Our Victories

Marijuana Reform

Oregon, D.C. and Alaska Legalize Marijuana. On Election Day in November 2014, Oregon and Alaska voters made their states the third and fourth in the nation to legally regulate the production, distribution and sale of marijuana. DPA’s sister organization, Drug Policy Action, was the single largest donor to the Oregon campaign and was deeply involved in the measure’s drafting and on-the-ground campaign. The Drug Policy Alliance and Drug Policy Action also played a leadership role and provided significant financial assistance for Washington, D.C.’s successful campaign to legalize marijuana: DPA’s Dr. Malik Burnett co-chaired the campaign, and Drug Policy Action coordinated voter contact and coalition building in support of victory. DPA is currently advising on the drafting of the regulations. Passage of these initiatives accelerates the nationwide momentum in favor of legalizing marijuana and ending the wider drug war.

Colorado and Washington Legalize Marijuana. Colorado and Washington made history by becoming the first states to legalize marijuana in 2012, and Colorado became the first state to offer legal retail sales of marijuana in January 2014. The Drug Policy Alliance and its electoral arm, Drug Policy Action, worked closely with local and national allies to draft these ballot initiatives, build coalitions and raise funds. The Colorado and Washington initiatives inspired diverse coalitions that included traditional drug policy reformers, law enforcement, organized labor, advocates for fiscal responsibility, mainstream civil rights organizations, advocates for children, and people from across the political spectrum.

Uruguay Legalizes Marijuana. On December 10, 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legally regulate the production, distribution and sale of marijuana for adults. The proposal was put forward by President José Mujica in June 2012 as part of a comprehensive package aimed at fighting crime and public insecurity. DPA has been deeply involved in efforts to legalize marijuana in Uruguay since we first met with activists, journalists and government officials, including President Mujica, in Montevideo in September 2012. At the invitation of local supporters of the marijuana legalization proposal, DPA’s policy manager for the Americas, Hannah Hetzer, spent nine months in Uruguay working with a diverse coalition of Uruguayan civil society organizations on a public education campaign that included input from political consultants and activists in the U.S. who had worked on last year’s campaigns in Colorado and Washington.

Marijuana Decriminalization in Rhode Island. In June 2012, Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee signed a marijuana decriminalization bill into law. The law makes possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil violation and removes the threat of jail time. Our allies and supporters pressured Governor Chafee to sign the bill and were instrumental in its passage.

Medical Marijuana in New York. In June 2014, New York became the 23rd state with a medical marijuana law. DPA's New York policy office worked with allies across the state to bring the voices of patients, providers and caregivers  to the legislature and governor's office. The bill passed and was signed despite significant opposition from leaders in Albany. Although the bill has limitations, if implemented well and quickly could help thousands of New Yorkers with serious illnesses and debilitating conditions.

Medical Marijuana in New Jersey. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie green-lighted implementation of the state’s medical marijuana legislation in July 2011 after delaying it over concerns about federal interference. DPA’s New Jersey office spearheaded an effort to urge the governor to move forward with the program and protect patients.

Medical Marijuana in New Mexico. During the 2011 legislative session, a freshman legislator introduced a bill to repeal New Mexico's medical marijuana program -- a move that would have deprived thousands of seriously ill patients of their medicine. DPA's New Mexico office mobilized to block this heartless legislation, alerting medical marijuana supporters to the threat and urging them to contact the legislature. After a huge response from New Mexico residents, the legislator withdrew the repeal bill.

Learn more about our work to reform marijuana laws.

Criminal Justice Reform

Scaling Back Mass Incarceration in California. On the heels of reforming the state’s “three strikes” law in the 2012 election, Californians overwhelmingly voted in favor of Proposition 47, which changes six low-level, nonviolent offenses – including simple drug possession – from felonies to misdemeanors. With its retroactive sentencing and expungement provisions, the impact of Prop 47 in California on wasteful corrections spending and individual lives will be profound and surely resonate across the country. DPA’s lobbying arm, Drug Policy Action, supported this initiative with assistance on its drafting, as well as financial and other support for the campaign.

