While the federal government in recent years has approached illicit drug policy along the lines of the classic definition of a fanatic — if it isn’t working, redouble your efforts — there has been a quiet rethinking of drug policy at the state level, beginning with the decision by California voters in 1996 to approve the medical use of marijuana. But it has been difficult to tell how widespread this phenomenon is.
A new report (available at www.drugpolicy.org) from the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocate of a harm-reduction rather than prohibitive approach to potentially dangerous drugs, goes a long way toward demonstrating that a willingness to enact drug policy reforms is more than a passing fancy. Almost every state in the nation has passed some kind of reform since 1996, and 17 states have passed three or more reform measures.
Specifically, 46 states passed more than 150 new laws that could be classified as harm-reduction reforms between 1996 and 2002 — and more reforms have been passed in 2003. These reforms have been proposed by Republicans, Democrats, Greens and Libertarians, and approved by citizen or legislative majorities. Can it be that politicians no longer fear that even discussing drug policy will get them labeled “soft on crime” and defeated in the next election?
Among the reforms passed have been medical marijuana laws, reduction of drug offense sentences, measures to increase legal access to sterile syringes, restoring the right to vote to some with a felony conviction, replacing incarceration with treatment, and curtailing the abuse of asset-forfeiture laws.
One interesting story came in a conference call that included Don Murphy, a four-term former state legislator from Maryland. A conservative Republican from a Baltimore suburb, he was persuaded by a constituent from another district — a Green Beret with cancer — to introduce a medical marijuana bill in 2000.
In 2000 his bill had eight co-sponsors (four Republicans and four Democrats) and did not pass. In 2001 it got 28 co-sponsors and didn’t pass. In 2002, “an election year in which everybody said it would be political poison to discuss this issue,” according to Murphy, it got 54 co-sponsors and failed by one vote. In the election that November, several key opponents of the bill were defeated by opponents who supported it and made an issue of it. This year it passed and the Republican governor has signed it.
In three years, then, medical marijuana went from an issue most politicians were afraid to discuss to one they were afraid to oppose for fear of being defeated at the polls.
So the news from the states is encouraging. Now if only the feds would get the message that voters are tired of drug policies that not only don’t stop drugs but do more harm than good.