US voters took aim at drug prohibition, approving the use of medical or recreational cannabis across several states, as Oregon moved to slash possession penalties even for hard drugs – including cocaine and heroin.
As the presidential race and key contests in the House and Senate played out on Tuesday night, a series of ballot initiatives seeking to chip away at America’s war on drugs were also given the green light, seeing punishments relaxed for a variety of offenses, most of them linked to cannabis.
Joining dozens of other states to either fully legalize or reduce criminal penalties for the possession and cultivation of marijuana – which remains illegal at a national level – Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota each passed measures liberalizing their cannabis laws.
Though Arizona voters rejected a similar measure four years ago, the state’s Proposition 207 sailed through with more than 59 percent of the vote, according to Decision Desk HQ. The measure legalizes recreational cannabis use for those 21 and older, allowing adults to possess and cultivate limited amounts of the plant. Though use for medical reasons was legalized in1996.
Montana also passed a pair of similar initiatives, one legalizing possession and use of cannabis and another setting the legal age at 21.
New Jersey’s Question 1 was approved by a significant margin, with nearly 67 percent voting ‘yes’ to legalize recreational cannabis. However, the law will only take effect after the passage of a separate measure establishing regulations for the state’s new marijuana market, which could be introduced as soon as Thursday.
Medical cannabis was also introduced in Mississippi, which became the thirty-fifth state to create a similar program. The proposal that passed, Initiative 65, will allow those suffering from 22 debilitating medical conditions to legally obtain and use marijuana.
Voters had an option to vote for an alternative law introduced by the state legislature which would have legalized medical cannabis but would have restricted the use only to terminally ill patients. Rejected Initiative 65A was deemed a “cynical effort by lawmakers to misdirect voters” by Paul Armentano, deputy director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
WE DID IT! What an incredible day for patients! Voters overwhelmingly approved INITIATIVE 65, making Mississippi the 35th state to establish a medical marijuana program. Thank you to everyone who supported 65 & got out & voted today. You made a difference for these patients! pic.twitter.com/E1vHB1OG1i
Meanwhile, both recreational and medical marijuana passed in South Dakota, allowing adults 21 and older to cultivate up to three plants, as well as possess and distribute up to one ounce, while medical patients will be allotted a three-ounce limit.
Oregon voters gave the nod to the most sweeping reform to pass on election night, Measure 110, an unprecedented move to decriminalize the possession of all drugs, including small amounts of such hard street narcotics as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.
While the distribution and manufacture of illicit substances remains fully illegal in the state, possession of “personal non-commercial” specified amounts will no longer carry a criminal penalty under the new law, instead reducing those offenses to Class E violations, which pose a maximum fine of $100. The measure also mandates that tax revenues derived from Oregon’s legal cannabis industry – established in 2014 – will be used to fund an addiction recovery program.
The initiative is expected to see 3,700 fewer felony and misdemeanor possession convictions in the state each year, a 91-percent reduction, according to estimates from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.
“Today’s victory is a landmark declaration that the time has come to stop criminalizing people for drug use,” Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supported the proposal, told AP.
Measure 110 is arguably the biggest blow to the war on drugs to date.
Reactions to the move were mixed, however, as some two dozen district attorneys across Oregon labeled the measure reckless, urging residents to vote no on a proposal they argued would make drug use more socially acceptable. That push-back ultimately failed to defeat the effort.
Measure 110 – whose penalty reductions will take effect in February – was also joined by Measure 109, another successful initiative that moved toward legalizing psychedelic mushrooms and fungi for therapeutic use for adults over 21. During a two-year “development period,” the Oregon Health Authority will establish rules for the licensed production, sale and possession of the fungus in order to treat chronic mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, in a supervised setting. Being the first state to pass such a measure, Oregon has led the way on decriminalization efforts over the years, also becoming the first to slash criminal penalties for cannabis possession in 1973.
In another landmark vote, a measure to soften enforcement surrounding psilocybin mushrooms and other natural psychedelics passed in the nation’s capital.
Instead of outright legalizing or decriminalizing the substances – also known as “entheogens” when used for religious or ritual purposes – DC’s Initiative 81 urges police to treat those offenses with the lowest level of priority, also calling on prosecutors to stop pursuing related charges.
“Initiative 81’s success was driven by grassroots support from DC voters,” said Melissa Lavasani, who chairs a group that campaigned for the measure, Decriminalize Nature DC, calling the move a “common sense drug policy reform.”
Before the initiative takes effect, however, lawmakers will have a 30-day Congressional review period to reconsider, opening the possibility the measure will be blocked, as was the fate of a 2014 legalization proposal in which officials were ultimately barred from using state funds to create a system to tax and regulate cannabis. Unlike in other US states, local laws in DC can be overturned by Congress, who has oversight over them.
Denver, Colorado became the first locality in the US to decriminalize mushrooms last year, though the substance remains a Schedule I drug under federal law, which remains in force regardless of any local or state-level efforts to reduce or abolish penalties.
President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1971, calling drug abuse “America’s public enemy number one” and citing addiction rates of US troops returning from the Vietnam War. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was created in 1973. Since then, the drug war has seen covert and overt US interventions in places ranging from Mexico to Colombia, including the 1989 invasion of Panama. In the US, the drug war translated into skyrocketing incarceration rates.
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