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U.S. states, not Canada, led way in decriminalization, critics told

By Hempology | June 2, 2003

Twelve states representing about a third of the U.S. population have in effect
decriminalized minor marijuana offences, NORML says.

From the Globe and Mail, June 2, 2003
By Estanislao Oziewicz

U.S. critics of marijuana decriminalization in Canada are suffering from
collective amnesia about the situation south of the border, where a dozen
states have decriminalized, a Washing-based lobby group says.

U.S. officials, including John Walters, White House director of drug-control
policy, have said that liberalizing marijuana laws in Canada will result in
more pot crossing the border and will increase drug use.

But Mr. St. Pierre said that beginning in the 1970s, a number of U.S. states,
some of them bordering Canada, started moving toward eliminating criminal
penalties for simple possession of small amounts of marijuana.

A number of studies, including a 1982 report of the U.S. National Research Council
of the National Academy of Science, showed no discernible difference in marijuana use
in a state that decriminalzied it and an adjacent state with harsh penalties.

“The important point is that the legal change to decriminalization does not, in
itself, appear to lead to increases in use,” the report says.

Under legislation introduced last week by Justice Minister Martin Cauchon, possession
of up to 15 grams – enough to roll about 15 or 20 joints – would be a minor offence
punishable by a fine.

Young people could face fines of up to $250 for minor possession; adults could be
fined $400.

According to a state-by-state analysis compiled by NORML and published on its Web
site (, 12 U.S. states representing about one-third of the U.S. population
– Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada,
New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon – have in effect decriminalized minor
marijuana offences.

The laws vary, but decriminalization usually means no prison time or criminal record
for first-time possession of a small amount from personal consumption.

The conduct is generally treated like a minor traffic violation: Offenders are given
a citation and fined, and their marijuana is confiscated.

Colorado law, for example, counts possession of 28 grams or less as a petty offence,
which carries no jail time and a $100 (U.S.) fine.

In 2000, the latest year for which figures are available, a record 743,000 people
were imprisioned in the United States for marijuana offences, 90 per cent for simple

All but one of the 12 states have possession thresholds far higher than the proposed
15-gram limit in Canada.

Ohio has a 100-gram limit, and all four of those states that bordering Canada
(Alaska, 227 grams; Maine, 35 grams; New York, 25 grams; Minnesota, 42.5 grams)
have higher thresholds than Canada proposes.

Possession of larger amounts is still a criminal offence because it implies an intent
to sell.

While NORML lists Alaska as having decriminalized, the situation there is confusing.

For years, based on a 1975 decision, Alaska’s Supreme Court ruling held that under the
state constitution an adult could possess marijuana for personal consumption in the

In 1990, Alaskans voted in a ballot initative to recriminalize the possession of
marijuana, but the result remains cloudy.

Subsequent court rulings have upheld the 1975 decision, but the state’s highest court
has not ruled on the matter, so the law remains ambiguous.

According to NORML, this means users are treated leniently even though possession
of less than 227 grams may be punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a fine
up to $1,000.

Clearly, America has had a long, long history with decrim,” Mr. St. Pierre of NORML
said. “This is nothing new. And the idea of the [U.S.] drug czar’s office portraying
this as terrible and culturally shocking is just one of the many disingenuous things
about this whole debate.”

Mr. St. Pierre said that several U.S. municipalities, particularly those with
large universities, have also decriminalized simple marijuana possession.

“For example, Ann Arbor [in Michigan] has had a $25 fine for an ounce of marijauna
or under since 1972,” he said. One ounce is equivalent to 28 grams.

While marijuana laws can be enforced by both the federal and state governments, states
usually prosecute marijuana offences unless federal property is involved or very
large quantities and border crossing come into play.

U.S. federal law has treated marijuana as a dangerous narcotic, in the same class as
heroin, since 1937. It defines marijuana as having a high potential for abuse and no
currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.

Nevertheless, Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, California, Nevada and
Maine all have legalized medical marijuana. Maryland has reduced the maximum pentalty
for possession from a year in state prison and a $1,000 fine to a $100 fine in cases
of “medical necessity,” such as to relieve suffering from cancer treatment and other

In addition, 21 states have approved resolutions recognizing marijuana’s medicinal

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