November 8th is going to be a monumental day for America, but perhaps not for the reason some may think. For all the hysteria over Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump taking the vacancy at the Oval Office, there are important local votes surrounding marijuana policy too. If passed, it could be a huge catalyst for the slow reform on the decades-long, highly controversial ‘War on Drugs’.
Introduced by Republican president Richard Nixon in 1971, the fierce crackdown on cocaine, opioids and weed has seen many contradictory results against the expectations of the illiberal masterplan. The USA convicts more people than any other country in the world, largely due to tough laws surrounding drug possession and usage. The Land of the Free incarcerates more people than China, Russia, Iran and Cuba; nations that, as Jay-Z notes in this video on drug disillusion, are considered by the West to be “autocratic and repressive”.
But this could all be about to change. In just a few days time nine states will vote to authorise the recreational or medical usage of marijuana, potentially joining the likes of Washington, Colorado and 22 other states which have already legalised weed in some capacity. With up to 60% of Americans advocating the legal use of marijuana, votes for decriminalisation across the U.S. could be a ‘watershed moment for the movement to end federal prohibition’ and a small victory for campaigners Drug Policy Alliance.
Proposition 64 in California is perhaps the most significant vote of the nine as it also proposes to establish a ‘comprehensive strictly controlled system to tax and regulate businesses to produce and distribute marijuana in a legal market.’ Proposition 64 would be the “gold standard” for marijuana policy, according to California state director Lynne Lyman, and if it does prevail, “Americans will look back on the marijuana wars of recent decades the same way we now look back on alcohol Prohibition – as a costly, foolish and deadly mistake”, so says the DPA’s Ethan Nadelmann.
As is so often the case though, a victory in California and the other states would signal a win for the battle, but not the war. After all, drug policy on a national scale has been slow to reform, even with the more liberal Barack Obama as the Commander in Chief. Democrat Jimmy Carter promised to decriminalise marijuana possession when elected in 1976 but Ronald Reagan’s reign throughout the 1980s was synonymous with anti-drug sentiment. Up to 64% of people considered drug abuse to be America’s ‘number one problem’ in 1989, perhaps because Reagan’s strict measures led to the nonviolent drug law offenses increasing from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997.
The Bush senior and Clinton administrations that followed failed to ease the war on drugs and George W Bush’s tenure in fact dedicated more spending to the cause than any other previous government, leading to a ‘militarisation’ of the so-called war as over 40,000 SWAT style raids were carried out on Americans every year during Bush junior’s time. With over 500,000 people still imprisoned for minor drug law violations, Barack Obama’s desire for a more health-based, progressive drug-policy has not be realised federally.
For Glenden Merrell, a Music Major at Eastern Connecticut State University residing in Willimantic, Connecticut, there is undeniably a palpable sense of ambivalence when it comes to determining the amount of progress that has been made with the mood towards narcotics during Obama’s stewardship.
“I first smoked marijuana when I was 16 years old. I had a good experience my first few times smoking it and I was then curious as to how other drugs felt. I think marijuana is a much more widely accepted drug in the U.S than it used to be. Back in 2012 when recreational marijuana first became available anywhere in the US (in Colorado), it was a big shock to me and everyone. So I would say that the movement to legalize marijuana has moved forward, I would say just from what I have observed that the ‘war’ has lessened and laws and societal views have become more lenient but it will be decades before it’s legal to the degree I would like to see.”
Yet the war goes further than simply marijuana. The aforementioned video with rapper Jay Z details how the war is a racist one, with black men being incarcerated for cocaine consumption more often than white elites (namely bankers) while Latinos are also disproportionately convicted for petty drug law violation. Furthermore, stigmas with addiction still exist – Jay-Z complains that there is “no compassionate language” in the public’s discourse which is something Glenden is also particularly worried about. He has never been addicted to a drug himself but understands the ease with which narcotics can seamlessly become a part of someone’s life.
“I have taken cocaine a handful of times and I enjoyed it so much that I knew I had to stop. Drug addiction and drug-related crime is serious and the root of these issues is often poor education as a result of poverty. Incarcerating non-violent offenders for often ridiculously long sentences only perpetuates violence and drug offences.
“I am vehemently against the ‘war on drugs’ and how it sees drug addiction as a criminal offence rather than a disease. In practical terms, I would like to see clean-needle programs lose their stigma and get more funding. I would also like to see more rehabilitation programs in prisons as well as a decrease in nonviolent, drug-related sentences and the elimination of privately owned and operated prisons.”
But how will the two front-runners for the White House act on these problems? According to OnTheIssues.Com, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton favour a slow, winding-down process to ending the ‘war on drugs’. Trump allegedly stated decades ago that ‘legalizing drugs was the only way to win the war on drugs’ and Hillary Clinton said in 2000 that ‘we should have drug courts that would serve as alternatives to the traditional criminal justice system for low-level offenders. If the person comes before the court, agrees to stay clean, is subjected to drug tests once a week, they are diverted from the criminal justice system. We need more treatment. It is unfair to urge people to get rid of their addiction and not have the treatment facilities.’ While Clinton still endorses a plan to treat addiction issues with preventative programs and treatment, Trump has indubitably become more authoritarian with his stance on drugs, as indicated by his infamous speech on building ‘a wall’ to supposedly prevent drug trafficking coming from Mexico. However, the candidate that triumphs on November 8th will be faced with a growing public disenchantment to the current and proposed efforts to conquer the war.
“Donald Trump will perpetuate the stigma and addiction and drug-related crime is not something he cares about unless the offenders are Muslim or Mexican. Hillary Clinton’s politics do line up with fewer drug-related sentences and increased funding for aid programs, but I have little faith in her ability to actually accomplish anything related to that”, Glenden suggests.
“He (Trump) is a narcissistic elitist who already feels that he knows everything there is to know about every issue. And when you have someone like that, it is impossible to teach them anything. So he will act on these issues the way that he already thinks he knows how, by increased policing with no regard for the impact that it will have on American communities. As for Clinton, she has said that she wants more sentencing and more prisons for violent offenders but this will inevitably spill over onto non-violent offenders without elaborate and carefully-crafted changes to laws and the prison system. But Clinton and Trump have said many many things this past year that they have gone back on, edited, and disputed. So who is to say what will actually happen.”
The feeling towards the never-ending war on drugs echoes the youth vote’s attitude towards having the choice of Trump or Clinton, according to 21 year old Glenden. “I would just like to highlight how disillusioned everyone – especially my generation – is with our democracy over here in the States. It honestly feels like there is some huge, unidentified threat looming in the distance.” With predictably slow progress being made federally and Clinton and Trump’s drug policies being ambiguous at best, it seems that it will be left to local government to modernize America’s narcotics problems, starting perhaps with California and proposition 64.