Tuesday’s Historic Election Brings Big Wins for Drug Reform

Kenyamarie Mahone (PO ’23)

After months of campaigning and punditry, Tuesday’s election brought a record breaking turn-out of nearly 160 million Americans. While much of the focus of this election season has been on the presidential race between incumbent Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, several citizen led ballot-initiatives made history this week. From education policy to business taxes, voters were asked to make tough decisions. Most notably, Americans voted a resounding “no” to war on drugs-era policies, with the legalization of marijuana emerging victorious in every state in which drug reform was on the ballot.  The growing support for drug reform, alternative sentencing, and decriminalization of schedule 1 drugs displays a marked shift away from punishment and prohibition, which have proved themselves to be ineffective remedies for America’s drug habit. Paving the way for a radically new approach to drug abuse and addiction is the state of Oregon, which took huge bounds this election to reform drug policies and lay the foundation for a more holistic approach to the drug crisis. 

Marijuana Wins Across the US 

Tuesday’s election garnered unprecedented support for the legalization of recreational and medical cannabis use across the United States. The increasing efficacy of marijuana in treating complications from diseases like cancer, epilepsy, and various eating disorders, paired with the promise of state tax revenues have led an increasing number of states to legalize the historically controversial plant. New Jersey, Arizona, Montana, and South Dakota, joined the 11 states which have already legalized cannabis for recreational use, with Arizona including provisions for expungement of criminal records for some marijuana related crimes. Unlike most other states, South Dakota made an especially large leap, changing marijuana’s status from entirely illegal, to legal for both medical and recreational use in the same election cycle. Mississippi also made history, legalizing marijuana consumption for medical purposes. 

For years activists have been pushing for the legalization of marijuana across the country. In 2012 Colorado became the first state to legalize marijuana. After the results from the 2020 election, 36 states have now legalized medical marijuana use, 15 of which have extended these laws to recreational use.  The legalization of recreational marijuana in these states is a rejection of prohibition style statutes that were the status quo just under a decade ago. These new laws will permit adults 21 and over to legally consume and purchase marijuana, while also creating a new source of tax revenue which some states like Oregon have used to fund addiction treatment programs.

Oregon Electorate Approve of Drug Policy Overhaul

For years, the United States has been fiercely battling an Opioid crisis that in 2019 claimed the lives of nearly 72,000 Americans. As increased scrutiny is being mounted against Big Pharma, and executives like former CEO of drug distributor Insys Therapeutics have been sentenced to 66 years in prison, prescription drugs are becoming harder to come by. With harsher regulations of prescription drugs and addiction growing throughout the US, many are turning to stronger opioids like illicit fentanyl, which can be between 50-100x stronger than morphine. With no end in sight for the opioid crisis, Oregon has taken some of the most radical steps in combating the drug epidemic. This election, the state passed Measure 110, legalizing psilocybin therapy (psychedelic mushrooms), and decriminalizing small amounts of the street drugs, cocaine, heroin, oxycontin, and methamphetamines. The decriminalization of these drugs reduces possession of small quantities to a Class E violation, with violators facing fines of up to $100. The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission has predicted that this measure could reduce drug possession arrests by almost 90%. Proponents of the measure hope that by decriminalizing small amounts of these drugs and increasing funding for treatment centers, people suffering from addiction will be directed toward medical support rather than prisons. By curtailing the criminal justice system, individuals will maintain critical access to government services, employment, housing, and education. Ultimately, the measure hopes to reframe addiction in Oregon as no longer being a crime, but as an acute health condition that must be treated as such.  

Incarceration Fails to Curb Drug Use

Oregon’s drug reform highlights the growing perception that incarceration is an ineffective and expensive remedy for America’s drug crisis. In a 2018 brief, Pew Research Center found that increased levels of incarceration had no correlation with decreased drug use, arrest, or overdose.  The study found that while states like Tennessee incarcerated non-violent drug offenders “at more than three times the rate of New Jersey, the states’ rates of self-reported drug use are virtually the same”. If incarceration was a successful deterrent for drug misuse and abuse, one would expect a state like Tennessee, with a high incarceration rate for drug offenders, to display lower rates of drug use. But this is not the case: national data makes clear that incarceration is an ineffective method to decrease substance abuse. In addition to incarceration being ineffective in treating drug addiction, it is also extremely expensive.  Another Pew study conducted in 2015 found that between 1980 and 2013, federal spending on prisons increased by 595 percent. Between 1980 and 2013, the federal inmate population increased from just 24,000 to over 215,000, with taxpayers fronting a bill of $6.7 billion in 2013 alone. Today, the United States incarcerates more people than any country in the world with over 2 million people currently being held in federal, state and local prisons or jails, nearly half of them for drug related offenses. 

