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Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota voted to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, joining 11 other states and D.C. Days after the election, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced that he will introduce legislation to legalize the plant.
According to a recent Gallup poll, 68% of Americans support legalizing marijuana, and many drug policy organizations are advocating for that. But others are pushing for decriminalization only.
What makes the most sense, and which plan is likely to prevail? And what’s the difference between decriminalization and legalization?
Produced by Kurt Gardinier
SASHA-ANN SIMONSI'm Sasha-Ann Simons, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. After voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota voted to legalize marijuana on Election Day, there are now 15 states, two territories and Washington, D.C. that have legalized the plant for recreational use. And last month, Governor Ralph Northam announced his proposal for Virginia to join the club.
SASHA-ANN SIMONSSo, when will residents of the commonwealth be able to purchase legal marijuana, and what other states are looking to do the same? Joining me now to discuss it is Dr. Kevin Sabet. He is the president and CEO of SAM, that's Smart Approaches to Marijuana, and the former National Drug Control Policy Advisor to Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. Dr. Sabet, welcome to the program.
KEVIN SABETSasha-Ann, thanks for having me.
SIMONSAnd Erik Altieri is the executive director of NORMAL. That's the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Hi, Erik.
ERIK ALTIERIHi. Glad to be here.
SIMONSErik, let's start the conversation off with you, though. Talk about Election Day back on November 3rd, if you can remember that far back, because it seems like so long ago. And tell us what voters across the country had to say about marijuana specifically.
ALTIERISure. And you're right, Election Day feels like a lifetime ago, in 2020.
SIMONSIt feels like a lifetime ago. (laugh)
ALTIERIBut what is unforgettable about Election Day is the resounding message voters sent when it comes to marijuana policy in this country. We saw four states vote to legalize the adult use of marijuana. And even more important than the number of states voting, it's which states did so. It's hard to see our opponents claiming this is an issue isolated to only blue states or the coasts, anymore, when you have South Dakota, one of the most conservative states in the country, approving this by 56 percent or so of the vote at the same time Donald Trump won by double digits in the state. You see it in Montana, as well. Close to 60 percent approved it there in addition to Arizona and New Jersey.
ALTIERIThe American people are broadly sick and tired of our failed prohibition. They've seen over the past number of decades it is a failed policy that has racist and disastrous implications for public policy. And after seeing a number of states move forward with their experiments and adult-use legalization starting in 2012, they looked at those policies in place, in real time, and decided they want those in their state. They decided it's time for a sensible approach to marijuana, and that means to legalize and regulate its use by adults. And we're going to see that continue to spread across this country, also with further movement at the federal level.
SIMONSWell, you heard me mention Governor Northam's announcement of his plans to introduce legislation to legalize marijuana. Will that pass the Virginia legislature, Erik? And, if so, when would that be likely?
ALTIERIWell, Virginia, really, the biggest opposition to legalizing marijuana in the next session is the calendar and the clock. Virginia has a very short legislative cycle. We're looking at maybe only 30 days. But when you have the Executive Branch in Virginia coming out so strongly behind this, you have former Governor Terry McAuliffe -- who may be running again for governor this coming cycle -- backing it this weekend in a Washington Post op-ed. You have broad support across the Democratically controlled state Senate and House of Delegates, it seems like it's very likely this has the support necessary to pass, and we're feeling rather optimistic that it will. But we'll see that approved, you know, in the first several months of the year, if it were to be approved. And then you'll see the end of marijuana arrests in the Commonwealth, with retail outlets and other commercial activity probably another year down the line.
SIMONSNow, before I bring the doctor into the conversation, Erik, because there's a lot of confusion, here, especially in this region. Can you just briefly walk us through the marijuana laws in D.C. and in Maryland and in Virginia?
ALTIERISure. We've seen movement away from prohibition in all three states. In Maryland, if you have 10 grams or less, that is decriminalized. It's a civil violation, similar to a traffic ticket, with a fine of $100. Virginia, just this year, decriminalized 1 ounce or less, civil violation, fine of $25. And, in the District, it is completely legal for adults over the age of 21 to possess up to 2 ounces.
SIMONSDr. Sabet, 15 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, and medical marijuana is legal in 34 states. Do you and your organization support what the states are doing?
SABETWell, I think we have to make some distinctions, here, because things get very hazy, no pun intended, when discussing this issue. (laugh) The first is the distinction between decriminalization and legalization.
SABETSo, Erik even mentioned, you know, this idea of, well, you know, we won't have arrests, anymore, and that'll happen under legalization. Well, that can happen without legalization, and that should happen. I think, you know, people should not be arrested for low-level amounts. We shouldn't criminalize people. We should expunge records. That's very different than the retail sales of unlimited THC products. You know, today's pot is not your Woodstock weed of the past.
SABETAnd all of these laws are written in such an industry-friendly way, big tobacco couldn't have written better laws, because it's about profit. It's about money. It's about 99 percent potent, you know, waxes and shatter is what they call these very high potent items that people can vape, you know, these candies and cookies.
SABETSo, I think we have to make a distinction, because although you reference, Sasha-Ann, the Gallup poll, we could also reference the fact that, in all of these legalized states, the majority of localities have banned the sales of marijuana. So, they voted for it on the state level, but then when they kind of realized what it meant -- which is a pot shop in their community -- the majority of localities have rejected them. So, I think it's a lot more nuanced, and I think we have to make these policy distinctions.
SIMONSYeah, for sure. So, to be clear for our listeners, you don't support the legalization of marijuana, but you do support decriminalizing it. Is that right?
