A Voter’s Guide to the Drug War

The stakes couldn’t be higher: Oregon, Alaska, Florida, California, and Washington D.C. have big votes.

Whatever else Tuesday may bring, it looks poised to be a banner day for those of us who have long sought to end America’s failed war on drugs. And if the stars and voter participation align, it may indeed prove a tipping point in the long fight toward a possible landslide for Drug War Reform.

Citizens across the country will vote Tuesday on more initiatives to reform drug control policy than at any other time in American history. This is a coup in itself, of course, reflecting how much the movement to end the Drug War has gained ground in recent years. But to seal the deal and truly begin to close this harrowingly destructive chapter in American history, voters need to understand how the war has failed for over forty years to curb rates of drug addiction or abuse while instead simply shattering families, tearing communities apart, and wasting taxpayer dollars, all the while sowing popular distrust in law enforcement and filling the nation’s jails with predominantly poor, minority, and nonviolent inmates. Above all, the public needs to understand how damaging the war has been not only to other families and communities but to their own.

The good news is, increasingly, they do. After crying in the wilderness for decades, long-time advocates for Drug War reform are finally seeing the tide of public opinion turn: a Pew report from earlier this year found that 67% of the country thought the government should focus on providing treatment to users of hard drugs, while only 26% thought the focus should be on criminal prosecution. That’s a sea change from just a few years ago, when “lock ’em up and throw away the key” was how most people thought the country should approach its drug problem. Tuesday, we face an opportunity to begin codifying that shift of public opinion into law, with more than seven states and seventeen municipalities deciding on crucial legislation related to marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform.

If even a handful of initiatives in states like Oregon, Alaska, Florida, California, and Washington D.C. pass, Tuesday could prove a milestone in the long fight to end this forty-year nightmare. Beyond this state and city level, how voters vote on drug policy will also send a strong message to the Obama administration as it considers candidates to replace Attorney General Eric Holder, arguably the strongest proponent for fixing America’s broken drug policies to ever hold the office.

The stakes couldn’t be higher, which is why it’s important to be informed. Here’s a helpful cribsheet on what needs your vote:

· Oregon – Looking to be the third state in the Union to fully legalize marijuana for adults, Oregon has Measure 91 on the ballot. If passed, the measure would legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, create a state-wide system to regulate production and sales, and allow individuals to cultivate small amounts for personal use.

· District of Colombia – With the highest per capita rate of arrest for marijuana in the country, and huge disparities along racial lines, Washington D.C. is ripe for reform. If passed, Initiative 71 would make it legal for adults to possess and cultivate small amounts of marijuana.

· Alaska – Modeling itself on Colorado’s successful example, Alaska’s Measure 2, if passed, would legalize, tax, and provide a state-regulated marijuana market for adult use.

· Florida – Poised to become the very first southern state to legalize medical marijuana, Florida will be deciding on Amendment 4. If the amendment passes, Florida will be the 24th state in the country to officially determine that marijuana is medicine.

· California – While many of the initiatives this election season are focused on marijuana reform, California is poised to pass a much more sweeping piece of criminal justice legislation. Proposition 47 would reclassify six low-level, non-violent offenses, including simple drug possession, from felonies to misdemeanors. If passed, the proposition is estimated to save more than a $1 billion per year, which would be diverted to school, mental health, and victim’s services.

· New Jersey – Bail reform in New Jersey got a huge boost earlier this year when governor Chris Christie signed legislation to fix New Jersey’s broken bail system. If passed, Public Question No. 1 will make this change a concrete reality. The initiative would benefit low-level drug offenders and help eliminate criminal justice disparities based on class and income.

· Maine – Three cities in Maine: York, South Portland, and Lewiston, will decide whether to join the city of Portland in decriminalizing adult possession of up to an ounce of marijuana.

· Michigan – A slew of municipalities in Michigan (11 to date!) will vote on whether to remove local penalties on the adult possession of small amounts of marijuana in a private residence.

· New Mexico – Two counties, Bernalillo (Albuquerque) and Sante Fe, will decide whether to join the City of Sante Fe in decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults.

· Guam – Potentially the first U.S. territory to adopt medical marijuana, Guam will decide on a referendum that would legalize medical marijuana and open state-regulated dispensaries.

If you don’t see your state or city above, how you vote on Tuesday is still crucial in terms of shaping the larger state and national approach to drugs. That’s why it’s great that the Drug Policy Alliance has published a guide to help voters know which of their candidates support the kind of change our drug policy needs (state-by-state listings start on page 14). Get out and support a representative who’s on the right side of history and you can help end the failed War on Drugs.

Eugene Jarecki is an award-winning filmmaker, author, and public thinker. His most recent film, the Sundance- and Peabody-Award winning THE HOUSE I LIVE IN, investigates America’s failed War on Drugs.

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