I recently attended the 2015 Seattle Hempfest, and it was again this year a lovely celebration of all things marijuana. The first day was a rainout, a rarity for this event, but the final two days brought good weather, large crowds, and a good time for all.
If Marijuana Is Legal, Why Do We Need Hempfest?
As someone asked me when I first arrived at my Seattle hotel, “why are they still holding the Hempfest now that marijuana is legal in Washington state?” It is true that the Seattle Hempfest began as a protest against marijuana prohibition – in fact the sponsors frequently use the term “protestival” to describe this annual festival.
Washington state became one of the first two states, along with Colorado, to legalize marijuana in 2012, breaking the chains of marijuana prohibition and forever reshaping the legalization debate both nationally and internationally. But much work remains to be done in Washington (and the few other jurisdictions that have voted for legalization to date).
Personal Cultivation Needed in Washington
Specifically, in Washington state we need to amend the law to permit personal cultivation; the right to grow one’s own marijuana should be respected in all states, both as a basic consumer right and as a guarantee that the legal market will remain responsive to the needs of consumers. Consumers want marijuana that is good quality, safe, convenient and affordable.
Important Improvements Needed in All Legalization Jurisdictions
And in all of the legalization states we need to legalize and license marijuana lounges or coffee shops, where adult smokers can socialize outside the home. Marijuana smoking is a social activity and smokers should certainly be permitted to gather with others in designated venues to socialize. But to date, no state has allowed that.
And we need to continue to improve these early legalization laws, so we treat responsible marijuana smokers fairly in all respects. That is, we need to end job discrimination against legal smokers, absent a showing of impairment on the job; to stop presuming legal smokers are unfit parents, without a showing of abuse or neglect; and to require a showing of actual impairment before someone is charged with a marijuana-based DUID offense.
So marijuana smokers still have lots of policies to protest, even as we are ending prohibition one state at a time. But it is also true that some of these public events, such as the Seattle Hempfest, have now become more celebration than protest – in this instance, celebrations of personal freedom. Following 75-years plus of prohibition, and tens of millions of marijuana arrests, it is understandable that marijuana smokers want to celebrate their hard-won victories.
What Is Legalization?
But I did hear a couple of speakers at the Hempfest make the rather strange claim that marijuana “is not legal” in Washington state, as a way to show their displeasure with some of the limitations and regulations in place in their state. Instead of celebrating with pride the key role Washington state has played in jump-starting the marijuana legalization movement, they were attempting to twist the common meaning of “legalization”, apparently believing that to refer to the current law as “legalization” would somehow undermine their desire for improvements in the law.
So perhaps we need to spend a couple of minutes to see if we can agree on a common meaning of legalization, so we don’t fall into the trap of allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. In my dictionary “legalize” is the antonym of “criminalize.” If marijuana is no longer criminal, it is legal.
There are a few vocal protagonists who insist that it is not “legalization” if it is regulated; if there are limits on the quantity one can possess or cultivate; if it is taxed; or even if there are age controls. But under those definitions of legalization, automobiles and automobile driving, for example, would not be “legal”. Nor would alcohol and alcohol drinking, or many other activities that are regulated and taxed, and include age limitations.
I feel comfortable saying that the vast majority of Americans would say if it is legal for adults to smoke marijuana, and if they can buy it from a legal market, that is “legalization”. It may not be a perfect system, but it is nonetheless legalization.
Whether you approve of all the provisions of the Washington marijuana law or not, private marijuana use is now legal and adults can buy their marijuana from retail stores. It is, without question, a version of legalization, and smokers in 46 states would love to have the Washington marijuana law in effect in their states.
Those who advocate for systems which include fewer regulations and controls, or none at all (some are demanding that marijuana be considered a commodity, like tomatoes or sweet corn) surely have the right to try to convince a majority of their state’s voters, or state legislators, to adopt such a system. But it is silly, and to some degree self-defeating, to claim that other versions of a legal system are not “legalization.” These new laws, although none are perfect, should be a subject of great pride, evidence of the incredible progress we have made reforming marijuana policies in this country over the last few years.
In Washington state there were, before prohibition was ended, about 7,000 individuals arrested on minor marijuana charges annually. This year there have been less than 150 marijuana arrests. I’m sure most smokers in Washington state would view that dramatic change as evidence that the legalization law approved by the voters in 2012 was an important step forward, even as they realize it is far from perfect.
So instead of making the bizarre claim that marijuana is not legal in Washington state, those who support improvements to that law should celebrate and take pride in the fact that they were one of the first two states to challenge the federal government and bring an end to marijuana prohibition, and get to work tweaking their legalization law so it is even better.
Otherwise, they are just sore losers who remain committed to undermining the new law.
This column was first published on Marijuana.com.