Standing on the Brink: What's at Stake for Drug Policy Today

Nov 07 2016

Standing on the Brink: What’s at Stake for Drug Policy Today

November 8th, 2016

The interminable, unsavory campaign preceding this election should not obscure today’s potential to be one of the greatest days in drug policy reform history—despite, not because of, the two leading presidential candidates.

With a respectful nod to the pro-reform positions of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, the two candidates with a chance of winning represent disaster and the status quo.

Trump’s fixation with heroin “pouring across our southern borders” and “poisoning the blood of our youth” is among many signs that he would be about as good for drug policy reform as he would be for immigrants’ or women’s rights. While far preferable to her opponent, Clinton’s tired old mix of opposition to national marijuana legalization, complicity with mass incarceration and coerced treatment, and foot-dragging on harm reduction suggests she’s only likely to adopt the right policies once they’ve already become the safe middle ground.

But if the presidential election is an exercise in damage limitation for drug policy reformers—the polls, pundits and betting markets think that the damage will indeed be limited—there are potential game-changers elsewhere. Five states today have the opportunity to legalize marijuana for adult use, while another four vote on legalization for medical use.

California, with its population of nearly 40 million, is the biggest prize. The significance of the largest, most powerful state in the world’s most powerful country fully regulating marijuana through Proposition 64 is hard to overstate. It would normalize, legitimize legalization like never before, making it much harder to prevent other states (or countries) following that path. The trickle of big-name politicians—such as Nancy Pelosi just a few days ago—publicly endorsing legalization would likely become a torrent.

Together, the five states—Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada—with adult-use legalization on the ballot have a population of over 56 million. Add the places that have already legalized—Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and the Washingtons, State and DC—and 70 million Americans, not far off one quarter of the population, could wake up tomorrow in legal-marijuana states. Now that’s a tipping point.

However, despite national support for legalization polling at 60 percent, none of the five states where it’s on the ballot consistently exceed that, though each has a realistic shot at victory today. California and Massachusetts have averaged in the high 50s and should pass their measures, while things are dicey in Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada, with support around 50 percent.

Meanwhile, Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota are voting on medical marijuana initiatives. Florida, polling over 70 percent for its Amendment 2 with a 60 percent requirement to pass it, seems likely to do so; the other three states are harder to predict. But with 25 states (plus DC) having already legalized for medical use, those states where suffering people are cruelly denied this medication look very likely to be in a minority come tomorrow.

Don’t forget, either, the Senate and House battles going on around the country; a voter guide here ranks your local Representative on their drug policy record.

But the legalization initiatives are today’s big ticket. The Influence has frequently covered the cynicism and racism of marijuana prohibition’s origins, and its self-defeating, brutal and still-racist continuation.

Legalization is certainly no panacea, and needs to be accompanied by other efforts to achieve fairness and freedom. But it’s so much better than the alternative, with numerous analyses showing significant positive outcomes and few negative ones in the already-legal states.

“California’s looking good, so is medical marijuana in Florida, and I’m confident we’ll prevail in other states as well,” says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which has driven and aided many legalization efforts. “We’re fast approaching the day when Americans will look back on the marijuana wars of recent decades the same way we now look back on alcohol Prohibition—as a costly, foolish and deadly mistake.”

After a wider election campaign that’s caused so much hand-wringing and pessimism, let’s hope so. And let’s hope that in this way, momentum can be sustained towards the rationalization and humanization of all our relationships with drugs.

  • Legalization will trigger a whole new wave of addiction, disease, crime and death. Congrats people. You brought this on yourselves, and you have only yourselves to blame.

    • Amanda Fewless

      It won’t change a damn thing