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The US Drug Laws – What Changed, Where it Changed, and What it Means for the Citizens

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On November 4th, 2020, as the world held its breath to see who would win the battle to govern the USA for the next four years, another important news item was quietly broadcast under the torrent of election coverage.

Eight states, including New Jersey, Oregon and Washington D.C., announced unprecedented changes to local drug laws. Marijuana was at the centre of the changes, with several bodies downgrading the regulations surrounding the plant, while Oregon even went as far as to decriminalise Class A substances. But what were the changes in 2020 exactly, and what does all of this currently mean for citizens in these States?

All Illegal Drugs Decriminalised

Only a handful of authorities around the world have ever made the move. When looking up data on drug laws, it’s common to see ‘illegal’ next to most substances, but, with Oregon voters passing Ballot Measure 110, the personal possession of any drug is now within the law, and it’s the most far-reaching drug-related change the country has seen in a long time.

It removes all criminal penalties for drug possession: those caught will be required to either pay a $100 fine or sign up for a health assessment at an addiction recovery centre. Money normally spent on arresting, prosecuting and jailing drug users will instead go towards rehab services — a move that will hopefully see thousands of people getting the treatment they need in the short term.

The law change came following similar successful pilots in Europe where addiction is treated as a health issue rather than a legal one. The State of Oregon has the third highest number of people needing but not receiving treatment, which might explain the movement for change.

Supporters of the move believe it will help to reduce drug-related deaths, and vastly improve addiction services. There could also be a huge amount of money saved, with some predicting as much s $100 million a year in the state alone.

Psychedelic Drugs Decriminalised

While it doesn’t grab as many headlines as Oregon’s full-scaled decriminalization, Washington D.C.’s law change was perhaps the most interesting. A range of plants associated with psychedelic drugs are now within the state’s law, including cacti used to make peyote, mushrooms with psilocybin and other entheogenic (a psychoactive substance) fungi.

The Decriminalize Nature campaign is a national movement that aims to recognize such plants as natural resources rather than harmful drugs, and their work has helped to ensure that they will become one of the lowest priorities for law enforcement. In short, the police can’t arrest people who grow or possess personal quantities of the material.

It’s also the first time a resolution like this has been voted on across a major city and, with a positive vote achieved at the first time of asking, it probably won’t be the last.

Marijuana Allowed for Medicinal Purposes

It’s an argument that has raged for a long time now: medical marijuana should not be a legal issue. There’s proof that the drug alleviates pain considerably for sufferers of a range of conditions, from Crohn’s disease to cancer, but it has often been met with fierce resistance from anti-drug campaigners.

Medical pot was already decriminalized in well over half the US states before the election, but a couple more joined the club following the vote. Mississippi and South Dakota, both states with conservative drug laws, passed legislation that will allow patients to take the drug to relieve pain. South Dakota’s Measure 26 and Mississippi’s Initiative 65 are the two acts that pushed the reforms over the line, and the sale of the drugs will be subject to each state’s tax line.

South Dakota even broke a record in doing so. It became the first state to pass both medical and recreational drug reforms at the same time — normally a multi-step process — so that its citizens can now use the drug regardless of whether they have a medical issue or not, which brings us to the next change.

Marijuana Decriminalised

A handful of states joined South Dakota in authorizing marijuana for recreational use — Arizona, Montana and New Jersey. In New Jersey, it’s even gone as far as to be part of the state’s constitution, making it extremely difficult for the move to be reversed in the future.

Delighted campaigners in all three states welcomed the vote, with scores of voters agreeing with their call for change. On the other side of the coin, anti-drug campaigners such as Gregg Edwards, Director of Don’t Let NJ Go To Pot, denounced the move as ‘extreme’ and a negative thing for the state.

What Does the Future Hold?

The main reason behind such drug reforms is a strategy by advocates to target states which use ballot measures to decide such issues rather than through tedious state legislatures.

At the time of writing this article, 37 US states (plus D.C.) have legalized medical marijuana, 31 states (plus D.C.) have decriminalized cannabis, and 18 states (plus D.C) have fully legalized cannabis for adults. With the current mindset of the society, whose open-mindedness to similar substances is rapidly increasing, it’s just a matter of time before the more conservative states join the movement.



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