Is the U.S. mellowing out on marijuana? That’s what Time magazine asks after not only Denver but also the small town of Hailey, Id., passed pro-marijuana measures last week. San Francisco, Oakland, and Santa Monica in California, along with Missoula, Mt., and Seattle have passed laws that give the lowest priority to enforcing existing marijuana laws. The federal penalty for possession of even a minuscule amount is a misdemeanor punishable by one year in prison and $1,000. Penalties are higher for cultivation, sale, and crossing state lines. Federal magistrates generally use state and local laws as sentencing guidelines – unless there is federal intervention, which doesn’t occur in every drug case because they would increase court time and costs.
Last year, the pro-marijuana lobby tried to pass legalization laws in Nevada and Colorado; both failed. Jim Spinelli of Hailey’s Chamber of Commerce insists there is no grassroots pro-pot movement and expressed surprise that three of four pro-pot measures passed: legalizing medical marijuana and decriminalizing both marijuana itself and industrial hemp. (The only measure that failed asked for a straight-out legalization of marijuana.) A town of 8,500, Hailey is 12 miles from the Sun Valley ski area. In 38 states, incarceration still could await even first-time offenders possessing small amounts of marijuana. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) says there are 65,000-85,000 people incarcerated in this country for cannabis-related reasons. NORML spokesman Allen St. Pierre says the law is growing increasingly lenient in many places.