Over 50 years ago, the US started the war on drugs. But now it’s leading the way in ending it

The US took another historic step towards ending the war on drugs last night. Oregon, Alaska, and the nation’s capital, Washington D.C., all voted to legalise and regulate cannabis. Including Colorado and Washington State – both of which took the same step last year – there is now a total of four states and one district in the US that have, or will have, legally regulated cannabis markets.


The results of last night’s votes were:

Washington D.C.– Yes 69.4% vs. No 30.6%

Oregon – Yes 54.4% vs. No 45.6%

Alaska – Yes 52.08% vs No 47.92%

Both Oregon and Alaska look set to implement systems of legal cannabis regulation similar those already in place in Washington State and Colorado, with licensed producers, processers and sellers operating in a relatively free market. In Washington D.C., much is still to be decided. The ballot measure that was voted on, Initiative 71, permits the possession of two ounces of cannabis for personal use, the home-growing of six cannabis plants, and transfers of cannabis without payment. However, this “grow and give” system is likely to make way to a full retail cannabis market soon. 

There is also the question of whether the results of last night’s vote in D.C. will be allowed to stand at all, as the legislation is subject to a 60-day congressional review period, during which Congress – where the Republicans now have a majority – could block the implementation of the regulations included in Initiative 71 (uniquely, Congress has the ability to overturn laws in D.C., and exercises far greater control over political affairs in the district than it does in the 50 states). Obviously, if that happens, there’s likely to be uproar as it’ll look bad politically for any member of Congress to be going against the will of (69.4% of) the people.


There are some other key points to take away from last night’s vote. Firstly, the cannabis legalisation/regulation initiatives passed despite a relatively low turnout among young people and Democrats – two groups typically more likely to back reform. In fact, it happened at the same time as a big swing to the Republicans took place, showing that support for cannabis law reform (or drug law reform in general) isn’t just a liberal issue.

Increasingly, a pro-reform position is a vote-winner in the US. Especially given that a majority of the public support cannabis legalisation and regulation. We may even see the first pro-reform presidential candidates from the two main parties in 2016.

This all sets the stage for 2016, when other states – including California (which nearly legalised last time), Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada and Arizona – are likely to follow. After that, federal law will probably have to shift.

The emerging consensus on the need for reform in the US obviously has major ramifications internationally, too – particularly for the prospects of change in Central and South America. The upcoming UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs in 2016 is also likely to be affected. Recent comments from William Brownfield, head of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, which advises the US president on drug policy, certainly give cause for optimism. A few weeks ago, he said:

"How could I, a representative of the government of the United States of America, be intolerant of a government that permits any experimentation with legalisation of marijuana if two of the 50 states of the United States of America have chosen to walk down that road?"

He also stated that the international community must “tolerate different national drug policies, to accept the fact that some countries will have very strict drug approaches; other countries will legalise entire categories of drugs.” The results of last night’s votes will only add to the pressure on UN member states to demonstrate such tolerance in 2016.