Drugs

The People Are Rising Up Against the Destructive Drug War: 8 Key Developments

The country is wrapping its head around marijuana legalization and making progress on broader drug war issues, too.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/ostill

The drug war juggernaut is faltering. Marijuana legalization has begun to take hold in the states, the newly legal industry is generating jobs, revenues and taxes with little apparent downside, and more states look to join in the action next year. Meanwhile, national public opinion polls show support for legalization has passed the tipping point. 

But marijuana prohibition is only part of the drug war complex. At this point, there is no serious movement to legalize the trade, or even the possession, of any other drugs, but still, we are seeing advances on this front. Some of the excesses of the drug war, like harsh sentencing, asset forfeiture and brutal policing, are increasingly in the spotlight and beginning to be addressed. 

The decades-long public policy disaster that has been drug prohibition is not going away just yet, but the edifice is starting to be dismantled, one piece at a time. Overall, 2015 has been a pretty good year for drug policy reform, and we're laying the groundwork for further advances in the years to come. 

Here are eight of the most significant drug policy stories this year.

1. The sky hasn't fallen on legal marijuana states.

The great social experiment with marijuana legalization appears to be going off without a serious hitch, and that's great news for people in states where it will likely be an issue next year. No outbreaks of reefer-induced mass criminality have taken place, no hordes of zombie school kids have appeared. In fact, very little at all seems to have happened, except that in Washington state, marijuana arrests are way down and tax revenues are flowing in. Ditto for Colorado, where legal pot has created 16,000 jobs (not to mention thousands more in weed-related industries), and in Denver, a real estate boom is going on. Evaluating the impacts of a policy shift like ending state-level marijuana prohibition is a complicated and long-term affair, but so far we're not seeing any signs of major social policy disaster.

2. The marijuana majority solidifies.

Marijuana legalization is consistently winning majority support in national polls. An April CBS News poll (released April 20) reported support at "an all-time high" at 53%, while a Pew Research poll the same month also came in at 53%. An October Gallup poll had support at 58%, a November Morning Consult poll had it at 55%. This is really quite remarkable: Less than a decade ago, fewer than a third of people were ready to legalize it. Beginning in 2012 or '13, public opinion reached the tipping point, and now we've clearly tipped. We'll see how far next November, when legalization initiatives will likely be on the ballot in a half-dozen states, including California. State polls in those states show similar majorities, but support numbers only in the 50s suggests that victories are by no means inevitable. Those numbers tend to get pushed down in the course of an actual campaign, especially if there's well-funded opposition.  

3. Monopoly marijuana is rejected in the Heartland.

In a clear signal that marijuana legalization is not inevitable, a well-funded, but equally well-loathed legalization initiative went down in flames in November. The ResponsibleOhio initiative would have enshrined within the state constitution a "monopoly" under which pot would be legalized, but only 10 growers could produce commercial pot crops. The effort was opposed by the state's Republican political establishment, as well as the usual suspects in law enforcement, but also by most of the state's marijuana legalization activists. Concerns about the role of industry money in the movement are on the rise, but ResponsibleOhio wasn't even industry money, just a set of wealthy investors hoping to cash in on a newly legal and lucrative industry.

4. Black Lives Matter's policing critique implicates the drug war.

The most energetic mass movement since 2011's Occupy Wall Street is taking direct aim at policing abuses that have festered for a generation—and the war on drugs is deeply implicated. BLM's Campaign Zero manifesto to end police violence includes numerous drug war-related reform targets. From the militarization of policing to mass incarceration, from stop-and-frisk to "policing for profit," the objects of BLM's ire are key components of the drug war, and the movement is raising the racial justice imperative in the loudest fashion possible.

5. Overdoses kill tens of thousands, harm reduction responses emerge.

Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., claiming some 44,000 lives a year. Heroin is involved in more than 8,000 of those deaths, but prescription opiates are involved in twice that number. Deaths related to prescription opiates are actually leveling off in line with a decrease in prescribing beginning in 2012, but heroin deaths, which quadrupled between 2002 and 2013, are not, especially as people who once had access to pain pills resort to the black market. With the rising death toll—and the changing demographics of users; younger, whiter, less "urban"—has come a new openness toward harm reduction measures that can actually save lives, especially the wider availability of the opiate overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan). Access to the drug is being increased around the country, thousands of lives are being saved, even the drug czar is for it. It's not like having supervised injection facilities, where users can inject under medical supervision, and which are proven to practically eliminate overdoses (Vancouver's InSite points to exactly zero fatal overdoses in nearly 16,000 injections), but it’s a start.

6. Asset forfeiture reform picks up steam.

The use of asset forfeiture has been a favorite drug war tactic of police and prosecutors for years, and has grown to the point where federal law enforcement seized more from citizens than burglars did last year. It's been 15 years since the last round of federal asset forfeiture reform, and the pressure is building in Washington. The year started off with then Attorney General Holder abruptly limiting federal seizure sharing with state and local cops, which cut off a main conduit for local cops to get around state asset forfeiture laws (the federal equitable sharing program allowed law enforcement agencies to keep 80% of seizures, while state laws often required seizures to go into general funds). That was followed by the filing of a Rand Paul bill to end federal civil asset forfeiture with aHouse panel signaling support. The practice is also under fire in the states, and more than a dozen took up bills this year. In two states, Maryland and  Wyoming, bills passed the legislature, only to be vetoed by Republican governors, but new asset forfeiture reform laws went into effect July 1 in Montana and New Mexico and passed in Michigan in the fall. Look for more asset forfeiture reform battles next year, both in Congress and at the statehouse.

7. Six thousand federal drug war prisoners come home.

At the end of October, the largest prisoner release in recent U.S. history took place, with some 6,000 prisoners set free after their drug sentences were cut thanks to policy changes by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Another 8,000 are set to be released the same time next year. Along with other sentencing reforms enacted in the past few years, the move has resulted in the federal prison population declining for the first time since Ronald Reagan unleashed the modern drug war in the early 1980s. President Obama has also commuted the sentences of 68 drug offenders so far this year, and with some 35,000 having petitioned for commutations at the invitation of the Justice Department, we could well see another big batch by year's end.

8. Canada elects a marijuana-legalizing prime minister.

We may have a handful of legal pot states, but Canada is about to become the first country in North America to free the weed. Newly elected Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made marijuana legalization a central plank of his election campaign. Last week, he immediately ordered his new Justice Minister to get on it after winning the election, and in the annual throne speech last week, his government reiterated its intention to legalize it. It won't happen overnight, but it's coming. 

Phillip Smith is editor of the AlterNet Drug Reporter and author of the Drug War Chronicle.

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