Bail Reform in New Jersey. New Jersey voters approved a ballot measure to reform New Jersey’s bail system in November 2014. The new law allows judges to deny bail to dangerous individuals – and it ushers in broader bail reform because it is linked to comprehensive legislation that overhauls the state’s broken bail system. Now pretrial release decisions will be made based on risk rather than resources and thousands of low-income individuals – many of whom are behind bars for a low-level drug law violation – will avoid unnecessary jail time. The Drug Policy Alliance and Drug Policy Action played a leading role in efforts to pass both this legislation and the accompanying ballot initiative.

Three Strikes Reform in California. On Election Day in November 2012, Californians passed Proposition 36, which will reform California’s notorious Three Strikes Law. Moving forward, no more Californians will be sentenced to life in prison for minor and nonviolent drug law offenses. The Drug Policy Alliance’s electoral arm, Drug Policy Alliance Issues PAC, was one of the primary financial contributors to the Prop. 36 campaign.

NYPD Ordered to Stop Wrongful Marijuana Charges. In September 2011, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly ordered all NYPD officers to stop charging people with misdemeanor marijuana violations based on improper searches. This could lead to the reduction of tens of thousands of marijuana arrests every year in NYC. Since New York decriminalized small amounts of marijuana  over three decades, possessing under 25 grams is only a criminal offense if it is publicly visible. Since the mid-1990s, officers have abused this legal loophole by tricking people – mostly young people of color –  into publicly revealing marijuana concealed in a pocket or handbag by demanding they “empty their pockets." The police then make the arrest for “public view” for what should legally be a non-criminal civil citation. The new policy directive comes on the heels of a 2011 DPA report highlighting the enormous costs of marijuana arrests in New York and a public pressure campaign led by the Drug Policy Alliance, the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform (IJJRA) and Alternatives, and VOCAL New York.

Learn more about our work to oppose drug war injustice.

Harm Reduction

911 Good Samaritan Law and Naloxone Access in New Jersey. DPA has worked across the country to pass 911 Good Samaritan laws to curtail preventable overdose deaths. New Jersey was the most recent state to pass this lifesaving legislation in a bill which also expanded access to the opioid overdose antidote naloxone. 911 Good Samaritan laws encourage people who witness an overdose to call 911 by providing them limited legal protection from drug possession charges. DPA has also been responsible for 911 Good Samaritan laws in California and New York, as well as the first 911 Good Samaritan law in the U.S., which was passed in New Mexico in 2007.

Improving Syringe Access in New Jersey. In January 2012, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed a syringe access bill into law, allowing over-the-counter syringe sales and expanding statewide syringe access. DPA's New Jersey office was instrumental in passing this life-saving legislation, which will reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and other blood-borne diseases.

Learn more about our harm reduction work.


Sparking Unprecedented Debate in Latin America. In February, 2012, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina garnered worldwide attention by calling for a debate on alternatives to the war on drugs, including decriminalization and regulation. His proposal quickly received support from other leaders in Latin America, including the presidents of Colombia and Costa Rica. Over the next three months, the failure of the war on drugs and alternatives to current strategies were discussed at three significant events: at a meeting of Central American leaders in Guatemala, at the Summit of the Americas in Colombia, and at the World Economic Forum for Latin America in Mexico.

This is the first time that sitting presidents are discussing the problems of prohibition and the merits of less repressive approaches. Even President Obama acknowledged the legitimacy of the debate at the Summit of the Americas and said “it is entirely legitimate to have a conversation about whether the laws in place are doing more harm than good”. The taboo on talking about drug policy reform has been broken and proposals have been made to take the debate further, including to the United Nations Security Council.

