6 November 2020

America has become a shining light for drug policy reform


In the midst of an election characterised by uncertainty and long delays, supporters of drug policy reform can take solace in the results of several ballot measures. With a potential Biden victory promising cannabis decriminalisation on a federal level, this could prove crucial in sparking similar efforts in the UK.

Four states—Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota—approved measures to legalise recreational cannabis while voters in Mississippi came out in support of a robust medical cannabis framework. Psychedelics will now be decriminalised in the nation’s capital, Washington DC, while Oregon has become the first U.S. state to decriminalise possession of all drugs and legalise psilocybin (psychedelic) therapy. All but one of these ballot measures (South Dakota) were won by more than 10 percentage points.

The arguments in favour of cannabis legalisation are now familiar to people across the country, not least because many of them have been borne out in practice. Underage use declines after recreational legalisation, law enforcement wastes less time and resources, crime falls and tax revenue can be used to fund various public health and environmental initiatives.

These arguments cut across party lines. One striking feature of these results is that they highlight how drug policy reform is a bipartisan issue. Battleground states like Arizona, which voted against cannabis legalisation four years ago and previously enforced some of the strictest prohibition laws in the country, have opted for change. Voters in Republican strongholds like Mississippi and South Dakota pushed back against opposition from conservative governors to enact liberal reforms. Misleading attack ads failed to dampen voters’ enthusiasm for taking back control of their previously unregulated cannabis markets.

There are also encouraging early signs for the future shape of these newly legal, regulated cannabis markets. Arizona will implement restorative justice policies such as allowing those with prior cannabis convictions to petition courts for expungement, while other states have made provisions for small amounts of cannabis to be grown legally at home. Nonetheless, it is vital that officials ensure the broader design of their cannabis markets accomplishes the key objectives of legalisation: undermining the criminal market, preventing underage use and encouraging safer cannabis consumption.

Arguably the most profound shift in drug policy over the course of this election can be seen in Oregon. Following in the footsteps of Portugal’s successful public health approach to drug use, Oregonians caught in possession of small amounts of any illicit drug will now face civil penalties: a small fine or a health assessment. The state will also invest in substance misuse treatment centers over the course of 2021. This landmark moment shows that cannabis legalisation is far from the high watermark of drug policy reform in America and other states may soon follow Oregon’s lead.

Oregon has also approved another first for America – legalising psilocybin therapy in medically supervised environments. Psilocybin is the active ingredient in magic mushrooms and trials suggest it could revolutionize how we treat many mental health conditions, including depression, PTSD and anxiety. Those who suffer from mental ill health in the state and haven’t responded to traditional treatments now have a vital lifeline. This comes at a time when campaigners, including ourselves at the Adam Smith Institute and the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group, are pushing for the Home Office to loosen burdensome restrictions on psilocybin research here in the UK.

Once again, Britain is falling far behind the rest of the world in our approach to drug policy. In the United States, the direction of travel is clear and the pace of change is accelerating. There are plenty of issues facing our cousins across the pond, but they put us to shame on drug policy reform.

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Daniel Pryor is Head of Programmes at the Adam Smith Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.