What First-Time Smokers Should Know About Marijuana Legalization

Photographed by Tayler Smith.
We're still reeling from one of the most divisive and surprising presidential election results in recent history. But a few states woke up this morning to a different kind of announcement: Nearly all marijuana-related measures on the ballot this year were approved, vastly expanding the number of states with recreational and medical cannabis programs in the works. Even still, there are plenty of weird gray areas, including the fact that marijuana is still illegal at the federal level. So we spoke with Amanda Reiman, manager for marijuana law and policy at the Drug Policy Alliance, to find out what things might look like in the next few months. Here's what you need to know about this new world we find ourselves in.
Let's start by reviewing the victories last night.
"There were nine initiatives on the ballot related to adult use [a.k.a. legalization for recreational use] or medical use, and eight of them were successful. We saw medical cannabis added in Florida and Arkansas, which became the first southern states to have comprehensive medical cannabis programs. We also saw medical cannabis win in North Dakota (by quite a large margin) and in Montana. "On the adult use side, we saw victories not only in California, but also Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada. The only loss came from Arizona, where the against side had a lot more money than the pro side."

What does legalization mean in practice?
"Something that legalization gets you that medical cannabis [alone] doesn’t is the full legalization of the actual cannabis. Medical programs are basically giving legal exemption to people who have the state-required documentation. But in a state like California, even though we’ve had medical cannabis for 20 years, our only rights under prop 215 were our abilities to defend ourselves in court using our patient status. "So for people waking up in California today, marijuana is a legal product. That means police can't stop and search you because they smell marijuana. You can carry an ounce of marijuana with you walking around, [and] you can gift cannabis to other adults. That’s completely legal as of right now, as is the cultivation of six plants for adults and reduction of penalties. What was a felony yesterday is now a misdemeanor, so those who are in jail because of marijuana felonies can now apply to get their sentences reduced. All of that takes effect in California right away."

We still have a federal government that doesn’t admit that cannabis has any medical value.

Amanda Reiman
How quickly will these new policies take effect?
"It really depends on the state. In a medical state, it depends on whether they allow for home growing, whether they have dispensaries, etc. So medical states tend to take a little longer because they're usually coming from complete prohibition. As we've seen across the country previously, sometimes that transition can go very smoothly. But other times, like in the state of New York, we're seeing a lot of difficulty because of strict regulations put on doctors who recommend. It depends on how willing the legislature is to follow out the letter of the initiative. "In states that already have medical cannabis programs, which are usually the states that transition to adult use, it's really a case of transitioning a medical market over to one that handles medical patients and those 21 and over. So, similar to Colorado, states like California have already had medical programs."
Where does federal policy stand?
"There’s a still a difference. We still have a federal government that doesn’t admit that cannabis has any medical value. Even though they have made statements in the past that they’ll respect state laws, we do have a new regime coming in. We are going to have to resolve the federal conflict. And it may be harder for us to do that now. We may have more people in charge who believe in a prohibitionist, law-and-order paradigm. "But what gives me hope is that we also have more people than ever in the house and senate on both sides of the aisle who support marijuana legislation. Adding all of that representation at the federal level after last night is going to put more pressure on the federal government to do something."

Do you have any tips for first-time cannabis users?
"Inhalation through smoking or vaporization is the safest form for someone who’s new to cannabis, because it’s the easiest way to control your dose and stop once you’re had enough... You can always take more, but you can’t take less. "If you do end up taking too much and you do feel the effects of a THC overdose, which can be anxiety and rapid heart rate, you’re not in any physical danger. But it’s good to have something to eat, some water, and to relax. I tell people to turn on a movie or TV show that they can feel comforted by. If you do really panic, you can go to the ER. But cannabis is not going to result in a fatal overdose. "Do your research. Go online and see how people are using cannabis and feel free to use it the first time with someone who’s more experienced. I call this 'guided use.' It means you’re going to be in a set and setting that’s more likely to lead to a positive experience."

Even though it’s legal, you can still be fired from your job for being a cannabis consumer.

Amanda Reiman
Is there anything else marijuana users should know?
"They should know [in California] they can’t go to a dispensary and buy marijuana today. Stores that will sell to adults 21 and up won’t be open until January 2018. You still can’t go to a dispensary without a medical card. "You can still get a ticket for smoking in public. You can’t smoke just walking around, you can’t smoke where you can’t smoke tobacco. Even though it’s legal, you can still be fired from your job for being a cannabis consumer. Employers still have the right to maintain a drug-free workplace, meaning they can drug test as a condition for employment or if there’s an accident on the job. You’re also not immune to that if you’re a medical cannabis patient. "It’s going to take a while for the stigma around cannabis to dissipate. Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean that overnight people are going to see it for what it really is. For those who are curious but still feeling a little ashamed, that's okay. They should talk to their friends who use it or [are] interested in it and learn about it together. This is the very beginning of a whole new consciousness for people."

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