California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signing of a bill which decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana may represent a watershed moment in popular opinion on the drug nationwide. The new legislation, passed by the state’s lawmakers, will make possession of up to an ounce of marijuana punishable by a fine of no more than $100, and eliminates the possibility of arrest or a criminal record.
While California has a complicated history with marijuana, including the passage of a similar law in 1976 which had already reduced penalties for possession of an ounce or less, the new law eliminates the misdemeanor charge, making it a civil infraction without a mandatory court appearance. Passage of the law likely came after an identical measure passed as a ballot question in Massachusetts in 2008.
As a resident of Massachusetts for the past 19 years, I had the opportunity to vote in favor of the measure, known as question 2, helping to make it the first such decriminalization initiative to pass by popular vote, as opposed to legislation, in any state. I wasn’t alone. Massachusetts residents passed question 2 with over 65 percent of the vote.
Massachusetts is not only on the opposite end of the country, its history with marijuana contrasts starkly with that of California. According to NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, marijuana is California’s number one cash crop. California was also the first state to enact a medical marijuana law, which essentially allows for the prescription and use of marijuana for medical reasons, after the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996.
Popular support for decriminalization in Massachusetts followed an entirely different track, spurred by local controversy surrounding prosecution of minors that many saw as heavy-handed. In Berkshire County, where I live, the issue was a particularly sore spot for residents in the years leading up to the 2008 ballot question.
Berkshire district attorney David Capeless sharply divided local residents when he chose to prosecute a group of high school students who had been arrested for buying marijuana in an undercover operation in 2004. The teenagers, who had unknowingly made the transactions within 1,000 feet of a Church school, faced harsh penalties because the drug was bought and sold on school grounds. Although the law gave Capeless discretion, he chose to pursue the maximum two-year jail sentence, regardless of the fact that the case involved minors who had no criminal records and were first-time offenders.
That the 2008 ballot question eliminating criminal penalties for possession of under an ounce of marijuana passed is an indication of how Massachusetts residents felt about the prosecutions, which made headlines throughout the state. Beyond Massachusetts and California, similar statewide decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana has been enacted in Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, Ohio, and Oregon, according to NORML.