While much attention has been given in recent years to successful statewide efforts legalizing marijuana, far less attention has been paid to the adoption of local marijuana-related policy reforms.
Advocacy for policy changes at the local and municipal levels remains necessary in jurisdictions where cannabis is not yet legal – or in some cases, even decriminalized – under state law, and where legislative prospects for such statewide reforms appear unlikely in the immediate future. In many of these jurisdictions, such as in Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Texas, local activists and lawmakers have passed numerous ordinances and local ballot questions providing for significantly lower cannabis-related penalties than those provided under state law. In some instances, local rules no longer provide for any penalties with respect to the possession of minor amounts of cannabis. In others, local jurisdictions have enacted policies largely ceasing the enforcement of state-specific marijuana possession laws.
“These local policies reflect the reality that most Americans favor legalizing cannabis,” NORML’s Deputy Director Paul Armentano said. “While state lawmakers are not always responsive to this sentiment, local lawmakers are frequently moving forward to adopt policies that reflect voters’ wishes; specifically they are ending arrests by enacting municipal ordinances decriminalizing or depenalizing cannabis possession.”
As a result, today, even in jurisdictions where cannabis remains criminalized under state law, tens of millions of Americans reside in cities and counties where local laws either depenalizing or decriminalizing cannabis-related activities are in effect. For example, in Florida, an estimated 4.3 million people reside in localities where marijuana possession is treated like a civil violation rather than a criminal offense. (Florida state law defines marijuana possession as a crime, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.) In Texas, an estimated 1.4 million people reside in cities and counties where local police are largely discouraged from enforcing low-level marijuana violations. (Texas state law defines marijuana possession as a crime, punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine.)
In Pennsylvania, nearly 20 percent of the state’s population reside in communities that have decriminalized cannabis possession. (Pennsylvania state law defines the possession of 30 grams or less of cannabis as a crime, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.) In Kentucky, nearly one-third of the population live in counties that have largely ceased prosecuting minor marijuana offenses. In Ohio, over two dozen towns have eliminated all criminal and civil penalties for low-level marijuana possession offenses.
These policies not only consistent with voters’ sentiments, but they also free up local law enforcement and prosecutorial resources to focus on other, more serious criminal activities.
Since 2012, NORML has identified over 120 cities or counties that have adopted local ordinances providing for significantly lower cannabis-related penalties than those provided under state laws. This updated report, while not intended to be all-inclusive, highlights the growing number of communities that have advanced localized cannabis liberalization policies.