The coming year will also witness implementation of a landmark decision in 2014 by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which acted on the recommendation of Attorney General Eric Holder. Starting in November, low level drug offenders — an estimated 46,000 prisoners who have spent at least 10 years in prison — will be released from prison as part of a clemency initiative to reduce sentences for non-violent drug offenders.
And there are other signs Washington may be shifting direction in the drug war. Tucked away in the $1.1 trillion spending bill is an amendment that prohibits the Justice Department from using federal funds to target state-run medical marijuana programs —a major shift in federal drug policy. The provision also keeps federal agents from arresting people involved in pot businesses who are complying with state laws.
Expect similar legislative efforts in Washington during 2015, say drug policy watchers. There is no way Congress will take up full legalization yet, especially with the GOP still divided on cannabis. But Congress will continue to introduce reform-centered legislation — though probably with not enough support to see passage — on issues like drug sentencing, industrial hemp use and medical access to marijuana.
Washington’s deviation will likely also reverberate through Latin America. In October at the United Nations, Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield recognized the growing disconnect between Washington’s approach to marijuana legalization in the U.S. and abroad. He responded to growing criticism toward U.S. drug policy from Latin American leaders, who openly question why they should channel resources — and lives — against the drug trade when several U.S. states have legalized recreational cannabis. “We have to be tolerant of different countries, in response to their own national circumstances and conditions, exploring and using different national drug control policies," said Brownfield.
No country better exemplifies that exploration than Uruguay, which in late 2013 became the first country in the world to legalize recreational marijuana. This year saw the José Mujica slowly roll out the law, with some delays, and survive what would have been the measure’s demise, when Mujica’s ruling party won a presidential run-off against Luis Alberto Lacalle Pou, of the right-leaning National Party, who had vowed to repeal the law’s major provisions.
Countries like Mexico and Colombia have already decriminalized possession of drugs for personal use. And the coming year will see the legalization of medical cannabis debated in Colombia, Chile and Jamaica. Additionally, Otto Perez Molina, the president of Guatemala and a major drug reform proponent, has vowed to decide on marijuana legalization in early 2015.
In response to drug-fueled violence, in September the Global Commission on Drugs, headed by several former Latin American leaders — and the likes of Kofi Annan and former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz — called for the legal regulation of all drugs in a landmark report, adding that the 2016 U.N. Special Session on Drugs is an unprecedented opportunity to redirect global drug policy. “We need drug policies informed by evidence of what actually works rather than policies that criminalize drug use while failing to provide access to effective prevention or treatment,” said Annan upon release of the study. “The facts speak for themselves. It’s time to change course.”