As the results continue to trickle in across America, there is one clear winner from the 2020 US election: drugs.
From Montana to New Jersey, South Dakota to Arizona, in every state that had relaxing restrictions on the use of cannabis on the ballot, voters backed pot over prohibition.
Oregon went further, with the sweeping decriminalisation of possession of all drugs (including heroin and cocaine), and the full legalisation of psilocybin for therapeutic use. Medical magic mushrooms are in.
In short, when it comes to the misguided “war on drugs” that America has been forcibly exporting to the rest of the world since Richard Nixon first coined the phrase in 1971, this week the drugs won.
And about time. Nixon’s war on drugs has been an unmitigated disaster. Sadly, when America opts for a policy of radical self-harm, too often the rest of the world rushes to inflict it too, particularly the UK. So if we ever want to unpick the havoc and misery of the drug prohibition era, it is up to Americans to lead the way.
They have good reason to do so. The numbers, as collated by the Centre for American Progress (CAP) in 2018, are diabolical. The war on drugs has cost the US an estimated $1 trillion, with $9.2m spent by the federal government each day purely on incarceration for drug offences.
Every 25 seconds, someone in America is arrested for drug possession. One fifth of the incarcerated population is serving time for a drug charge, with a further 1.15 million people on probation. Incarceration for drug offences has little to no impact on public safety, and far from reducing substance abuse, is correlated with increased mortality from overdose.
Most shockingly at a time when racial disparities are under the political spotlight, black Americans are almost six times more likely to be incarcerated for drug-related reasons than white Americans, though usage rates are the same. And to quote the CAP: “black Americans make up nearly 30 per cent of all drug-related arrests, despite accounting for only 12.5 per cent of all substance users”.
A drugs policy that defies science, exacerbates racial inequalities and causes unforgivable anguish needs to be dismantled. And so, year by year, state by state, Americans have been doing just that.
First, the 1990s saw the launch of the medical cannabis movement that has steadily gained ground, with the result that treatment is now legal and available in 35 states (something the UK should reflect on, given the disgraceful way patients who require cannabis are treated here).
Then in 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to fully legalise marijuana, including for recreational use. In the past eight years, 13 states have followed, as has DC.
Far from the drug-fuelled anarchy that proponents of the war on drugs prophesied, the result has been a flourishing legal market, reduced crime, and a healthier population.
To take Colorado as an example, the picture is almost uniformly positive. Sales of cannabis related products result in healthy tax revenues for the state — $302m in 2019 alone. Colorado channels marijuana tax revenues into school building and teaching programmes, neutralising the attack that legalisation would be an educational calamity. Jobs and tourism have both been boosted thanks to the legal cannabis industry.
As for crime, legalising sales has obviously driven down the number of marijuana related arrests, enabling police forces to focus on more serious offences. True, some forms of violent crime have increased, but this does not appear to be linked with the marijuana industry.
Crucially, teen drug use and opioid abuse have both fallen since Colorado developed a safe and regulated cannabis market, belying the fear-mongering claims from critics that legal pot would be a gateway drug and hook young people on substance abuse from an early age.
Small wonder, then, that Coloradans do not regret the 2012 vote: according to a 2020 YouGov survey, 71 per cent consider legalisation to have been a success, with only 17 per cent viewing it as a failure.
This popularity is borne out across others that have followed the Centennial State’s example. In Oregon, Massachusetts, Washington, Nevada, California, Illinois, Michigan and Maine, supporters of their states’ legalisation policy outnumber detractors by an average of three to one.
Across the country as a whole, two thirds of Americans back full cannabis legalisation. And while support is higher among Democrats, that includes a majority (55 per cent) of Republicans too.
Yet despite widespread cross-party support, politicians — both in Washington and in state legislatures — remain reluctant to soften their stance on drugs. Marijuana is, technically, still illegal according to federal law. So fearful are they of being branded weak on crime that they persist with a failed policy that criminalises — and too often incarcerates — citizens for partaking in a substance no more harmful than alcohol.
What this demonstrates is that, putting aside the shenanigans of the past week, the American electorate is significantly more sensible than its leaders. Voters understand that the “war on drugs” is actually a war on people. They know the risks of cannabis — and, indeed, stronger drugs — and would prefer their politicians let them make their own decisions instead of diverting precious law enforcement resources towards this failed and oppressive crusade.
Given the electoral drama this week, those of us in the UK would be forgiven for thinking there is little we can learn from the US. A first-world country still arguing over whether votes should be counted three days after an election is a source of ridicule, not a beacon of progressive pragmatism.
But as our own leaders deprive epileptic children of the medicine they need, enable a violent and crime-fuelling black market to thrive, and threaten to randomly drug-test workers in the capital for no reason other than looking tough, we must admit that there are some things America does better.
And with Brits settling down for another month of lockdown, their liberty curtailed once again, the chance to make their own risk assessments when it comes to recreational marijuana would go a long way.
Main image credit: Getty