When lawmakers in Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana, they may not have considered the effect it would have on interstate travelers.
The two states which legalized marijuana for recreational purposes joined 23 other American states that have legalized it in various ways for medicinal use. The other 25 states maintain bans of varying severity, creating a danger zone for travelers from more lenient states.
Stories of traveler run-ins with law enforcement are becoming more common. Complexity and confusion surrounding marijuana laws are wreaking havoc for Americans on the move.
Across State Lines
Marijuana possession is still illegal federally, but Attorney General Eric Holder has instructed the Department of Justice not to interfere with state moves toward legalization. Neighboring states, however, make no assurances to travelers bringing weed they bought legally into a place where it’s illegal.
The Washington Post reports how jails in Goodland, Kansas and Chappell, Nebraska – both right near the Colorado border – are blowing through their budgets as their prisoner rolls swell with travelers caught carrying marijuana purchased legally. Medical marijuana customers from states like California have been arrested and threatened with up to a decade in prison by driving what is legal, prescribed medicine in their home across the state line.
Support for marijuana legalization has risen sharply in the past fifty years. A Gallup poll from 2013 reported that 58% of Americans support the legalization of marijuana, up from 50% in 2011 and a fledgling 12% in 1969.
The sharp uptick in support for legalization is reflected in shifting policy at the state level. Beyond Washington and Colorado, states have begun loosening their stance on marijuana in various ways. Utah, Florida and Alabama allow the use of a marijuana extract in order to help patients who suffer from seizures.
While marijuana advocates recognize these moves at the state level and the Justice Department’s lenient stance, this moment is a fragile opportunity for the legalization movement. If states at the vanguard of legalization don’t handle the legal, financial and logistical challenges associated with legalization, the increase in public support will quickly evaporate.
Correlations between state support and political stances have unsurprising similarities, but both Republican and Democratic alignments have shown 2-4% increases from 2012-2013.
Oregon and Alaska will ask voters to decide whether marijuana should be legal in their state this November. If Florida votes in favor of medical marijuana, it would create a second marijuana-friendly zone on the east coast. Travelers from New York or New Jersey bringing their medical pot to Florida could face prosecution in Georgia, Virginia and Alabama, where possession is illegal.
In Oklahoma, medical marijuana is the subject of several petitions, while another petition is proposing wider legalization. Shifting attitudes and guidelines are creating a state-by-state patchwork wherein travelers can quickly find themselves in trouble if they’re not careful.
California, Oregon and Washington State were the first states to legalize pot for medicinal uses. Between 1999 and 2010, ten more states joined them. The rate of states allowing medicinal marijuana is rising, with ten more joining the group in the last four years.
Medical marijuana is typically prescribed to treat pain or for specific conditions like glaucoma. A new study by Dr. Marcus Bachhuber of the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the University of Pennsylvania, however, claims that it may have broader public health benefits. According to the study reported in the Globe and Mail, states in which medical marijuana is legal have seen deaths due to opioid overdoses drop by 25%.
Researchers don’t know how opioid deaths and medicinal marijuana are connected. Opioid overdose deaths increased across the US from 4,030 in 1999 to 16,651 in 2010, the years covered by Bachhuber’s study. Three quarters of those totals involved prescription pain killers. While researchers are hesitant to draw a strong conclusion from this correlation, the use of medical marijuana to treat pain may be helping to decrease patient deaths from other pain killers. Researchers say more work must be done to expand our understanding of the public health benefits of medical marijuana.
Marijuana has been legal for medicinal purposes in Washington for 16 years. Purchase and possession of one ounce or less is now legal for everyone. Medicinal marijuana users can possess up to 24 ounces, but smoking in public is subject to a fine of $100.
Idaho is surrounded by more lenient neighbors, but punishes possession of three ounces with up to a year in jail along with a fine of $1,000. Advocates accuse the state police of intentionally targeting interstate travelers using license plate readers. Marijuana seized by police is up from 131.2 pounds in 2011 to 645 pounds in 2012 and 721.5 in 2013. Drug-related arrests are rising and advocates claim out-of-state drivers are often asked about whether they possess contraband before they’re informed of why they were stopped.
Joshua Mularski was traveling from Washington with a lapsed vehicle registration when he was stopped by Idaho police. Officer Christopher Thompson noticed a strong smell of marijuana coming from the vehicle and ordered Mularski to exit the vehicle.
Stating that he had no intention to sell pot in Idaho, Mularski told Thompson he was a grower in Washington who sold to licensed users. The officer informed him that bringing any marijuana across state lines “was a mistake.”
Mularski faced a maximum sentence of a year in prison and a $1,000 fine. A typical conviction is more often 2 – 10 days in prison with probation. That Mularski was able to agree to a $500 bond and have his case dismissed was a blessing. Other travelers may not be so lucky.