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2020 election results prove America's war on drugs is finally ending

In a dark election cycle that took place in an even darker year, the results in Oregon and several other states provided a rare bright spot.
Image: Controversial FDA Report Says No Medical Benefit From Marijuana
A customer at the Alternative Herbal Health Services cannabis dispensary holds a marijuana cigarette in San Francisco on April 24, 2006.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images file

On election night, voters just said no to America’s war on drugs. In both red and blue states, voters rejected a racist, punitive and ineffective system for dealing with substance use and addiction. The long march toward recognizing drug use as a matter of public health, mental health and human rights and freedom just took a big leap forward.

The long march toward recognizing drug use as a matter of public health, mental health and human rights and freedom just took a big leap forward.

And it wasn’t only stereotypical libertine progressives who made 2020 a banner year for drug policy reform. Conservatives, perhaps those with a libertarian streak, in red and purple states such as Arizona, South Dakota, Mississippi and Montana voted to relax their drug laws and reject the status quo. In fact, wherever cannabis legalization or drug decriminalization was on the ballot, people decisively voted in favor of it. Voters sent a loud message to their representatives and legislators: If you don’t change this nation’s fossilized drug laws, then we will.

Before considering what these decisive wins mean for health, justice and politics, a brief recap of the new post-election landscape is in order, because the map of drug laws looks much different after election night.

A decade ago, cannabis was illegal for nonmedical use in all 50 states. Now, 1 in 3 Americans live in a state where cannabis is recreationally legal for adults 21 and older. That’s thanks to voters in Arizona, Montana and New Jersey, legalizing cannabis for recreational use this cycle. South Dakota also became the first state to legalize medical and recreational cannabis at the same time, bringing the national tally of states where cannabis is legal to 15. Heading south, Mississippi legalized medical cannabis despite the state’s Republican governor telling his constituents to vote against it, in addition to other last minute attempts to derail the vote.

But Americans didn’t only say yes to weed. Washington, D.C., joined a handful of cities that recently decriminalized psychedelic plants like psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms. Similarly, voters in Oregon approved Measure 109, which legalized the use of psychedelics at licensed facilities for mental health purposes. Research suggests that drugs like psilocybin can help people kick smoking, heal from depression and treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The federal prohibition on psychedelic drugs has long been an obstacle for researchers trying to investigate their medical potential. That’s also starting to unravel.

Oregonians delivered by far the biggest blow to the drug war by overwhelmingly voting to pass Measure 110, which decriminalized the personal, noncommercial use of all drugs, such as cocaine, meth and heroin, across the state. The ballot will simultaneously fund a desperately needed network of treatment, recovery and harm reduction services using millions of dollars in tax revenue from legal cannabis sales, as well as funds that would have otherwise been spent on policing and incarceration. In 2019, Oregon ranked dead last out of 50 states in treatment access while having the fourth highest rate of addiction, according to government surveys.

Oregonians delivered by far the biggest blow to the drug war by overwhelmingly voting to pass Measure 110.

“It’s really exciting to know that our state has said we want to do something different than what we’ve been doing,” Haven Wheelock, a harm reduction expert in Portland and one of the original petitioners who filed the measure, told me. “And now we get a chance to build and create a new system.”

You might hear from critics that Oregon “legalized” heroin. That’s why it’s important to distinguish decriminalization from legalization: No, there will be no stores in Oregon dispensing heroin, cocaine and meth, like some states do with cannabis. Nor will stores in Washington, D.C., sell magic mushrooms. Decriminalization means exactly how it sounds: penalties are no longer criminal. In Oregon, if you’re caught with personal amounts of these drugs you will receive a $100 citation and go on your way, like a speeding ticket. But that fine could be waived if you agree to a free addiction assessment at one of the new state-funded recovery centers. Portugal decriminalized drugs 20 years ago, and by many metrics, it’s been wildly successful.

It’s difficult to overstate exactly how groundbreaking Oregon’s vote to decriminalize drugs, and with nearly 60 percent of the vote, truly is. Wheelock, who also works at a syringe exchange in Portland, told me her clients who use drugs and struggle with substance issues cried joyful tears in her office the morning after election night. “I’m excited my folks won’t be in jail,” she told me. “I’m excited that when a client comes to me for help, I may now have more resources to help them.” That nagging fear of being caged and arrested that her clients feel walking around each day? It’s gone, Wheelock said.

In a dark election cycle that took place in an even darker year, what Oregon and these other states did stand out as a bright spot.

So what are we to make of the fact that cannabis legalization and drug decriminalization outperformed both presidential candidates this year? What are the political implications that whether voters went for Trump or Biden, that one thing most of us seem to have in common is our stance on drugs?

To be sure, Democrats may be much more motivated to end the drug war, roll back mass incarceration, and fight for equity in newly designed cannabis markets than Republicans in South Dakota and Montana. It’s very possible that conservative voters went green because they saw dollar signs, and care little about repairing over half a century of racist drug enforcement that disparately targets people of color. After all, cannabis is a booming business and states breaking under pandemic-induced austerity want in.

We may never divine the logic that drove conservative voters to pass cannabis legalization in their state, while simultaneously electing representatives who vehemently oppose it. But applying Occam’s razor, I think a very human answer emerges: we like the way drugs make us feel. Or, at the very least, we don’t think it’s criminal for our neighbors to dull their pain anymore. Perhaps we’re not so divided after all.