Marijuana Wins Big

This Election Day was a watershed moment for the movement to end marijuana prohibition — no other reform was approved by so many citizens on so many ballots this year.  Legalization initiatives prevailed in four out of five states, and medical marijuana initiatives prevailed in all four states this year.


It’s a cognitively dissonant moment for those of us working to end marijuana prohibition and the drug war, as we simultaneously reflect on this wide range of unprecedented victories and face the prospect of the federal government throwing a wrench at them — all while digesting the revelation of how deeply divided and unstable American society has become.

President Obama has said that federal prohibition is “not going to be tenable” if California and other states legalize.  But the prospect of Donald Trump as our next president is profoundly troubling.  While Trump has repeatedly pledged to respect state marijuana laws, his rhetoric on broader criminal justice issues has been largely unfriendly.  His vice president and his most likely appointees to senior law enforcement positions, Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie, have consistently opposed marijuana law reform.

For what it’s worth, support for drug policy reform is rising among Republicans. All four states that approved medical marijuana this year also voted Republican. Medical marijuana amendments routinely passed the Republican-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee over the past three years, while an amendment to end federal marijuana prohibition outright failed by just nine votes last year in the House.

It will take some time for us to see silver linings, but if we are to move forward we will have to find places of common understanding and shared values. We can only hope that the growing bi-partisan and popular national support for ending the drug war and pursuing policies based on health and compassion will have some influence.

The most significant of yesterday’s victories was California’s Proposition 64, which legalizes the adult use of marijuana in the nation’s largest state. It enacts across-the-board retroactive sentencing reform for marijuana offenses, while establishing a comprehensive, strictly-controlled system to tax and regulate businesses to produce and distribute marijuana in a legal market. Experts are calling Prop. 64 the “new gold standard” for marijuana policy because of its cutting edge provisions to undo the most egregious harms of marijuana prohibition on impacted communities of color and the environment as well as its sensible approaches to public health, youth protection, licensing and revenue allocation.

By shifting away from counterproductive marijuana arrests and focusing instead on public health, states that have legalized marijuana are diminishing many of the worst harms of the war on drugs, while managing to raise substantial new revenues. A recent Drug Policy Alliance report found that Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon have benefited from a dramatic decrease in marijuana arrests and convictions, as well as increased tax revenues, since the adult possession of marijuana became legal.  At the same time, these states did not experience increases in youth marijuana use or traffic fatalities.

Tuesday’s results also have monumental international ramifications, as momentum grows to end marijuana prohibition in Europe and the Americas.  Over the past two years, Jamaica has enacted wide-ranging marijuana decriminalization; Colombia and Puerto Rico issued executive orders legalizing medical marijuana; and medical marijuana initiatives have been debated in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Italy. In 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize marijuana on a national level, and Canada’s governing Liberal Party has promised to do the same.

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