Much of the media’s attention has been focused on state level marijuana legalization efforts, but there has been a wave of important local victories for the marijuana reform movement.
In just the past few weeks, New Orleans, Louisiana and Tampa, Florida both took steps to decriminalize marijuana. Police in New Orleans now have the option to issue a municipal summons when they catch people in possession of marijuana. It would result in only a $40 fine for a first offense and fines of up to $100 for repeated offenses. Similarly in Tampa, when police find people in possession of a small amount of marijuana, instead of arresting them they can issue a citation that would result in a $75 fine for a first offense and increasingly larger fines for repeated offenses.
These cities join a growing list of large cities and counties which have all taken positive steps on their own. In the past 12 months, Miami-Dade County, Miami Beach, Palm Beach County, Broward County, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee all adopted local marijuana decriminalization laws or reduced the penalties for simple possession. In addition, there are signs several other cities could soon follow suit. Officials in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania are currently debating a new marijuana ordinance and expect to move forward with it in the near future.
These victories are important for two reasons. First, these local victories impact a huge number of people. Combined, the localities listed above contain over seven and a half million people. That is more people than in all but about a dozen of the largest states.
The second reason is due to the nature of American politics. Marijuana reform is a quintessential example of bottom-up political change.
While most top state and federal officials are still reluctant to embrace marijuana reform, that will change. An important reason why is that some of these mayors, county commissioners, and councilmembers who recently supported local marijuana reforms will eventually move up in the world of politics. Local politics is frequently the launchpad for higher office. Of the current governors, all but two have previous experience in lower levels of government, and most have at one point served as mayors or state legislators. Among the current members of Congress, more than 300 moved to their current federal position after serving as an elected local or state official. Today’s city councilors and mayors are often tomorrow’s governors and members of Congress. Convincing as many local officials to publicly endorse a new approach regarding marijuana assures they will likely carry these positions as they move forward with their political careers.