The War on Drugs is appearing to be an increasingly futile, antiquated attempt at criminal justice and public health policy, with more and more jurisdictions around North America toppling prohibition within their borders. In the past election alone, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize personal possession of all drugs (the measure won by 16 points, suggesting the ballot initiative was quite popular among voters), while also legalizing psilocybin psychotherapy.
But while both laws have yet to be formally rolled out, other regions across North America are already looking to adopt similar legislation—specifically California and Washington.
Some of these efforts encompass all drugs, even so-called “hard drugs” like heroin and meth. Others only aim to decriminalize just psychedelics—a classic example of psychedelic exceptionalism, where these drugs are seen as “better” because they are relatively safer and less addictive. But even incrementalism may be a step toward more progressive drug policy reform.
“There are so many places starting to see this as a health issue, they’re seeing places like Portugal and Switzerland that have had so much success with centering drug use in public health over criminalization,” says Matt Sutton, director of media relations for the Drug Policy Alliance, a non-profit that seeks to end the drug war. DPA were the chief architects behind the legislation in Oregon, known as Measure 110.
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“When you actually look at the science of it, and you ask healthcare professionals what makes sense, they’re going to tell you to decriminalize drugs,” Sutton says, noting that drug decrim is also a way of easing some racial tensions. “Drug possession arrests remain the number one most arrested offense in the United States. There’s somebody arrested for drug possession every 20 seconds. And disproportionately these are people of color … We saw the way the Drug War played in the cases of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.”
Here’s where we could see drug decrim happen next.
The victory in Oregon is the “biggest blow to the War on Drugs to date,” Sutton says. But Oregon’s neighbors are not sitting on their thumbs. In Washington and California, drug reform advocates are drafting remarkably similar laws, which may have a decent chance of passing.
Treatment First Washington, a coalition of community leaders seeking to reform drug policy, first attempted to put their Treatment and Recovery Act on the ballot this year, but the Covid-19 pandemic made gathering signatures too difficult. Encouraged by Oregon’s victory, they’re now trying again through the state legislature. Like in Oregon, the bill would expand drug recovery and addiction treatment while reducing criminal penalties for personal possession of all drugs. Snohomish County and King County, which encompasses Seattle, already decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs in 2018.
“If I had to guess which [state] will be next, I would say Washington,” Sutton says. “The region is very similar [to Oregon] in terms of this support, so if this were to run as a ballot initiative in Washington, I think that it’s very likely that it would pass. So hopefully the legislature sees it the same way and is going to be willing to move this forward.” That bill could pass sometime in 2021, but if not, another attempt at a ballot initiative is likely in 2022, according to Marijuana Moment.
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Meanwhile, in California, Democratic state senator Scott Wiener plans to introduce a bill in January 2021 that would decriminalize just psychedelics. Two cities in California, Oakland and Santa Cruz, have already decriminalized naturally-occurring psychedelics (think ayahuasca or ibogaine) via city council amendments, thanks to local Decriminalize Nature campaigns.
“This is a new idea in the legislature, it’s never been introduced before,” Wiener told DoubleBlind in a call. “We’re going to do what we can to move forward and see how far we get and maybe we’ll get it done the first time, maybe we’ll have to come back in the future.”
Wiener has championed drug reform in California, pushing for harm reduction measures like opening supervised consumption sites for IV drug users and ending mandatory jail and prison time for nonviolent drug offenses. Wiener has received support from State Assemblymembers Sydney Kamlager and Evan Low.
But when asked why just psychedelics—as opposed to decriminalizing all drugs—Wiener said that while he supports such broad sweeping measures, it’s a “bigger lift” and that he thinks the timing isn’t right yet. “Full decriminalization is important, I support it and I want it to happen,” Wiener says. If all goes to plan, his psychedelics decriminalization bill will land on Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk next September.
