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Election 2014: Americans Ready to End the War on Drugs

When historians look back at the movement to end the war on drugs, they might very well point to the 2014 election as the moment when it all got real.

With marijuana legalization measures passing in Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., and with groundbreaking criminal justice reforms passing in California and New Jersey, there’s no longer any denying that drug policy reform is a mainstream — and quite urgent — political demand.

These wins will boost efforts already underway in states such as California, Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada and Arizona to end marijuana prohibition in 2016, as well as efforts in Congress and around the country to scale back the disastrous policies of mass incarceration.

And speaking of 2016, yesterday’s results now mean that Presidential candidates and other prominent candidates for public office will have no choice but to take positions on these issues, which could prove to be another tipping point in national politics. While some major politicians have yet to evolve on marijuana legalization and drug policy reform, that’s likely to change in the coming months and years, as drug war proponents start to pay a heftier price at the polls for their cluelessness.

These resounding victories are even more notable for having happened in a midterm election year, as younger voters turned out in smaller numbers than 2012 and Democrats suffered at the polls. They’re another confirmation of drug policy reform’s broad support across the political spectrum — it’s no longer just a liberal cause but now a conservative and bipartisan one as well. Here are some of last night’s highlights:

  • Oregon voters elected to make their state the third in the nation to legally regulate the production, distribution and sale of marijuana. Like the historic laws adopted in Colorado and neighboring Washington two years ago, this new law will legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana for adults 21 and older and create a statewide system to regulate production and sales.  
  • Alaska became the first “red” state to legally regulate the production, distribution and sale of marijuana – making its victory all the more significant.
  • Residents in the nation’s capital voted 70% in favor of a measure to legalize the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana for adults over the age of 21 and allows individuals to grow up to six marijuana plants in their home. Washington, D.C. laws prevented the ballot initiative from addressing the taxation and sale of marijuana, but the D.C. Council is currently considering a bill that would tax, regulate and strictly control the sale of marijuana to adults.
  • California voters took a significant step toward ending mass incarceration and the war on drugs by approving Proposition 47. On the heels of reforming the state’s “three strikes” law in 2012, Californians changed six low-level, nonviolent offenses, including simple drug possession, from felonies to misdemeanors. Prop. 47 has the potential to drastically reduce the number of people in state prisons and county jails — who don’t need to be there for reasons of either justice or safety — by making 20,000 current people eligible for resentencing and reducing new admissions by 40,000 to 60,000 every year.
  • In New Jersey, voters chose to reform a broken bail system. Public Question No. 1 will significantly reduce the amount of people behind bars in New Jersey for nothing more than a low-level drug law violation. A report released by DPA early last year found that on any given day, nearly 75 percent of the 15,000 individuals in New Jersey jails are awaiting trial rather than serving a sentence.
  • A strong majority of Floridians — 57 percent — voted in favor of Amendment 2, a ballot initiative that makes Florida, with its huge population and bellwether status in American politics, the very first state in the South to see a majority vote in favor of a medical marijuana law. However, it won’t be enacted into law because Florida is the only state that requires 60 percent to pass a ballot initiative. Casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson contributed $5 million dollars to stop Amendment 2, the largest contribution ever by a single donor to oppose a drug policy initiative.
  • Guam just became the first U.S. territory to adopt medical marijuana.  Guam is quite conservative politically, and home to a significant U.S. military presence, so this victory is another example of medical marijuana’s broad support across the ideological spectrum.
  • In New Mexico, voters in Albuquerque and Santa Fe decided by wide margins that their counties should decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. A few months ago, the City of Santa Fe became the first city in the state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

This election has solidified drug policy reform’s place as a mainstream political issue, as voters across the country have accelerated the unprecedented momentum to legalize marijuana and end the wider drug war.

It’s always an uphill battle to win drug policy reform initiatives in a year like this, when young people are so much less likely to vote, which makes these victories all the sweeter.  

While public opinion has shifted dramatically over the last decade in favor of reforming marijuana laws and dismantling the egregious excesses of the drug war, we can’t expect our country’s entrenched prison-industrial complex to just go away quietly.

It’s up to us — as people who care about science, compassion, health and human rights — to ensure that real change continues as quickly as possible.

By Jag Davies, publications manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.