2014 is starting out to be a year of change on the drug war front. On New Year’s Day, Colorado became the first state in the country where marijuana can be bought and sold legally; Washington State will follow in time for Independence Day. Many have noted that both these states are represented by teams in the Super Bowl, which some wags have started calling the “Bong Bowl.”
Another promising sign of change came in inaugural addresses by the re-elected Governors of New Jersey and Vermont. Earlier this month, Governor Pete Shumlin of Vermont spent his entire 30-minute speech addressing the state’s opioid problem and emphasizing that a health-based approach is needed, not the failed drug war approach that criminalizes drug use. “We must address [addiction] as a public health crisis, providing treatment and support,” said Shumlin, “rather than simply doling out punishment, claiming victory, and moving onto our next conviction.”
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie stated even more strongly: "We will end the failed war on drugs that believes that incarceration is the cure of every ill caused by drug abuse. We will make drug treatment available to as many of our non-violent offenders as we can and we will partner with our citizens to create a society that understands that every life has value and no life is disposable."
These statements are the more notable because Christie and Shumlin are the heads of the Republican Governors’ Association and the Democratic Governors’ Association, respectively. They are charged with leading the efforts to increase the numbers of Governors of their party in statehouses around the country; and both are considered potential future Presidential candidates.
Statehouses are where the action is in terms of drug policy reform; it is no accident that states have led the way in marijuana reform, with 20 states making marijuana legal for medical use, including Colorado and Washington that have legalized for recreational use as well. States have begun to look for ways to reduce their reliance on criminalization and imprisonment as a way of dealing with the drug problem; more and more are looking to deal with drug misuse as a health issue, making more treatment available for those who need it and diverting drug users out of the criminal justice system.
What is needed now is a paradigm shift from criminalization to health, and a clear break from the failed war on drugs. We need to end the criminalization of drug use. That these two leaders of the nation’s governors are saying similar things points to more change on the way in 2014.
Jill Harris is the managing director of strategic initiatives for the Drug Policy Alliance.