Drugs Won Big During the U.S. Election

Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, Mississippi, and South Dakota all voted for legal weed, while Oregon voted to decriminalize drugs like cocaine and meth. It's a big blow to the War on Drugs, which has disproportionately harmed people of color.
drugs weed election
Six U.S. states and D.C. voted for drug policy reform during the election. Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Despite the uncertainty over the outcome of the U.S. presidential race Wednesday morning, Mississippi cannabis advocate Natalie Jones Bonner was feeling “absolute joy.” 

Jones Bonner, 59, was celebrating the passing of Initiative 65, a ballot measure that will establish a medical cannabis program in the state. 

Mississippi is one of a handful of states to pass drug reform measures last night.

In a groundbreaking decision, Oregon voted to support Measure 110, which will decriminalize all drugs, including cocaine and heroin. Oregon also voted to legalize access to psychedelic mushrooms for medicinal purposes. 


Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota all voted to legalize cannabis for recreational purposes. South Dakota additionally voted yes to establishing a medical cannabis regime. 

Voters in the District of Columbia passed a measure to decriminalize shrooms. 

The outcomes are a boon for drug reform advocates and the cannabis industry, making the possibility of federal weed decriminalization more feasible. Currently, 33 states allow medical cannabis and 11 have recreational regimes. 

Several of the states that passed measures last night have historically been proponents of the war on drugs, with Black people disproportionately arrested for drug crimes. 

Jones Bonner, who is Black and runs a hemp company, said the impact of the war on drugs on her family members is part of the reason she got involved collecting signatures in support of Initiative 65. 

“People of color have been disproportionately demonized and incarcerated for this plant. In this era, people of non-color are capitalizing on the economic benefits of this plan and you still have people serving ridiculous sentences that will not be adjudicated,” Jones Bonner said, adding that many farmers in her home state are living in abject poverty. 

“But they have land. They can use that land to create economic wealth for their family.” 

Matt Sutton, spokesman for the Drug Policy Alliance, said the support of drug reform is crucial in the context of wider conversations around police brutality and the failings of the criminal justice system. 


He said Oregon’s decriminalization measure could result in a 95 percent decrease in racial disparities in arrests, according to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission. 

Sutton said it’s “remarkable” that weed legalization would pass in states like Montana, which has the highest rate of racial disparities in weed arrests, and South Dakota, where 10 percent of all arrests are tied to cannabis.  

Economic gains, particularly as the pandemic is draining state resources, are in part behind the bilateral support of cannabis reform. 

Sutton said he expects New Jersey’s decision to legalize cannabis to light a fire under New York, which has stalled in setting up its legal recreational regime. 

“If not all of the tax revenue is going to go right across the river to New Jersey. That’s definitely not something that New York wants,” Sutton said. 

David Culver, vice president of U.S. government and stakeholder relations for Canadian licensed producer Canopy Growth, said the overarching takeaway is more momentum for cannabis normalization at the federal level. 

“It’s just historic, period, that we’re having this conversation,” he said, referring to the changing tides in Mississippi and South Dakota.

Canopy does not currently sell cannabis in the U.S. because it is illegal federally, though Culver said it does have an option to purchase Acreage Holdings, a multi-state operator in the U.S., when the opportunity arises.

For weed, he said the best case scenario for weed would be a democratic sweep of both the White House and the Senate. Presidential hopeful Joe Biden has indicated he supports decriminalizing weed while his vice presidential candidate, Senator Kamala Harris, was senate sponsor for the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act, which would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act. 

The MORE Act was passed by the House Judiciary Committee in 2019 but would be unlikely to pass in the Senate if the Republicans maintain control.  

Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter