Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images
Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

The Year in Drug Policy: Movement at a crossroads

2014 cemented the mainstream appeal of drug policy alternatives and propelled a movement into full gallop

The 43-year-old war on drugs had never seen such a barrage of opposition as it did in 2014, with successful marijuana legalization initiatives in several U.S. states, California’s historic approval of sentencing reform for low level drug offenders and world leaders calling for the legal regulation of all drugs — all of which cement the mainstream appeal of drug policy alternatives and offer unprecedented momentum going into 2015.

Oregon, Alaska and Washington D.C. joined Colorado and Washington state in legalizing recreational marijuana and will soon start seeing the tax benefit from the estimated $41 billion that U.S. consumers spend annually on marijuana. That these states voted for legalization during a Republican romp in November elections underscores the conviction among drug policy analysts that legalization has entered the mainstream culture. It’s a matter of time, they say, before more states — and countries — follow suit.

Proof of that allure lies in the South, where conservative states had kept their distance from the marijuana legalization until recently. Legalization activists have spearheaded decriminalization and medical marijuana campaigns in Texas, Alabama and Georgia, with initial bi-partisan support in some state legislatures, and 2015 promises further momentum. California, though, remains the state to watch. If the most populous state, and the world’s 8th largest economy, legalizes cannabis use via ballot initiative during the 2016 presidential elections, as it’s expected to do, it may lead to a dramatic chain reaction across the country — following the path of the gay marriage movement — and ultimately force the federal government to revisit its policy on the drug.

And California is not idly waiting for 2016 — in November the state made a salvo on another drug war front. Voters approved Proposition 47, which will reduce penalties for low-level drug crimes. The possession of small amounts of cocaine and heroin, for example, will soon be treated as misdemeanors, not felonies — a move that is expected to affect about 40,000 offenders annually and save hundreds of millions of dollars.

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.”

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