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But DPA isn’t going to push for a half measure. “We plan on sponsoring a direct decriminalization bill, so we’re asking that they at least work with us to make sure that our efforts are aligned,” Sutton says. “It doesn’t make sense that we would say people shouldn’t be criminalized for marijuana and people shouldn’t be criminalized for psychedelics, but they should be criminalized for heroin.”
On the East Coast, Vermont’s Democratic party made drug decrim a top priority, but no legislation has appeared yet. In New Jersey, a bill legalizing cannabis encountered unexpected delays after a lawmaker inserted a line decriminalizing psilocybin, demonstrating the idea is still contentious among some legislators.
For now, all eyes are on Oregon to see how well their program pans out. In Pennsylvania, James Garrow, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, said, “We will be watching Oregon closely to assess whether the measure has an impact on the number of individuals experiencing overdose and accessing treatment.”
Indeed, Oregon’s measure is reminiscent of Portugal, where in 2001, the government decriminalized all drugs. Somewhat like America today, Portugal two decades ago was in the midst of a drug crisis inflamed by HIV and hepatitis C outbreaks. But instead of throwing folks in prison, Portugal decided to start referring people arrested with small amounts of narcotics to drug treatment services.
The results have been impressive: Fatal overdoses dropped by 80 percent and infectious disease rates plummeted, while the number of people who entered drug treatment increased by 60 percent between 1998 and 2011. Decriminalization (not to mention better access to healthcare and harm reduction services) did what a war could not do. It gave people room to heal.
The Great White North has also been progressive on some drug policy issues. Canada legalized cannabis in 2018 and in August, began to allow some patients to take psilocybin under a therapist’s guidance. However, a petition signed by 15,000 Canadians, requesting lawmakers loosen restrictions on entheogenic plants and fungi, was shrugged off by the House of Commons in mid-November.
But that hasn’t stopped Vancouver from pushing forward with a new policy that made history on November 25, when the city council unanimously passed a resolution decriminalizing small amounts of drug possession. It’s still up to the federal government if they’ll allow this policy to stand. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has thumbed his nose at the idea of decrim, saying the concept is not a “panacea” for rising overdose deaths. But in 2019 Trudeau also implied that he was open to changing his mind, citing the fact he was once against legalizing weed. Sutton says it’s not far fetched that Vancouver’s move could fly with Canada’s federal government.
“I wouldn’t say it’s not going to happen just because certain politicians are not on board yet,” Sutton explains. “In Canada, they’ve embraced some really progressive drug policy reforms, they’ve opened up so many safe consumption sites throughout the country, and now even Vancouver is doing safe supply [of opioids] and they’ve really ramped that up during Covid. So in a lot of ways they’re already there, they’re already seeing drug use as a health issue.”
Regardless, the cries for greater drug reform are getting louder in Canada. In July, John Horgan, the premier of British Columbia, sent Trudeau an open letter pleading for the decriminalization of simple drug possession, while last month Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s top doctor, also urged lawmakers to decriminalize drugs in order to save lives.
To a growing number of experts and political leaders, drug decriminalization is a far more rational approach to drug policy than militarizing the police, trying to eradicate what can’t be eradicated (i.e. drug use), and solving public health crises through intimidation, racial profiling, and the point of a gun.
With the way things are run now—overdose deaths piling up, narcoterrorism rampant throughout the global south—it will take creative thinking to get an addiction crisis under control. Some argue that maybe drug decrim isn’t actually all that radical, as more and more places seem to be figuring out.
“There’s going to be more work to be done regardless, even if all drug decriminalization spreads widely,” Sutton says. But to get there will likely require more education and public support. “I don’t think that most politicians are really that naïve to think that drug decriminalization wouldn’t help things,” he adds. “They’re just afraid of the pushback from constituents that might not understand the issue.”
Troy Farah is an independent journalist from Southwest California. His reporting on drug policy and science has appeared in WIRED, The Guardian, Undark, Ars Technica, VICE and more. He co-hosts the drug policy podcast Narcotica. Follow him onTwitter.
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