Has America changed its mind about drugs?

Published by UnHerd (12th November, 2020)

If there is one thing that pretty much everyone in the United States can agree on, it is that their mighty nation is bitterly divided. This was proved again by last week’s election, cleaving the country in two between its fractious red and blue regions that see the world so differently. Yet those voters turning out in unprecedented numbers have also proved that there is one unlikely issue that unites them all: the urgent need for drug reform in a nation suffering an epidemic of addiction.

A series of ballots were held in states across the country on this issue — and the results demonstrate that the disastrous War on Drugs, launched half a century ago by a crooked Republican president and adopted enthusiastically across the planet, is rapidly coming to an end in the US. The most dramatic advances were in a pair of staunchly Democrat states, yet even in some of the most conservative corners of the country such as Mississippi, Montana and South Dakota voters strongly backed measures to liberalise drug laws, even as they supported another term of Trump.

In every state where a proposed drug reform was on the ballot — there were six plus DC — it won. British politicians, so scared of electoral and media backlash on this issue, should note how far and how fast the American electorate has moved in the wake of the terrible opioid epidemic that struck the country so hard. A poll last week found cannabis legalisation is now backed by 68% of Americans — a figure that has more than doubled in two decades to its highest level yet, with almost half of Republicans supporting the idea. “Voters kept on being told that legalisation would unleash chaos but they can see that has not happened so now things are shifting further,” said one Democrat drug reform advocate.

Most striking was the passing of Measure 110 in Oregon. This western state was the first to decriminalise cannabis possession in 1973, just two years after Richard Nixon declared drugs “public enemy number one”, as his way of uniting Middle America against both African Americans demanding civil rights and hippies leading the anti-war movement. Now it has decriminalised possession for personal use of all drugs, while diverting funds from marijuana taxes into cash-starved harm reduction and treatment projects. People caught in possession of, say, heroin will be told to pay a $100 fine — but it is waived if they agree to enter recovery services.

Oregon’s bold move is “arguably the biggest blow to the war on drugs to date”, said Cassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which pushed the idea. The reason is simple: the American state, like others struggling with high rates of addiction, has seen that trying to defeat the drug industry by locking up users is a failure that backfires on society. Almost one in eight people in Oregon admits to use of illicit substances over the past month. This results in about two deaths each day and more than 10 people convicted daily on drug charges. So they have chosen to follow Portugal’s successful stance, which was, in 2001, to decriminalise drugs and invest in public health efforts to fight addiction. The number of heroin users and drug-related deaths there has plummeted.

Meanwhile, Washington DC followed four other liberal cities in three states by agreeing to decriminalise therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs. The initiative to sanction the use of ayahuasca, magic mushrooms and mescaline was supported by more than three-quarters of voters, following on from the furious national debate that has broken out over policing and a milder one over use of such drugs for treating mental health problems. The push came from Melissa Lavasani, a mother of two and city government official whose depression was cured by microdosing. “What are the moms at school going to say about this?” was her first thought at the idea of publicity. Now we can see their answer: what a sensible idea.

Then there is cannabis. Four more states — Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota — voted last week to legalise and regulate recreational adult markets for the drug. This means more than a third of Americans now live in one of the 15 states where adult citizens can buy, grow or consume cannabis without fear of the law. Mississippi, one of the deepest red states in the US, ignored its Republican governor’s warning about “stoners” and “pot shops everywhere”, to endorse medical cannabis, becoming the 38th state to sanction such use. Politicians who make such pronouncements seem like dinosaurs even in US conservative circles, given that some of the most die-hard Trump supporters such as Florida’s Republican congressman Matt Gaetz enthusiastically push reform.

As I have seen for myself covering this story, the rules on medical cannabis vary hugely from state to state. In some it is de facto decriminalisation and many ‘patients’ seem suspiciously young, while in other places, such as New York, there is strong focus on health. One of the biggest firms in the market is Colombia Care, which was co-founded by former London police officer Michael Abbott and is now a listed company worth almost $1bn. “We know politicians are trailing behind the voters,” said Adam Goers, the firm’s vice president for corporate affairs. “Reform is being driven by Republican mums whose kids have epilepsy in places such as Texas, Georgia and Virginia, not just hippies and social justice advocates.”

Yet last week’s ballots in Oregon and Washington show how the US drug debate is moving beyond cannabis into tougher terrain, with questions as to the best way for society to live with drugs, while curbing their potential for serious harm. It seems clear that punitive prohibition is both pointless and highly damaging. It fails to stop the flow, while fuelling the deaths, the destruction of families, the despoliation of communities and the dreadful violence of gangs fighting to control the lucrative trade bequeathed by Nixon. Never forget that Trump rose to power with the support of scores of small towns left battered by economic change and then shattered by an opioid epidemic causing more carnage among Americans than the Vietnam War at its peak.

Britain is now being left behind as the US joins more progressive nations in shifting from punishment towards harm reduction, although parts of our own nation have higher drug-related death rates. Most of our blinkered politicians seem impervious to the rising tide of these deaths of despair, which disproportionately hit the most deprived communities they claim to care about in their hollow speeches. They avert their gaze from Europe’s worst fatality rates, leaving any progress reliant on police chiefs infuriated over the squandering of their resources and ordinary citizens pushed to the limit. People such as Charlotte Caldwell, the battling mother of a boy with life-threatening epilepsy who forced the theoretical legalisation of medical cannabis, and Peter Krykant, a Glasgow outreach worker who defiantly set up a mobile drug-consumption unit after the government thwarted official plans.

But just as in Britain — where five police forces tired of fighting an unwinnable war have stopped arresting users in favour of diversion into treatment — the legacy of haphazard liberalisation led by states in response to local initiatives is a legislative mess. Firms such as Columbia and scores like them can list on Canada’s stock exchange but not move products across state borders, and struggle to secure banking and insurance with prohibition at federal level. There are high street cannabis shops and clinics in some states — and in one state, all drugs are decriminalised — but in others, thousands of people are still being arrested. There are also people stuck for life behind bars without hope of parole having been caught with small amounts of cannabis after previous convictions.

This is an issue, like gay marriage, that shows how fast attitudes in society can shift. Joe Biden, the President-elect, is an old-school drug warrior who seems to have repented while his younger running mate Kamala Harris comes from California and clearly understands the emerging agenda. Decriminalisation is now endorsed by 31 United Nations agencies as well as many medical leaders in Britain. Yet how much better to have such important public health reforms led by politicians guiding policy in tandem with experts, as seen in countries such as Canada, Luxembourg and Uruguay, rather than a random process driven by families and activists, some of whom are industry-funded. There is always a danger that any political void will be filled by self-serving commercial interests.

Attempts to try to stop the supply and use of drugs are absurdly ineffective. Just look at the falling prices, rising potency, new synthetic products being created and the hideous number of overdose deaths. Stuffing people who use drugs in prison is cruel and destructive, especially if they are suffering from mental health problems. Given the shocking racial disparities in drug convictions, these issues are entwined closely with the explosive race debate. It is significant that one other US area where there is consensus across tribal divides is the allied issue of prison reform. But at least the US is moving towards more progressive policies on drugs. Slowly but surely, it is ending its long war while Britain fights on with self-harming futility.

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