Thursday, March 24, 2016

Legalizing Pot: What to Expect Next

The perpetually frustrating conflict between government mandates versus private rights has shown up in the latest Supreme Court deadlock over Obamacare contraception. The latest case put before the highest court in the land shows a clear divide in interpretation between liberal and conservative viewpoints. Government is granted authority over private property in some respects, but individual rights are sacrosanct in others. Imminent domain has been invoked, but so has right of privacy. This critical conflagration shows up in situation after situation, statute after statute.

In November 2014, District of Columbia voters overwhelmingly agreed to further decriminalize pot. But the statue itself was worded strangely and somewhat disingenuously. Straight from the DC government’s own website, Initiative 71 made it legal to:

  • Possess two ounces or less of marijuana;
  • Transfer one ounce or less of marijuana to another person who is at least 21 years old, so long as there is no payment made or any other type of exchange of goods or services;
  • Cultivate within their residence up to six marijuana plants, no more than three of which are mature;
  • Possess marijuana-related drug paraphernalia – such as bongs, cigarette rolling papers, and cigar wrappers – that is associated with one ounce or less of marijuana; or
  • Use marijuana on private property.

However, private owners of rental properties still have the right to ban marijuana smoking and growing. In the apartment complex where I live, new residents assume that they are allowed to smoke pot in their apartments, often unaware that their lease prohibits it. In an old, drafty complex, the smell fills hallways and adjacent units until the offending party is told to cease and desist. Apartments are often revolving doors, so this point has to be constantly invoked and reinforced with every new resident who enters.

Only publicly owned buildings must follow the law as written. But it’s more complicated than that. The law itself invokes magical thinking. It’s legal to possess a certain amount, but not to buy it. Furthermore, it’s okay for a buddy to give you an ounce for free, but there’s no litmus test besides one’s own word to prove that money did not exchange hands. Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil.

The odd phrasing is mostly directed towards people who grow their own pot for private usage. It’s curious to note that six and only six marijuana plants are allowed; half that number are allowed to be reach harvest stage. I don’t think police are going to the trouble to count marijuana plants one by one. Big growers clearly cultivate far more than the allowed amount, and their trade is still illegal.

A person can still be arrested for:

  • Selling any amount of marijuana to another person;
  • Possessing more than two ounces of marijuana;
  • Operating a vehicle or boat under the influence of marijuana; or
  • Smoking, eating, or drinking marijuana – or holding or carrying a lighted roll of paper or other lighted smoking equipment filled with marijuana – in any public space, such as:
               On any street, sidewalk, alley, park, or parking area;
               In a vehicle on any street, alley, park, or parking area; or
               Any place to which the public is invited.

If a person can’t smoke their private stash in a home or residence, he or she will have to go to someone else’s place. This can limit consumption considerably, preventing one for partaking at all unless one uproots and goes elsewhere. One could make a case that personal rights are being violated by exclusionary language. Examining the law more closely, it’s clear that legalization was not put in place in any enthusiastic, affirming way. Instead, it was enacted grudgingly. The politicians who drafted the language appear to be saying, like some acquiescent parent, “Well, I guess if you’re going to do it anyway, just don’t be sloppy about it...”

It will be interesting to observe how committed legislators and individuals are in getting legalization propositions in front of voters. Each one will reflect its locality and the political makeup of its citizens. Standardized laws and statutes are likely a long way off, and might never come to pass. In this matter, courts appear to give greater heft to the Tenth Amendment. Smoking pot is not considered a universal human right on par with marriage equality. Until then, the patchwork system of Federalism will lurch along at its own methodical pace. Don’t expect the United States to be like Amsterdam..

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