Weirdly, COVID-19 was not the biggest thing to happen to the drug world in 2020.
Because by and large, the ever-resourceful illegal drug business navigated the pandemic a lot better than most governments did.
Even during lockdowns, drugs still got trafficked over sea, land and air, via boat, lorry and through the post. Drug sellers came up with cunning workarounds, and drug users adapted their choice of high to suit the new, stay-at-home vibe.
Instead, the biggest thing to happen in the drugs world this year was a gust of reform, a liberalising wind which buffeted, harangued and blew away some of the creaking, cobwebbed furniture of the century-old global war on drugs.
In the US election, drug reform was a big winner. In a historic shift in policy, Oregon became the first state to decriminalise all drugs for personal use, Portugal-style. It means that people caught with small amounts of any drug – cocaine and heroin included – will be given a ticket rather than end up facing jail.
Oregon’s new decriminalisation policy is not just about going easy on drug possession, it will use tax revenue from weed sales to improve the help it gives to people dealing with addiction.
Not done with that, the state also voted to legalise access to psychedelic mushrooms for medicinal purposes, while Washington DC also passed a measure to decriminalise shrooms.
November’s election also marked a tipping point in the liberalisation of cannabis laws in America. A decade ago, recreational marijuana was illegal in all 50 states. But with Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, Mississippi, and South Dakota all voting for legal recreational weed, and South Dakota and Mississippi opting to set up medical cannabis regimes, it is now legal to use the drug recreationally in 15 states and medically in 38.
The mood of reform in the US was further propelled four weeks later in December by another historic first – a vote in the House of Representatives to end the federal ban on cannabis. The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act would allow states to dictate their own laws on cannabis, create a federal tax on sales, expunge past convictions and release some offenders from prison for weed offences.
The bill is largely a symbolic moment. It is highly unlikely to pass the Republican-dominated Senate, but the vote marks an important waypoint in America’s inevitable journey to regulating, rather than exterminating, this controversial plant.
Two days before the House vote, the United Nations took its own unprecedented, highly symbolic step in further reconciling the world’s relationship with cannabis when it voted to officially recognise its medicinal properties.
Even though the drug is still banned under UN law, in removing cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the vote is likely to increase medical access to cannabis and spark a rise in research into its benefits. The vote was a close one, with 27 countries backing the change and 25 against it. What swung it was that nations with a track record of opposing any drug reform, such as Thailand, Nepal, India and Morocco, voted for it.
Globally, this year saw a string of countries, such as Argentina, Switzerland, Thailand, Australia, Israel move forward on the regulation of medical or recreational weed, while in the Netherlands a programme setting up the first legal supply to coffee shops got underway.
Steps are also being taken to take charge of the global market in cocaine. In Colombia, the world’s largest producer of the drug, a bill which suggests legalising the country’s cocaine trade is currently going through congress.
The bill, introduced by Senator Iván Marulanda, would create a legal industry by buying up the entire coca harvest, employing thousands of coca farmers and distributing the drug as a pain reliever. While the coke bill is unlikely to pass congress this time, it has opened up the conversation with the public and broken the taboo that says this plant has to be the cause of deadly internal wars.
This year Ghana passed a new drug law introducing a range of non-criminal punishments for drug use. Instead of being sent to jail, people caught in possession of small amounts of drugs will instead be warned, offered treatment or fined. The new law has its holes: not paying the fine is criminal, so it could end up criminalising poor drug users more than rich ones. But it is a major piece of drug reform that could act as a catalyst for less punitive laws within the continent. Ghana’s new law will also improve harm reduction services for drug injectors, regulate cannabis growing for medicinal products and legalise the hemp industry.
At the heart of drug liberalisation is the notion of harm reduction: that a regulated drug industry is safer than the black market, and that it is more important to make sure drug users are safe than to criminalise them.
In Canada, where there is an opioid overdose crisis, more drug-consumption rooms – where addicted users can inject drugs in safe conditions – are being set up. In British Columbia the authorities expanded access to prescription pharmaceutical opiates for drug users to protect them from buying lethal fentanyl-laced street heroin. Dispensing machines are also now providing pharmaceutical opiates prescribed by doctors. In December, New Zealand legalised pill testing, allowing approved firms to test illegal drugs at festivals and in city centres, letting users know their strength and what’s really in them.
Drug legalisation is now not just a concept being discussed by hippies around a fire at Glastonbury. Yet the drug war is raging more fiercely than ever in some parts of the world, with countries such as the Philippines, Russia, Iran and China using drug addiction as an excuse to incarcerate or kill its citizens. Being caught with a bag of heroin will get you a ticket in Oregon. In Manila it will get you a bullet in the head.
But in a year which proved that even during a pandemic people will carry on buying and selling illegal drugs, not for the first time the old statues of drug prohibition were being pulled down at an impressive rate.