Marijuana use decriminalized in some areas of the country

By Susan Johnson
Copy Editor

While more serious and violent crimes make the headlines, the constant debate of whether to legalize marijuana use continues. As some authorities have maintained, the plant known as cannabis does have a medicinal use, and some people use it for recreation. Still, law enforcement officials in some areas have gone to great lengths to eradicate it. What does the law say? It depends on what region of the country, and even what city, you live in.

California — setting a low priority

Nov. 7, 2000, Proposition 36 was passed, which allowed first- and second-time non-violent simple drug possession offenders the option to receive drug treatment and legal probation instead of incarceration. In September 2010, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed S.B. 1449 into law, decriminalizing the possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana. The bill reduces simple possession from a misdemeanor to an infraction.

In April 1973, Berkeley passed the Marijuana Ordinance I (BMI 1), forbidding law enforcement officers to arrest people for cannabis-related crimes unless cleared by the city council. A Superior Court judge later struck down BM1 because it violated a city code. In 1979, Berkeley passed the Marijuana Ordinance II (BM1 II), which made the enforcement of cannabis laws — including cultivation, sale and transport — the lowest priority for law enforcement.

In 2000, Mendocino County became the first county in the U.S. to repeal any type of punishment for non-medical personal use of cannabis when Measure G passed.

Nov. 3, 2004, Oakland passed Proposition Z, which made personal adult use, distribution, sale, cultivation and possession of non-medical cannabis the lowest priority for law enforcement. Proposition Z will allow the licensing, taxing and regulation of cannabis sales if California law is amended to allow it.

Colorado opts for registry

In November 2000, Colorado passed Amendment 20, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) was given the task of implementing and administering the Medical Marijuana Registry program. Nov. 1, 2005, Denver passed the Denver Alcohol-Marijuana Equalization Initiative, which repealed municipal penalties for possession of 1 ounce of cannabis, but only for people age 21 and older. However, this conflicts with state law because Colorado state and federal penalties remain in effect. Nov. 7, 2007, Denver passed an initiative to make cannabis the “lowest law enforcement priority.”

Nov. 2, 2009, in Summit County, Breckenridge voters approved Question 2F, decriminalizing possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana and related paraphernalia for people 21 years or older.

In Connecticut, in June 2011, the state decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. Offenders pay a $150 fine for a first offense and a fine ranging from $200 to $500 for subsequent offenses. Those younger than 21 face a 60-day driver’s license suspension.


Cannabis is not decriminalized on a statewide basis. In 2009, Cook County (City of Chicago and some northern suburbs) decriminalized cannabis possession of less than 10 grams or cannabis paraphernalia to a minimum fine for unincorporated areas only.

June 27, 2012, the city of Chicago decriminalized possession of 15 grams of marijuana or less with a city fine ranging from $250-$500. Bill McCaffrey, assistant press secretary for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, told The Rock River Times: “We recently passed an ordinance that allows Chicago police officers to write tickets for 15 grams or less of marijuana, but it is not decrminialized. Officers can still arrest people. People who use marijuana in parks or public places are still arrested. The ticket can be written instead of [the officer] arresting them.”

In February 2009, Springfield passed an ordinance allowing possession of marijuana under 2.5 grams to be charged as an ordinance violation instead of as a crime. In early 2010, Urbana decriminalized marijuana. For the last 10 years, Sugar Grove has had a similar decriminalization policy. In January 2012, the city of Evanston decriminalized possession of 10 grams of marijuana or less with a city fine ranging from $50-$500.

What would Rockford do about possibly decriminalizing marijuana? After repeated attempts, The Rock River Times was unable to get comments from the Mayor’s Office.

Louisiana — only in New Orleans

In early 2011, New Orleans decriminalized possession of marijuana.