Driving this massive expansion of American prisons are tough on crime policies created during what President Richard Nixon deemed a “War on Drugs”  beginning in the 1970s but catapulted forward by policies enacted during Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s. Harsher sentencing laws that keep people incarcerated for longer periods of time, mandatory minimum sentences that limit judges’ discretion in sentencing, and zero tolerance policing have worked in tandem to rapidly increase the number of prisons, jails and incarcerated individuals across the country.  Despite tougher sentencing laws aimed at deterring and decreasing drug use, drug arrests have greatly increased from 580,900 to 1,561,231 between 1980 and 2014. All of this demonstrates that the time, effort, and tax-payer money that has been poured into expanding America’s prisons has catastrophically failed to meet its goal of deterring drug use in the United States. 

Alternative Sentencing Shows Promise Across the US

As states begin to reckon with skyrocketing incarceration rates, some legislatures are opting for alternative approaches to battling addiction. A 2019 Pew Research Poll found that marijuana legalization is more popular than ever, with nearly 67% of Americans in favor of legalizing marijuana either recreationally or medically. Not only is legalization of marijuana popular, a shift towards alternative sentencing and decriminalization of other highly addictive drugs may also yield better outcomes in our fight against the Opioid crisis.

Changing the way law enforcement addresses drug use is a crucial step in battling addiction in the US. Many police precincts have begun working with community organizations to improve their response to drug related complaints. A small but increasing number of police officers are now being permitted to carry naloxone, a drug which can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. A Massachusetts program found that communities which provided law enforcement with Naloxone saw an 11% decrease in drug overdoses and no increase in opioid use as a result. Nationally, the increasing use of Naloxone has decreased overdose deaths by around 14%. Some states like South Carolina, have worked to expand opportunities for probation or parole for individuals convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. Since the expansion in 2010, South Carolina has seen a decrease in both prison population and violent crime rates. 

Despite these changes, many concerns still remain.  For some police precincts, the life-saving drug naloxone can be costly to purchase and time-consuming to train officers in how to properly administer it. Meanwhile, criticism of whether or not police are the best equipped to respond to drug related incidents are growing with calls to decrease funding for law enforcement, in return for increased funding for social services. And while expanding probation and parole opportunities is an important step, post-sentencing reforms do little to keep people out of prison in the first place.  Even with access to parole, formerly incarcerated individuals will continue to find themselves at a disadvantage when searching for employment, housing, healthcare, and even federal financial aid or student loans. All of these consequences only make it harder for individuals to successfully recover from drug addiction. 

Oregon’s decision to decriminalize small amounts of street drugs, and other states’ decision to legalize medical or recreational marijuana illustrates a monumental shift in political thought regarding America’s drug crisis. The realization that incarceration has failed to decrease rates of drug misuse is encouraging states to think creatively about how to best serve their most vulnerable community members. While some may argue that new approaches are too radical, or may be ineffective, it is clear that the old approach, incarceration, has done more harm than good to society.  

Prisons have been used as a crutch to cure all social ills for far too long. The perception that all undesirable behavior can be remedied by detention and captivity deserves deep reconsideration. The shift to alternative sentencing with regards to drugs represents just one aspect of badly needed criminal justice reform.  In order to meaningfully address mass incarceration and drug abuse throughout the country, greater attention must be paid to the underlying circumstances that drive individuals toward crime or drug use, such as poverty, inadequate healthcare, and insufficient access to education.  Oregon’s new approach to drug misuse will provide important insights into the future of drug treatment, punishment, and prohibition in the United States, and will shed light onto what may very well prove itself to be an entirely new form of criminal justice across the nation. 

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