America is clearly headed for the decriminalization of all drugs

Yes, even heroin

The American flag.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Americans are deeply divided on who should be president. But we are increasingly united on drug policy, and the undeniable trend — with rising support across state, partisan, and other demographic lines — is toward decriminalization and perhaps even eventual legalization of all drugs.

Consider the results from a handful of drug-related ballot measures this week. Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota voted on marijuana questions, with all but Mississippi considering legalization for recreational use (or amending the state constitution to allow the legislature to take up that issue). Every single measure passed, and not one was a close vote. In deep red South Dakota, where President Trump won with more than 60 percent of votes cast, a medical marijuana program was approved by seven in 10 voters and recreational legalization by a comfortable seven-point margin (as of this writing).

More remarkable are the ballot initiatives that weren't about weed. Washington, D.C., enthusiastically approved a measure functionally decriminalizing psychedelic mushrooms. Oregon voters endorsed creating a program for the same mushrooms' medically supervised use, and they also voted to decriminalize personal (i.e., quantity-limited) possession of hard drugs, including cocaine, heroin, LSD, and meth.

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Oregon deserves special attention here, because it's been a bellwether on drug laws for a century. In 1923, Oregon was among the earliest states to ban marijuana, doing so with neighbors California and Washington more than a decade before recreational marijuana use was effectively prohibited by federal tax law in 1937.

Medical marijuana was banned at the federal level by 1970's Controlled Substances Act, which declared the drug war as we know it today: utterly ineffective, often counterproductive, incredibly expensive, and a moral monstrosity. By then, however, change was already afoot in Oregon. Just three years later, in 1973, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize pot. Five other states — Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, and Ohio — followed suit within two years. Oregon was also an early adopter in permitting medical marijuana use, legalizing it in 1998, only two years after the first such measure passed in California. In 2014, Oregon legalized recreational use, again just two years behind the first states to do so (Colorado and Washington State in 2012).

Now, in 2020, Oregon is both the first state to legalize the psychedelic ingredient in "magic mushrooms" and the first to decriminalize harder drugs. It's an outlier, but if historical patterns hold, it won't be for long.

Notice that Oregon's big drug law changes tend to happen within the first decade of a broader national shift; that they tend to be grouped with similar moves from other West Coast and Mountain West states; and that they are happening at an accelerating pace. For marijuana, this has meant that both early prohibitions and early decriminalization and legalization laws popped up in clusters on the western edge of the country before jumping to New England (usually Maine and/or Massachusetts) then gradually moving into the Midwest and South.

That's unless the process gets interrupted by federal intervention, which twice has happened around halfway through. When pot was banned in 1937, the federal law arrived after 29 state laws to the same effect. The Obama administration's 2013 policy of directing federal enforcement resources away legal, personal marijuana use likewise came after 20 states and Washington, D.C., had legalized medical marijuana and two had legalized recreational. Liberation travels more slowly than prohibition, but this pattern suggests we can reasonably hope for the final end of the federal war on weed within the next decade, as recreational legalization has happened in 15 states in just eight years (and decriminalization is already achieved in another 16).

For the other drugs Oregonians decriminalized this week, the path to a national shift is much longer, but the accelerating pace at which drug laws are changing is a positive sign. It took Oregon 25 years to get from decriminalization to legalizing medical marijuana, another 16 to get to legalizing recreational use, and just six to go from there to this year's mushroom legalization and hard drug decriminalization measures.

If that acceleration spreads, the drug war's deserved decline could be complete by mid-century. A collection of polling suggests decriminalization and treatment for hard drugs already have majority support, though even outright legalization could gain favor if survey trends on marijuana are exemplary (which they may not be) and decriminalization experiments here go as well as they have in other countries, like Portugal.

In the meantime, this week's ballot box wins are a decisive bright spot in a messy and unpleasant election. In this fight, at least, we're headed toward peace.

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