2016: Historic Victories and Devastating Setbacks in Fight Against Failed Drug War

December 21, 2016 - By Tony Newman

For the last seven years I have written an end-of-year piece about the top stories of the year in the fight to end our disastrous war on drugs.

2016 has been a strange, difficult year.  We’ve accomplished more historic victories than ever -- but they’re now overshadowed by the election of Donald Trump and the despair he is primed to wreak on our most vulnerable communities.

Here’s my take on this year’s most important victories and its most enormous setbacks.

The Good

Marijuana Legalization Wins Big on Election Night

This Election Day was a watershed moment for the movement to end marijuana prohibition. Overall, legalization initiatives prevailed in four out of five states, and medical marijuana initiatives prevailed in all four states this year.

California, Nevada, Massachusetts and Maine all rejected prohibition and opted to tax and regulate marijuana instead. Florida, Arkansas, North Dakota and Montana also voted to legalize marijuana for medical use, bringing the total to 28 states and Washington D.C.  Only Arizona, which was considering recreational marijuana legalization, voted down their measure.

The most significant win came out of California. California is the new gold standard of marijuana legalization laws thanks to its important criminal justice reforms and reparative justice provisions. It ends the wasteful expenditure of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars every year in California on the arrest, prosecution and incarceration of nonviolent, marijuana-only offenses. It also reduces barriers to entry to the legal market, and drives hundreds of millions of dollars in investments to low-income communities that have been most negatively impacted by the drug war.

President Obama Goes Big with Clemencies and Pardons for Nonviolent Drug Offenders

President Obama granted 78 pardons and 153 commutations on Monday — a single-day record for the use of presidential clemency power. After a slow start in his first term, the President has now commuted the sentences of 1,176 individuals, mostly people with nonviolent drug offenses, more than every President since Harry Truman combined. While the clemencies are incredibly important and helping individuals come home, there are tens of thousands of others who should have their sentences reduced as well. In 2016 we saw bi-partisan support for reforming our drug laws and reducing mass incarceration. There was a hopeful op-ed in the New York Times this week that argued that criminal justice reform may still happen in 2017.

Harm Reduction and Overdose Prevention Hit the Mainstream

Many of the harm reduction practices that advocates have pushed for years are starting to be embraced by the Drug Czar and elected officials in both red and blue states. Many states have passed laws to expand access to naloxone, the overdose reversal drug. And many states have passed “911 Good Samaritan” laws that allow people who are witnessing an overdose to call 911 for help without fear of arrest. Politicians are calling for increased treatment funding, while obstacles to opioid replacement therapies like methadone are being removed.

There is even important momentum for supervised injection facilities (SIFs) in the United States. Sixty-six cities in nine countries have supervised injection facilities where people can inject their drugs in a clean, safe place with medical professionals on hand – yet to date there are none in the United States. There is overwhelming evidence that SIFs are effective in reducing new HIV infections, overdose deaths and public nuisance – and that they do not increase drug use or criminal activity.

In February, both Maryland Delegate Dan Morhaim and Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick made national news when they came out strong for SIFs. Momentum is also building in Seattle, San Francisco and New York City, where elected officials are considering SIFs. Even USA Today put out a strong editorial in support of supervised injection facilities.

The Bad and Ugly

The Looming Nightmare of Donald Trump and His Administration

Despite historic wins for marijuana legalization on election night, there was no joy to be felt as it became clear that Donald Trump was going to shock the world and become president.

There’s little doubt that Trump is primed to launch a new war on drugs that could be worse than anything we’ve seen before. Trump ran hard as a “tough on crime” candidate, who believes in “stop and frisk” policing, supports private prisons, and called for a wall along the border to keep out “drug smuggling” Mexicans. He also made news recently when he expressed support for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign of mass murder of poor people suspected of using or selling drugs.

The people he has chosen to run his administration are a nightmare, starting with Senator Jeff Sessions as his attorney general. Jeff Sessions is a drug war extremist with a career-long history of racist comments and actions. In recent years, Sessions played a critical role in blocking efforts to reform sentencing policy, asset forfeiture, and marijuana laws.

Drug Users in The Philippines Are Being "Slaughtered Like Animals"

For the past six months, the Philippines has waged a brutal, bloody war against people who are suspected of using or selling drugs. This war is being led by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte – since assuming office in July, he has urged police and citizens alike to execute people who they deem to be using or selling drugs.

To date, over 6,000 people have been executed in this campaign. A further 840,000 people who use drugs have turned themselves in to authorities. A recent New York Times photo essay on the Philippines highlights the vicious killings.

More Americans Are Now Dying from Overdose Than From Car Crashes or Guns

The New York Times ran a front page story earlier this year documenting the explosion of overdose deaths throughout the country. 47,000 Americans died from an overdose in 2014 – more than from either car crashes or guns. Despite all of our progress, we are seeing more unacceptable death and suffering from addiction, touching virtually every family and community in the United States.

We are at a paradoxical moment in our fight against the war on drugs. On one hand, marijuana legalization is moving forward rapidly, there is bi-partisan support for reducing the amount of people behind bars and promoting health-based approaches to reducing the harms of drugs. And on the other hand, we have a new President and administration that is likely to ramp up our disastrous war, we have unprecedented killings in the Philippines, and an alarming overdose crisis that is devastating families and communities around the country.

The pain and misery from the drug war is as great as ever. We need to step up our efforts, continue to partner with allies, and win hearts and minds. The casualties from the catastrophic war on drugs continue to mount daily.

It is time to find an exit strategy from this unwinnable war. If the people lead, the leaders will follow.

Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)

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