Many things in the criminal justice system can be viewed as right or wrong, illegal or legal. Others have potential excuses and justifications. Few criminal justice policies are as varied as the way marijuana is treated by jurisdictions across the United States. Even after relaxing of punitive policies in some locations, cannabis policy positions are very different across the United States.
For policy leaders, experts, and the public to have a conversation, the terms of the discussion need to be established. Here are some basic cannabis definitions and policy summaries on cannabis policy positions from around the country.
Basic Cannabis Definitions
- Cannabis v. Marijuana –Weed, Marijuana, pot, ganja, devil’s lettuce, reefer, bud – The list of slang terms for Cannabis Sativa, Cannabis Indica, or hybrid plants is constantly amended and updated with each generation. Marijuana, or Marihuana as used in federal law, is referencing a name given to the plant because of its Mexican associations; the term was originally used to stir up racially-motivated support for criminalization. Marijuana is still often used in Criminal Justice settings. Cannabis is the actual name of the plant. Plain and simple. This is the preferred term, particularly in the medical cannabis policy discussion.
- Cannabinoids – These are the spectrum of chemicals that are produced by the Cannabis plant that have been identified by scientists as useful in one or more applications. More than just the notorious THC, these compounds have a variety of intoxicating and non-intoxicating effects, including the vast variety of medical applications. 148 cannabinoids have been identified to date.
- THC – Tetrahydrocannabinol. This is the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that gives people the intoxicating feeling often associated with cannabis consumption. Although this is the most well-known cannabinoid, it is but one of many useful cannabinoids.
- CBD – Cannabidiol is a non-intoxicating cannabinoid with a variety of applications. A mild anti-anxiolytic, CBD can have relaxing effect and can be consumed in a variety of methods. Medically, it has a multitude of purposes far beyond its famed seizure-control capability and is valued for its anti-inflammatory properties.
- Terpenes – Not unique to cannabis, terpenes are found in a variety of plants, including citrus, pine and flowers. Terpenes work synergistically with cannabinoids, modulating the effects they may have on the endocannabinoid system.
Cannabis Policy Positions
Citizens, community leaders, and elected officials often find themselves in agreement when practical applications are discussed, but often find division when policy terms are introduced. It is important the proper policy terms are used to frame legislative goals. Adjectives like full, total, or partial often cloud the issue, and generally do not properly describe the actual policy goal being pursued or objected to.
These cannabis policy positions may apply to solely medical use, or for both medical and adult-use cannabis products. Here is the sliding scale of cannabis policy, starting the most restrictive to the most accessible.
- Criminalization – This is the current state of punitive prohibition that was pervasive through the United States until less than a decade ago, and still exists in Virginia. Possession, sale, or distribution of the plant Cannabis, or any extracts, derivatives, or infused products, is punishable by a misdemeanor or felony. This means jail time, permanent criminal records, legal fees including court-imposed fines, costs, and attorney fees, and the variety of collateral consequences that stem from a drug conviction. Even medical marijuana patients in Virginia are only offered an affirmative defense in court, still subjecting them to potentially negative police encounters.
- Decriminalization – The next step is still a form of state-imposed prohibition; rather than criminal penalties, simple possession offenses are classified as civil infractions. This can increase judicial efficiency by allowing prepayment of fines, reduces jail populations, reduces criminalization of Virginia’s residents, particularly those who are young, minorities, or of low-income and middle-income households, avoids several collateral consequences of drug offenses, but still collects fines for Virginia, allows search for plain smell, and can lead to criminal charges based on other situations, i.e. possession with a firearm (federal) or possession with intent to distribute. New York is currently a decriminalized state.
- Depenalization – Although rarely used in the media or most policy discussions, this is the first non-prohibitive policy towards adult cannabis possession a state can adopt. Unlike the previous two policies, this policy removes all criminal sanctions for the simple possession of cannabis by adults. This policy shift often places new restrictions on things like public consumption or display of cannabis product but does not fine or punish adults merely in possession of cannabis or cannabis products. However, in a depenalized jurisdiction, there is no form of commercial, legal access to cannabis, which often creates a "grey market" of gifting schemes or require consumers to grow their own product. States that follow this policy include District of Columbia and Vermont.
- Commodification – This policy is often what is referred to as “full legalization” or “tax and regulate model.” This policy allows a state-regulated cannabis market that pays taxes, has legally operated store fronts and grow operations, and allows adult consumers to access medical and/or adult-use cannabis products in a safe, controlled environment. This policy is the safest for the consumer, the retailer, and the most profitable and controllable for state governments. Colorado is the most well-known state that follows this policy.
In today's google-driven world, people researching the cannabis industry are often alone in searching through flashy web pages and pun-filled names without any reference or starting point.
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