s record so as to prevent any criminal history. Drug convictions make it difficult for individuals to obtain employment. Finally, the bill would establish a threshold of 15 nanograms of THC in a driver’s blood to be considered impaired and driving under the influence. Governor Rauner has 60 days after the bill being presented to him to sign or veto it.

The Louisiana Senate recently passed SB241, which does not eliminate but significantly reduces the criminal penalties for minor cannabis possession. First time offenders possessing less than 14 grams would be sentenced to no more than 15 days in jail. As it stands now, the maximum sentence is six months. Louisiana has notoriously stiff marijuana possession penalties and even if the new law is adopted, Louisiana’s penalties for marijuana possession would be eight times higher than surrounding states. The bill is currently in a House committee.

Any hopes for decriminalizing cannabis in Texas went up in smoke at the end of May. HB507 would have made possession of up to one ounce of marijuana a civil infraction, not a Class B misdemeanor. The bill died in committee after it was never scheduled for a floor debate. The Texas General Assembly meets only once every two years, so there won’t be a chance for a legislative decriminalization measure until 2017 at the earliest. In a related story, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill on Monday, to significant fanfare characterized as a historical development in Texas, allowing for non-psychoactive CBD use in Texas by epilepsy patients.

In Maryland, Governor Larry Hogan recently vetoed a law that would have corrected a defect in the decriminalization law adopted in 2014. As of October 1, 2014, possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana in Maryland is subject to a civil fine of $100 for a first offense rather than criminal penalties. However, the possession of drug paraphernalia was and still is a criminal offense. Therefore, technically one may be arrested and prosecuted for the possession of rolling papers when smoking a joint, but the marijuana inside the rolling paper is subject to a civil fine. SB517 not only would have decriminalized the possession of drug paraphernalia, it would have also made the public consumption of marijuana a civil offense punishable by a fine of up to $500. Governor Hogan’s explanation for the veto was somewhat bizarre, claiming “legal uncertainties” in local law enforcement’s authority to make a traffic stop when observing someone smoking cannabis while driving.

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon allowed Senate Bill 491 to enter into force on May 5 without his signature. Buried deep in this new law, an omnibus crime bill, are two changes in Missouri’s marijuana laws. The first change eliminates jail time for a first-time offense of under 10 grams of marijuana. It would be a stretch, however, to call this decriminalization since one may still be arrested and have a criminal record if caught with less than 10 grams of pot. The second change will end sentences with mandatory no parole or probation for a third felony marijuana conviction. As many as 100,000 people in the United States are serving prison sentences for only the possession of marijuana.

And finally, Delaware decriminalized possession of up to one ounce of marijuana last week.  On June 18, the Delaware Senate passed a bill to make possession of up to an ounce subject to a civil fine of $100 and Governor Jack Markell signed the bill into law the same day.  The law will enter into force six months from the date of the governor’s signature.  Of note was the fact that voting on the bill in the Delaware Senate was exactly along party lines.

By and large, these bills are long overdue. There is simply no rational basis for putting anyone in jail for cannabis possession, and we applaud the states that have taken strides towards ending drug prohibition.