The 2018 US midterm elections has important lessons for Australia regarding drug law reform. In ballot initiatives and elections for office, voters often supported drug law reform with only one major defeat. Presidential election years generally have many more ballot initiatives on drug policy.
Drug law reform is now happening around the world, slowly but ineluctably. Growing support for drug law reform was very clear in the recent 2018 US mid term elections. This is particularly important because the US was both the main instigator of global drug prohibition a century ago and then became its main international enforcer. Also, as a higher proportion of young people in the US vote in Presidential election years than in the midterms, drug law reform advocates generally ensure that ballot initiatives on drug policy are held in Presidential election years rather than in the midterms. This makes the high percentage of ballots supporting drug law reform in the midterm elections in 2018 even more significant.
In 1998, at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs in New York City, the slogan was ‘A Drug Free World: We Can Do It!’ It is hard to believe that as recently as twenty years ago such an out-of-touch slogan could still be used. In 2009, the slogan at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs was ‘Encouraging progress towards still distant goals’. This ‘half-pregnant’ slogan was a little more honest about the futility of global drug prohibition than the previous one.
Fast-forward twenty years from 1998 to the 2018 US mid term elections for some slow but definite movement to drug law reform. Two states held ballots on legalising recreational cannabis. Michigan became the tenth state to approve legalising recreational cannabis while North Dakota voted against its proposal. About a quarter of US citizens now live in states where recreational cannabis is regulated and taxed. New York State, now also committed to regulating and taxing recreational cannabis, will probably become the eleventh state to do so.
Two states, Missouri and Utah, voted to regulate medicinal cannabis bringing the national total to 33 states committed to, or already permitting lawful medicinal cannabis. The Missouri proposal included a 4% tax with revenue dedicated to pay for health care for veterans. The Utah result is particularly significant as about two thirds of Utah citizens are Mormons and the Mormon Church strongly opposed regulate medicinal cannabis.
In the state of Wisconsin, an overwhelming majority of voters supported legalizing recreational use of cannabis by adults. State officials will now consider the issue. In Ohio, five out of six voting municipalities voted to remove criminal sanctions for cannabis possession.
Voters in Florida passed an amendment that restored voting rights to about 1.5 million citizens who had been convicted of felonies and completed their sentence. It has been suggested that the restoration of voting rights to former felons in Florida may influence the results of future elections in Florida and significantly benefit the Democratic Party provided that large numbers of ex-felon citizens can be encouraged to turn out to vote.
Although Ohio has one of the highest rates of drug overdose deaths in the US, and the number of these deaths nationally reached an alarming 73,000 in 2017, voters opposed a proposal which would have reduced penalties for obtaining, possessing, and using drugs by re-classifying these infractions as misdemeanours rather than felonies. This was the biggest defeat for drug law reform in the 2018-midterm elections.
Several gubernatorial candidates who support drug policy reform were elected including in California, Colorado, Illinois and New Mexico. Gavin Newsom, a rising star in the Democratic Party, won the race for Governor in the most populous state of California. For many years Newsom has been an outspoken supporter of drug law reform, including regulation of recreational cannabis.
In the election for a House of Representatives electorate in Texas, a Democratic Party supporter of cannabis reform defeated Republican Pete Sessions, who had been the most powerful cannabis reform opponent in the House.
In Florida, Republican Governor Rick Scott, was narrowly elected to the Senate. In 2011, Scott implemented a policy that required drug testing of welfare recipients and state government employees.
The 2020 elections for President will likely also see many state ballot initiatives for drug law reform with a further rolling back of the War on Drugs. New Zealand will also conduct a referendum on regulation of recreational cannabis in 2020. Inevitably, Australian politicians will find it increasingly difficult to avoid the issue of drug law reform.
Dr Alex Wodak AM is an Emeritus Consultant at St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, the President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation and a Director of Australia21.