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The national landscape on drug policy takes a dramatic turn

For decades, the "war on drugs" moved in one punitive direction. Now, the landscape is unrecognizable when compared to drug policies from the recent past.
Image; Indoor cultivation of marijuana at the University of Mississippi.
Indoor cultivation of marijuana at the University of Mississippi.University of Mississippi

For decades, the United States' "war on drugs" only moved in one punitive direction. Political figures felt compelled to go along, because the alternative was facing a likely public backlash, with allegations of being "soft on drugs" or "soft on crime."

In 2020, however, the landscape is unrecognizable when compared to drug policies from the recent past. NBC News reported late yesterday on what one of the important trends to emerge from this year's election results:

Measures to legalize cannabis and decriminalize other drugs won major victories this week as five states — Arizona, New Jersey, South Dakota, Montana and Mississippi — legalized some form of marijuana use and Oregon became the first state to make possession of small amounts of harder drugs, including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, violations not punishable by jail time. Voters in Oregon and Washington, D.C., also approved measures to allow for the therapeutic use of psychedelic mushrooms, which are already being prescribed to help some terminally ill patients in Canada cope with pain and end-of-life anxiety.

As things stand, 15 states, two territories, and Washington, D.C., have now legalized marijuana for recreational use, while 34 states and two more territories allow medical marijuana.

Keep in mind, a decade ago, the total number of states allowing recreational marijuana was zero. Americans' attitudes haven't just changed; they've change with striking speed.

The question is when federal policymakers will catch up. NBC News' report added, "Despite the ballot initiatives, marijuana and other drugs remain illegal at the federal level. The Drug Enforcement Administration continues to classify cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug akin to LSD, heroin and ecstasy."

A meaningful change to federal drug laws is probably unrealistic without a Democratic-led Congress, but given the shifts in public attitudes, it's easier to imagine real reforms now than it was in the relatively recent past.