DPA has been deeply involved in these unfolding events since the onset, advising leaders and high-level officials in Latin America, providing them with research and information to support their proposals, and appearing in dozens of US and Latin American media outlets to contextualize these developments. In Latin America, where the war on drugs has caused unprecedented levels of violence, death and corruption, this debate is an important step toward improving the region’s economy, security and quality of life.

Global Commission on Drug Policy and the 40th Anniversary of the War on Drugs. The Global Commission on Drug Policy and the 40th anniversary of the war on drugs generated unprec­edented media coverage and debate about the need for fundamental reforms of the global prohibition regime. The Global Commission is composed of Kofi Annan, former U.N. Secretary General; George P. Shultz, former U.S. Secretary of State; Paul Volcker, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve; the former Presidents of Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Switzerland; Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group; and several other distinguished world leaders. Never before has such a prominent group called for such far-reaching changes in global drug policy – including not just alternatives to incar­ceration and greater emphasis on public health approaches to drug use, but also decriminalization and experiments in legal regulation. 

DPA has played a pivotal behind-the-scenes role in the commission since its inception. We helped shape the Commission’s formation and recommen­dations – identifying and assembling the Commission’s membership, developing the content of their report, and spearheading the Commission’s media outreach.

Then, on June 17, just two weeks after the Commission launched its report, we “celebrated” the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s speech when he declared drug abuse “public enemy number one” and committed to waging “a new, all-out offensive.” This moment is widely regarded as the unofficial launch of America’s spectacularly unsuccessful and costly global war on drugs. DPA organized allies in a “day of action” with dozens of events throughout the country, in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans, and dozens of other cities. The day of action was highlighted by large-scale events in Washington D.C., where we were joined by elected officials, civil rights leaders, and celebrities.
In all, the Global Commission and the drug war’s 40th an­niversary generated more than 4,000 news stories around the world, not just in Latin America and Europe but also parts of Asia and Africa where these issues had rarely if ever been aired. This represented a significant leap forward in terms of expanding and le­gitimizing the global debate over drug policy, prohibition and legalization.

Other Major Victories

  • Beginning in 1996 with California’s landmark medical marijuana law, Proposition 215, DPA was primarily responsible in California (1996), Alaska (1998), Oregon (1998), Washington (1998), Maine (1999), Colorado (2000), Nevada (1998 and 2000), New Mexico (2007), New Jersey (2010) and New York (2014) for passing laws that make cannabis legally available to seriously ill patients and reduce criminal penalties for possession, objectives supported by roughly three out of four Americans. As a result, millions of people who suffer from cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and other serious illnesses are no longer criminals under state law for using marijuana as medicine.
  • An outstanding DPA victory was California’s landmark treatment-not-incarceration law Proposition 36, approved via ballot initiatives by 61 percent of California voters in November 2000. Prop. 36 allows first- and second-time nonviolent drug offenders the opportunity to receive substance abuse treatment instead of jail time.  Since the law’s passage, more than 300,000 people have been diverted from conventional sentencing to drug treatment, saving taxpayers more than $2.5 billion.
  • DPA spearheaded the successful campaign to enact major reforms of New York’s notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws. The reforms, signed into law by Gov. David Paterson in 2010, include eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and returning judicial discretion in many drug cases; reforming the state’s sentencing structure; expanding drug treatment and alternatives to incarceration; and allowing resentencing of people serving sentences under the old laws.
  • DPA has built broad coalitions to eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing (in Alabama, New York, Maryland and Wisconsin) and racially biased crack/cocaine sentencing schemes at the state (in Connecticut and California) and federal levels. DPA played a crucial role in the 2010 passage of the federal Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the crack/powder sentencing disparity and repealed a mandatory minimum sentence for the first time since 1970.
  • The DPA office in New Jersey was responsible for the “Blood-borne Pathogen Harm Reduction Act,” which was signed into law in 2006. The law allows up to six cities to establish syringe access programs to help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and other blood-borne diseases. Previously, DPA played a pivotal role in successful efforts to make syringes legally available in New York (2000) and California (2004), and supported successful efforts in Connecticut, Illinois and other states.