What to Watch in Drug Policy in 2014
2013 was a landmark year in unraveling the disastrous war on drugs. We reached the tipping point on legalizing marijuana for adults. Attorney General Holder denounced the mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses that drive mass incarceration. Health reformers expanded the public’s access to effective drug treatments, to sterile syringes that prevent the spread of disease and to the overdose antidote naloxone.
We should anticipate even more progress toward rational drug policies in 2014. Here are three key developments to watch for:
Legal Marijuana Becomes a Reality
Officials in Colorado and Washington worked overtime this year designing the systems to regulate marijuana that voters adopted in 2012. Sales of legal marijuana began New Year’s Day in 40 outlets across Colorado, while Washington will open theirs in just a few months. As Gallup registered national support for legalization at a whopping 58 percent this year, regulated marijuana sales in these two states will further impact mainstream opinion for a range of marijuana law reforms.
Look for successful legalization initiatives on the ballot in 2014 in Oregon and Alaska, the adoption by Florida voters of the first medical marijuana law in a southern state, a dramatic reduction in criminal penalties for marijuana possession in the District of Columbia and even progress on federal legislation to ease barriers to medical marijuana. Controlling marijuana legally has become a political reality in this country. It’s no longer a question of if, but when, where and how.
The Next Goal Emerges
The drug war helped transform the Unites States into the world’s most prolific jailer. Dismantling our unsustainable system of mass incarceration and the noxious racial disparities at its center have become priorities for human and civil rights reformers. Elected officials from the president to strange bedfellow Senators Rand Paul and Cory Booker have joined the rising tide exposing this public policy fiasco. Despite ongoing fear-mongering by venal politicians, Americans are willing to question the assumption that drug use needs to be a crime at all. In fact, local governments from Seattle to Santa Fe to Burlington have already enacted programs that divert low-level drug arrestees into treatment and other services in the community without court involvement. Portugal famously eliminated all criminal penalties for personal drug use a decade ago and has reaped substantial health and safety rewards.
The key to ending our futile fixation on caging drug users is to stop arresting people solely for using drugs in the first place. That shift would remove the barriers -- created by the criminal justice system itself -- to people getting the help they need. It will of course free up countless millions of dollars for communities nationwide as well. Already embraced by the Red Cross, Human Rights Watch and a host of groups, ending the criminalization of personal drug use will emerge in 2014 as the next winnable drug policy reform target.
Other Countries Push Back on the Drug War
The biggest drug policy news of 2013 outside the U.S. happened just a few weeks ago as Uruguay became the first country in the world to legally regulate marijuana. It’s easy to interpret this bold development as just another blow against irrational marijuana prohibition. But it also reflects growing defiance across Latin America at decades of U.S.-driven, militarized drug policy and its devastating consequences for the region. The Organization of American States, propelled by the politically conservative presidents of Colombia and Guatemala, is now openly questioning the failed prohibitionist orthodoxy that the United States designed 60 years ago and persists in exporting as a core foreign policy objective.
Drug policy reformers used to longingly watch Western Europe, which led the world with successful innovations -- supervised injection facilities, heroin maintenance programs, tolerated-though-illegal marijuana sales -- despite strident U.S. hostility. After decades of pitiless counter-narcotics carnage, Latin American nations have now taken up the mantle. In 2014, watch for the OAS to debate the lop-sided counter-narcotic strategy while the United Nations Office of Drug Control fails to stop Uruguay from enacting its marijuana legalization law. Nations around the world will study that milestone as well as Portuguese decriminalization and New Zealand’s recently adopted FDA-like process to approve synthetic drugs for recreational use. Thus emboldened, they will add high-level voices already demanding revisions to calcified international anti-drug conventions in advance of the U.N.’s special session on drug issues planned for 2016.
And one more heads up. 2014 heralds implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which calls on states to treat addiction as a chronic health issue (PDF) rather than a crime. It will take some years for that profound shift to truly take hold. But when it does, we’ll remember 2014 as the year we finally started making real progress toward drug policies based in science, compassion, health and human rights.
Stephen Gutwillig is deputy executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, the nation’s leading organization promoting alternatives to the failed war on drugs.