March 28, 2000, Amherst passed a non-binding referendum that “de-prioritized” adult possession of cannabis and urged “the members of the Select-board and the Town Manager to persuade our state representative, state senator, U.S. representative and U.S. senators to repeal the prohibition of cannabis.” Feb. 16, 2006, the Joint Mental Health and Substance Abuse Committee of the Massachusetts General Court voted 6-1 in favor of a bill that would have made possession of less than an ounce of cannabis a civil fine of $250. Nov. 4, 2008, state voters approved decriminalizing the possession of marijuana. Any person caught with less than an ounce of marijuana, hash, hash oil, or smoking in public is punishable by a civil fine of $100.


Cannabis is not decriminalized on a statewide basis for non-medical purposes, but with the November 2008 election, Proposal 1 was passed by a majority of voters allowing medical marijuana to be cultivated, possessed and used by individuals who apply for and receive a state ID issued on the basis of one of an enumerated list of chronic medical conditions.


Cannabis has been decriminalized for the possession of 30 grams or less. If you have 30 grams or less, it is a misdemeanor with a possibility of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Possession of 30 grams or more is a felony.


In 2002, Nevada made possession of any amount of cannabis for non-medical use by people age 21 or older punishable by a $600 fine or drug treatment; stricter punishments exist for multiple offenses, cultivation, sale or driving under the influence. Also, for adults younger than 21 and minors, possession of less than 1 ounce. of cannabis is a Class E felony, punishable by one to four years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.


In 1975, Ohio made possession and cultivation of less than 100 grams (3.5 ounce) of cannabis and a gift of 20 grams (or 7 ounce) or less of cannabis a minor misdemeanor a (same class as minor traffic violations) punishable by a $150 fine, a six-month to five-year driver’s license suspension and a suspension of any professional licenses.


In 1972, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize cannabis. Laws changed again in 1995 that reduced penalties. Possession of 1 ounce or less became legally defined as a “violation” and now is punishable by a $500 to $1,000 fine that can be, in some jurisdictions, paid off by community service.


April 5, 2010, Philadelphia decriminalized cannabis. Possession of 30 grams or less is punishable by a $200 fine for first-time offenders and a $300 fine for all others. For possession of more than 30 grams, the punishment is unchanged.

Rhode Island

June 13, 2012, Rhode Island decriminalized cannabis. Possession of 28.34 grams or less is a civil violation with a penalty of $150 for most violations. The new law also dictates that three such violations within an 18-month period would be a misdemeanor with larger fines and possible prison. The law will take effect April 1, 2013. Citizens under age 18 would be subject to the same civil violation and would also be required to attend a drug education course as well as perform community service.


In theory, Texas law enforcement officers have the option of ticketing offenders in possession of less than 4 ounce (Class B misdemeanor) instead of arresting. But in practice, Travis County (Austin) is one of the only jurisdictions that opts for this. (Harris County policy follows similar suit.) Most such cases get dismissed in Travis County after paying a fine, providing community service, and taking drug classes.


Possession of less than 40 grams of cannabis is a misdemeanor in Washington state, punishable by a minimum mandatory sentence ranging from one to 90 days. In Seattle, Initiative 75, passed by Seattle voters in 2003, requires that “the Seattle Police Department. and City Attorney’s Office shall make the investigation, arrest and prosecution of marijuana offenses, when the marijuana was intended for adult personal use. The city’s lowest law enforcement priority.” The ordinance subsequently adopted by the Seattle City Council to implement the new policy, included provisions for the president of the city council to appoint an 11-member Marijuana Policy Review Panel to assess and report on the effects of this ordinance.

Wacoma, Wash., voters overwhelmingly favored local ballot measures to mandate that the criminal enforcement of cannabis possession offenses be lowest priority.


Cannabis is not decriminalized on a statewide basis. April 5, 1977, Madison passed Ordinance 23.20, which made possession of less than 112 grams (almost a quarter-pound) of marijuana or 28 grams of marijuana or 28 grams of cannabis legal when for personal use in a private place.

May 13, 1997, Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist signed a measure into law that made possession of less than 25 grams (0.88 ounces) of cannabis a municipal ordinance violation with a fine of $250 to $500 or imprisonment for 20 days. Prosecutors in Milwaukee can still charge offenders under more severe state law.

From the Oct. 17-23, 2012, issue

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