America turns over a new leaf: US citizens overwhelmingly vote in favour of drug decriminalisation

November 19, 2020

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3 min read

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What's going on here?

The US election results are in, and the War on Drugs appears to be on its way out. Over thirty states have voted to substantially relax their drug laws, with many opting to abolish criminal penalties for the possession of illegal substances.

What does this mean?

In all 32 states where drug reform was on the electoral ballot, the proposed policy changes were successful. This outcome represents an unprecedented rejection of the so-called “War on Drugs” that has formed an integral part of the American criminal justice system for decades.

Citizens in Arizona, Montana and New Jersey voted to decriminalise the possession of cannabis, which means recreational marijuana use is now legal in a total of fifteen US states. Furthermore, Mississippi and South Dakota legalised medical marijuana and voters in Washington DC decriminalised the use of psychedelic plants.

While many states relaxed rules for possession of recreational or medicinal substances, Oregon took a more radical approach. As part of their drug reform initiative, Oregon is now the first US state to decriminalise the possession of all drugs, including small amounts of cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin. Rather than receiving a criminal sentence, individuals caught with such drugs will be given the choice to either pay a fine of $100 or complete a health assessment at an addiction treatment centre.

What's the big picture effect?

This widespread decision to relax (and in some cases, remove) drug laws within the US represents a societal paradigm shift as regards the approach to addiction and drug abuse. According to the Drug Policy Alliance’s executive director, Kassandra Frederique, “[this] victory is a landmark declaration that the time has come to stop criminalising people for drug use”.

Although these changes may appear radical at first glance, there were a number of carefully considered policy determinations behind the push for reform. They include, among others, a desire to reduce incarceration levels, the need to address the current racial disparities in drug sentencing and a newfound focus on addiction management & rehabilitation efforts.

It’s important to note that these are state-specific measures, and that marijuana and other drugs continue to be illegal at federal level. This demonstrates that lawmakers are still wary of enacting such measures of their own accord, preferring instead to do so only by ballot initiative.

For their part, Oregon’s decision to decriminalise all drugs mimics legislation already in use by several European countries. Portugal, the Netherlands and Switzerland have all previously passed laws decriminalising possession of hard drugs in small quantities; measures which have proven successful in reducing the overall number of drug-related deaths. As one of the states most affected by the ongoing opioid crisis, it is hoped that Oregon’s new measures will give rise to a similar result.

Given the United States’ prominent position on the global stage, these changes may have an impact on UK drug laws as well. Depending on the success of the relaxed measures, perhaps Parliament will see increased proposals to reform the way our criminal justice system deals with illegal drug use. At the very least, the new laws are prompting a conversation surrounding the efficacy of the current approach and the potential need for change. 

It’s too early to say whether the US is waving the white flag in the War on Drugs, but these policy changes are certainly a step in the right direction.

Report written by Jade Jordan

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