Last Friday morning, six years after she began campaigning for medical cannabis in South Dakota, Melissa Mentele went to scout locations for dispensaries in Sioux Falls.
The red state, where President Donald Trump won more than 60 percent of the vote last week, passed ballot measures that will legalize both recreational and medical cannabis.
“We have completely changed (the conversation) in this state,” said Mentele, executive director of New Approach South Dakota, which sponsored the medical cannabis ballot initiative put before voters last Tuesday.
Mentele, who consumes cannabis for a chronic pain condition stemming from a shoulder injury, said it’s been a long road to get here. Six years ago, people weren’t interested in legalization. Whenever the issue was raised in the legislature, Mentele said droves of cops show up in uniform “to intimidate and show force.” In 2019, the hemp bill she worked on that would have legalized CBD production was vetoed by Governor Kristi Noem, who was “concerned that this bill supports a national effort to legalize marijuana for recreational use.” (Noem signed off on a more restrictive hemp bill this year.)
But South Dakota, along with Mississippi, Arizona, Montana, and New Jersey all voted to legalize weed via ballot measures on election day. According to cannabis advocacy group NORML, 36 states have now passed or voted to enact medical weed laws, while 15 states have either enacted or voted to enact legal recreational weed.
In fact, every ballot measure proposing drug reform was successful, which experts believe is a strong rebuke of prohibition and the war on drugs.
The most dramatic drug policy reform measure came from Oregon, which voted to decriminalize small-scale possession of all drugs, including heroin, cocaine, and meth. Oregon also voted to legalize psychedelic mushrooms for medicinal purposes, while Washington, D.C. voted to decriminalize shrooms and ayahuasca.
Matt Sutton, a spokesman for the Drug Policy Alliance, said Oregon’s decriminalization policy will “take a sledgehammer to the corner of the war on drugs.”
The Oregon Criminal Justice Association has estimated it will result in a 95 percent decrease in the racial disparity in arrests in the state.
Sutton said the win demonstrates decriminalization is politically viable, invigorating efforts in other states like California, Vermont, and Washington. (In 2014, California voted to reclassify personal drug possession as a misdemeanor.)
“I have no doubt that by the end of my career, 25-30 years from now, most illicit substances… will be at least least decriminalized if not legalized and regulated the way cannabis is now,” said Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto who studies drug policy.
Owusu-Bempah said the public is becoming more aware of the disproportionate arrests of Black and Indigenous peoples for drug crimes, wasted money on prosecuting these crimes, the opioid crisis, and the fact that prohibition fuels criminal organizations.
In July, the Drug Policy Alliance released the Drug Policy Reform Act, a framework for decriminalizing drugs federally. Cornerstones of the framework include eliminating criminal penalties for low-level possession, reallocating policing funds into community health services, and taking away the Drug Enforcement Administration’s power to classify drugs under the Controlled Substances Act. Instead, that authority would be given to the National Institutes of Health.
Sutton said a (largely symbolic) standalone bill introducing the framework could happen in Congress by the end of this year. He also believes federal decriminalization of cannabis is in the cards, as both President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have indicated support for it.
Biden’s history as a “tough on crime” senator drew criticism from progressives on the campaign trail but he admitted that “mistakes” were made in war on drugs legislation that particularly hurt the Black community.
“Joe Biden was one of the architects of the 1994 crime bill and other ‘tough on crime’ legislation and Kamala Harris is a former prosecutor. But each of them have shown growth. They have embraced what activists and advocates have been saying for a long time—that the war on drugs is racist and does not work,” Maritza Perez of the Drug Police Alliance said.
Meanwhile in Canada
Oregon’s policy could also put pressure on nearby Canada, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has legalized cannabis but has repeatedly refused to consider decriminalizing other drugs, despite soaring overdose deaths in 2020 that are on track to break records.
“We’ll definitely use that around advocacy in Canada. It’s not across the ocean in Portugal anymore; it’s on our back door,” said Scott Bernstein, director of policy at the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition based in Vancouver, where the opioid crisis is at its worst.
Bernstein was critical of some aspects of Oregon’s policy—he doesn’t think people caught with drugs should have to pay a $100 fine, nor be compelled to do a health assessment, as most people who do drugs don’t have a problematic relationship with them.
However, he said it’s “a big step.”
Cannabis equity—policies that help people harmed by the war on drugs benefit from the legal industry—is another area where Canada is now lagging behind several U.S. states.
Aside from an expedited pardon process for weed possession that only a few hundred people have used, Canada has done little to help marginalized groups. Yet data analyzed by VICE News shows Black and Indigenous peoples were disproportionately arrested for cannabis possession across the country.
“In order for cannabis equity to be realized, it needs to be baked into legislation from the outset,” said Owusu-Bempah, senior author of the report.
Michigan, Illinois, Massachusetts, California, Colorado, and Arizona all have equity and amnesty measures, which range from equity licences set aside for victims of the war on drugs, to assistance with business plans, low-interest loans, and record expungement. The programs have struggled with implementation, but are still far more comprehensive than anything Canada has done.
“None of that is happening here,” said Owusu-Bempah.
Phil Charles, 32, founded Black Cannabis in 2019 as a means of helping Black people get into the cannabis industry. The company puts out a cannabis TV show and magazine, hosts live events, and acquired a hemp farm in Alabama.
Though he’s based in Trenton, New Jersey, another state that just voted to legalize weed, Charles said Black Cannabis is expanding in pockets throughout the country.
The company is starting a task force in New Jersey to collect the resumes of Black and brown folks interested in getting into legal weed to help connect them to dispensaries. (New Jersey doesn’t have strong equity policies for its new cannabis laws.)
Phil Charles of Black Cannabis. Supplied photo.
While Charles doesn’t think any recreational dispensaries will open in New Jersey until 2022, he’s optimistic because decriminalization will take place well before the legal market is up and running.
“It is a victory for people that have been getting arrested and it’s also a victory for the black market,” he said, noting that he’s supportive of black market dealers. “There’s so many roadblocks and regulations keeping people in the legacy market out.”
Charles criticized the corporatization of cannabis in the U.S., noting that many of the big players aren’t connected to the grassroots legalization movement. It’s a gap he plans on addressing through Black Cannabis.
“I don't see there being an area in the industry where we’re not able to infiltrate and branch out and get people of colour into that space,” he said.
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.
With files from Max Daly.