Did you know that cannabis is technically legal in the sleepy seaside community of Portland, Maine? Or that Denver permitted recreational cannabis years before Colorado made state legalization headlines and kickstarted the “green rush”?
Although the process comes with exceptions and risks of repeal, many local jurisdictions indeed have the power to pass autonomous laws governing cannabis possession and use. Local legalization can be a powerful way to declare public opinion or to protest the perceived injustice of federal cannabis prohibition. Drafting and passing local statutes is also an incredibly underrated way to engage the public in the civic process, when it comes to cannabis policy or to the general concept of ballot initiatives.
Local Governments Make a Change
Because local governments vary in organizational structure and legal status, there are different federal laws regarding their rights to enact their own autonomous measures. Local governments in the U.S. fall into one of two groups: chartered governments, which define and maintain their own foundational charter documents dictating their organization and laws; and general law governments, which have no defined autonomous powers, and are governed under their state’s existing statutes.
These classifications become important when a local government seeks to change or create laws — while 20 states allow both general law and chartered governments to self-legislate via ballot initiatives and popular referenda, 15 states only grant that right to chartered governments and 4 only grant it to general law governments. The remaining states do not explicitly define each government’s rights regarding ballot measures.
This essentially means that residents of larger chartered cities like Dallas, TX are generally able to organize local ballot measures regarding cannabis policy, while residents of general law cities or smaller communities like Des Moines, IA might only have that right depending on their state’s provisions.
However, even if a local government meets the threshold to issue its own ballot measures, it cannot pass any measures that override state or federal law.
Because cannabis is prohibited by federal law, local laws that “legalize” cannabis in their communities are mostly symbolic
While a November legalization victory for a city might be cause to celebrate the increased public acceptance of cannabis, such symbolic legal status won’t always translate into a more relaxed law enforcement policy — in fact, quite the opposite, as local legalization can provoke the ire of more socially conservative residents and politicians.
The Benefits of Local Cannabis Legalization
So why would a community legalize weed if the legalization doesn’t actually do anything in the short term? For one, local legalization measures can be a tool for further change — a community referendum on cannabis use or the technical legalization of the drug can be a powerful way for constituents to let their representatives know that they’re serious about drug policy reform.
Advocating for cannabis policy reform can also have serious implications for public health. Because cannabis can ease the symptoms associated with age-related ailments like glaucoma and arthritis, a city with a sizable population of senior citizens like Atlanta, GA could move to legalize cannabis as a demonstration of compassion.
Moreover, since cannabis may have serious potential to ease opioid addiction or supplant some opioid use in the first place, local governments in states that have been hit particularly hard by the opiate epidemic like New York and Massachusetts would do well to enact cannabis legalization —
Such a shift in legal status at the local level can ease the pot’s stigma and promote it as an alternative to more harmful and addictive controlled substances
Finally, a government may choose to legalize cannabis in order to signal a shift in law enforcement priorities. In the last decade, police in the U.S. arrested over 7 million people — many of them individual consumers and not cartel kingpins — for cannabis possession. More recent numbers show that in 2015 alone, arrests for possession of small amounts of cannabis outnumbered total arrests for violent crimes like rape and murder. Add to these statistics the fact that cannabis arrests disproportionately target black people despite equivalent rates of use between whites and blacks, and it’s easy to see how legalization can be an effective tool for larger social reform.
Local Legalization Trendsetters
Denver was the first major American city to locally legalize cannabis. As long ago as 2005, a ballot measure that was passed by 54% formally legalized the possession of up to an ounce for any residents 21 or older. Although officials were quick to confirm that federal law still superseded the measure, local NORML representative called the move “the wind in the sails of reform” — a characterization that would prove prophetic when Colorado legalized cannabis statewide in 2012.
Following Colorado’s example, Maine was the first state to pass local legalization measures on the East Coast. The city of Portland legalized the possession and use of up to 2.5 ounces in 2013, followed by a similar measure from neighboring South Portland in 2014. Although Portland police continue to enforce the federal cannabis prohibition (albeit with citations instead of arrests), the 2013 legalization measure is poised to effect some change — some of the same activists who pursued 2013 legalization have secured a space on the 2016 ballot for statewide legalization. Polls in March 2016 indicated 54% majority support among Maine residents for statewide legalization.
Securing a local ballot measure for cannabis legalization is an effective — and relatively easy — grassroots way to take a stand for federal policy reform. If you want to get involved with cannabis activists in your community, volunteer with a local chapter for NORML or the Marijuana Policy Project. These organizations need a critical mass of legalization supporters to collect signatures, contact legislators, show up at rallies, or simply talk to friends and family about why local legalization is a good idea. Although federal legalization is an uphill climb, local legalization is an inspiring and accessible opportunity to enact some good on a smaller scale.