Australian Outlook

In this section

US Drug Legalisation Initiatives are a Win for Social Justice

24 Dec 2020
By Nancy Schneider
Cannabis plants. Source: Lakia Hinson

The focus of last week’s elections was undeniably the presidency, but numerous down-ballot races and initiatives also made history.  With six states and Washington DC approving drug legalisation measures, America appears to be losing its war on drugs, and that’s a good thing.

This is an article published earlier this year and selected by our committee of commissioning editors as one of the best of 2020.

Amid the profound uncertainty in the days following the election before Joe Biden was declared the winner, some notable bright spots emerged from the less intensely contested state and local races.  Sarah McBride of Delaware will become the first openly transgender state senator, and Stephanie Byers of Kansas will become the first openly transgender person of colour elected to a state legislature in US history. Ritchie Torres and Mondaire Jones, both representing districts in New York, will become the first openly gay Black men in Congress. Marilyn Strickland, representing the tenth Congressional district of Washington, will be the first Korean American woman in Congress.  With the election of Deb Haaland, Teresa Leger Fernandez, and Yvette Herrell, New Mexico will be the first state to be represented by only women of colour in the House of Representatives. Mauree Turner, Madinah Wilson-Anton, Iman Jodeh, and Samba Baldeh will be the first Muslim lawmakers in Oklahoma, Delaware, Colorado, and Wisconsin, respectively.  Numerous others have made history at the state and local levels.

Also on Americans’ ballots were a number of history-making initiatives and referenda, many of which mark key milestones in the deconstruction of racial injustice.  Following the  decommissioning of Mississippi’s state flag containing the Confederate symbol in June, voters overwhelmingly approved a new design featuring a magnolia, the state flower.   Mississippi voters also approved the removal of a Jim Crow-era provision from their state constitution.  In Florida, voters approved a significant increase to the minimum wage, from $8.56 per hour to $15 per hour by 2026.  California voters chose to restore voting rights to felons on parole.  Of the five states where recreational or medicinal marijuana was on the ballot, all approved legalisation.  Oregon became the first state to not allow jail time for the possession of small quantities of narcotics such as cocaine and heroin, and along with Washington DC, voted to allow the use of psychedelic mushrooms for therapeutic purposes.

Though general acceptance of recreational drug use is slowly increasing, the primary drivers of decriminalisation and legalisation initiatives are compassion for those suffering from debilitating medical conditions and undoing the damage to individual lives and to families across numerous countries caused by the nearly half-century long “War on Drugs.” These policies in the US and worldwide have overwhelmingly affected those who are Black, Indigenous, or people of colour (BIPOC).  The US has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world due in large part to harsh sentencing laws for drug-related offences, and BIPOC communities are significantly overrepresented in prisons. Nearly all US states restrict the voting rights of people who have been convicted of a felony. It is estimated that one in 16 Black men are disenfranchised for this reason, almost quadruple the rate for the general population.  Outside the US, violent competition among drug cartels and cartel influence in local and national governments, particularly in South and Central America, has cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

In 1971, with thousands of soldiers having returned from Vietnam addicted to cocaine or morphine, President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one.” Through sweeping federal legislation, the production and transport of drugs deemed “dangerous to society” was heavily restricted, and the penalties for manufacturing, possession, or use of these substances drastically increased.  These tough-on-drugs policies have long been popular with lawmakers and the white American public.  Yet America’s drug problems persist, and tough-on-drugs policies have contribute substantially to the vast system of institutional racism.

Nixon’s appeal to the families of Vietnam War veterans and later administrations’ appeals to American morals, children’s wellbeing, and community safety were a thin disguise for the implementation and enforcement of what the American Civil Liberties Union deemed “the new Jim Crow.”  John Ehrlichman, best known as Nixon’s domestic policy advisor and Watergate co-conspirator, admitted in Harper’s Magazine 1994:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

Today, experts and policymakers generally agree that the War on Drugs was a failure.  Under the Obama administration, the term “War on Drugs” was quietly phased out, and Presidents Obama and Trump commuted the sentences of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders while in office.  Although exit polls may be deceptive due to the large number of mail-in ballots, telephone polling suggests that support for Trump among Black men increased substantially from 2016 to 2020 due in large part to his support for a major bipartisan criminal justice reform bill, the First Step Act. But with the federal government unwilling to completely abandon its position on recreational and medicinal drug use, it is up to the states to forge the path forward.  Though substantial progress has been made, the piecemeal approach means outcomes are vastly different across jurisdictions, and the states with the harshest penalties for drug possession or use remain those with the largest proportions of historically marginalised populations.

Drug addiction remains an acute problem in the US and worldwide.  Treating addiction as an illness rather than a crime allows users to seek and receive help, while amnesty measures such as needle swap programs and methadone clinics reduce risks associated with drug use.  Legalisation provides governments with an opportunity to regulate drug markets, and tax revenues can be directed towards treatment programs.  Pardoning and commuting sentences of those in jail for nonviolent drug offenses and expanding voting rights of felons are important steps in achieving social justice and rebuilding the lives of victims of the War on Drugs.

Nancy Schneider is the Editor of Australian Outlook.  She holds a Masters of International Relations from the Australian National University. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.