SABETYeah, I do. I do support removing criminal penalties for use. I do support education, expungement. That's real social justice. You know, it's amazing to me to see people who have been campaigning for a for-profit industry for the last 30 years, and then all of a sudden, after the horrendous murder of George Floyd, are now wearing the social justice banner. I got to say, it's very opportunistic.
SABETThese are for-profit entities, and I don't think people realize this. This is big tobacco, big alcohol, big pharma. They are all deeply embedded and involved in the marijuana industry. This isn't about some kid from Southeast D.C. who's going to -- you know, all the neighborhoods are going to be revitalized now that we, you know, have legalized marijuana. We know how the game is played.
SABETWe know how alcohol affects these communities. I've been doing community organizing with the city of Compton, California for quite a while, not exactly Beverly Hills. And in Compton, they have totally rejected the sales of marijuana there, even though it's legal in the state, because they see the deleterious effects of what legal drugs like alcohol, tobacco, all these things have had, and they don't want more of it. So, it's a much more nuanced issue than what's presented on a ballot.
SABETAnd I just want to say one other point, which is really key. Sasha Eisenberg wrote a Washington Post op-ed about it, actually, this last weekend. You know, the pro-side has outspent -- because it's all the for-profit folks -- the con side of this about 100 to 1 in the last election. So, yeah, those votes passed. Money talks, sadly, ballot initiatives talk. But what we don't talk about often is that 17 states in the legislature this year rejected legalization of marijuana, when actually, you know, presented in a sort of calmer, more deliberative, legislative way. So, I think this issue's not so black-and-white.
SIMONSYeah, a lot of nuance there. We got a tweet from @thingsforyoutosee. They said: decriminalize, legalize and expunge. This is not rocket science. People shouldn't be penalized for using cannabis, or any drugs, for that matter. So, let's change this broken, BS system already. Erik, good time to bring you back in. Why do you think marijuana should be legal in this country?
ALTIERIWell, one, I find it kind of interesting that the good doctor says he supports decriminalization. When we moved forward those laws in Virginia and Hawaii, I didn't see project SAM helping us advocate for the end of arrests. But we need to legalize marijuana, one, because -- as I believe me and Dr. Sabet would agree -- no one should be put in handcuffs for simple possession. But it does go beyond that.
ALTIERIQuite honestly, Al Capone would love it if alcohol was only decriminalized, because you're looking at a place in this country where over 50 percent of all Americans have tried marijuana at least once. You're looking at a situation where we're still arresting, you know, 600,000 people or so a year for simple possession. If you just simply decriminalize it, those marijuana consumers are not going to go away, and they still need to acquire the product from somewhere.
ALTIERIAnd at NORMAL, we believe, instead of leaving it to the anarchy that is prohibition and the utter lack of regulations, we should sensibly regulate and control marijuana, where we put it behind the counter of a state-licensed business that have to abide by rules, that have testing, that have ID checks, that have better oversight of this process than leaving it to somebody on a street corner or other potential illicit market elements.
SABETRight. If only it were that easy though, Erik, because you and I also both know that in these states that have done this, first of all, the underground market is thriving. I mean, drug dealers, you know, don't go to dental school if you've legalized weed in their state. They are undercutting the legal price. They don't have to deal with the regulations. Their delivery services are thriving.
SABETThey're doing plenty of business, and, in fact, they benefit from an environment where this is basically sanctioned by the state -- the activity of marijuana is sanctioned by the state. They benefit from that environment. They benefit from the normalization. They benefit from, actually, these laws, even if they don't play within the rules, number one.
SABETNumber two, we have not seen the proper regulation of cannabis in any of these states that have legalized, because we've seen pesticides, molds, bacteria. Just today, I read an article, Washington state, the -- and actually, Erik, I would be genuinely interested to see where NORMAL is. In Washington state, the industry there is pushing back against new regulation to deal with bacteria and mold, because they think it's going to be too onerous for them. And, of course, they are. Industries don't like regulation.
SIMONSYeah, well, we're almost out of time. I want to bring in this comment here from Bruce. Bruce from Loudoun County says he support legalization, because he suffered a serious accident. His doctors have told him that it would be better to be taking marijuana than to take Opioids. But he can't, because he lives in Virginia.
SABETCompletely different. Yeah, completely different issue. So, look, that would be like saying my doctor said I should take Opioids, so we should therefore legalize Opioids to anybody over 21 down the street.
ALTIERIThat's a ridiculous thing to say.
SABETThe medical issue is very different. There are components of marijuana that have medical promise. By the way, a lot of studies are showing it's not a good substitute for Opioids. They act on very different systems in the brain and body. THC is not the analgesic Opioids is, but...
SABET...it is different.
SIMONSWell, it looks like we're going to need some time to bring this topic back, because there's so much more that we can talk about. Dr. Kevin Sabet is the president and CEO of SAM. Erik Altieri is the executive director of NORMAL. Thank you both for joining us today.
SABETThanks for having me.
ALTIERIThanks for having me.
SIMONSThe segment on legalizing marijuana was produced by Kurt Gardinier. And our conversation about a new local film on lynchings in Montgomery County, that was produced by Richard Cunningham. The Kojo Winter Reading Show is fast-approaching. We want to know from you, what was the best book you read this year and why? Send us a voice memo about your favorite 2020 read to Kojo@wamu.org, subject line "Best Books." We're going to play a selection of your responses during the show next week.
SIMONSComing up tomorrow on the Kojo Nnamdi Show, our region, like the rest of the country, is seeing a surge in coronavirus cases. So, what should we be doing to protect ourselves during this uncertain time? We're going to talk about it. It all starts at noon tomorrow on The Kojo Nnamdi Show. Thanks for listening. I'm back again tomorrow. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons, in for Kojo Nnamdi.
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