This year will go down in history as the the beginning of the end to America’s longest failed war: the war on drugs. Voters in Colorado and Washington made worldwide news by legalizing marijuana, Presidents around Latin America spoke out passionately against the drug war, and award-winning movies documented the horrors of the drug war and gave voice to those seeking change. Below are some of top stories of 2012 that capture the momentum and give us hope that we can and will find an exit strategy to the disastrous war on drugs.
1. Colorado and Washington Make History By Legalizing Marijuana
Washington State and Colorado made history on Election Day by becoming the first two states in the country – and the first political jurisdictions anywhere in the world – to approve the legal regulation of marijuana. These victories likely represent the beginning of the end of marijuana prohibition in this country and in many others as well. Just as the repeal of alcohol Prohibition began in the late 1920s with individual states repealing their own prohibition laws, and ultimately culminated in the repeal of federal Prohibition, so Washington and Colorado have initiated a political process that will resonate nationally, especially with 50% of Americans now in favor of taxing and regulating marijuana.
2. California Votes to Reform Draconian "Three Strikes” Mandatory Minimum Law
After nearly 20 years and over $20 billion spent, Californians voted overwhelmingly to reform their state’s draconian “three strikes” law. The statewide ballot measure, Proposition 36, delivered a two-to-one mandate (68.6%-31.4%) to close a controversial loophole in the law so that life sentences can only be imposed when the new felony conviction is serious or violent. The original law was sold as a way to keep violent criminals behind bars but ending up snagging people whose third convictions were non-violent acts, such as stealing a pizza or possessing a small amount of drugs. As California set the trend for the passage of “three strikes” laws across the country in the 1990s, let’s hope it also sets the trend for reforming them.
3. Latin American Presidents “Break the Taboo” and Call for End to Drug War
Throughout Latin America, both former and current heads of state are demanding that the full range of policy options be expanded to include alternatives that help to reduce the prohibition-related crime, violence and corruption in their own countries – and insisting that decriminalization and legal regulation of currently illicit drug markets be considered. In February, 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, Costa Rica and Ecuador. Over the next few months, the failure of the war on drugs and alternatives to current strategies were discussed at events around the world and was the major focus of the Summit of the Americas held in Colombia in April.
4. Uruguay Poised to Become First Country in the World To End Marijuana Prohibition
Uruguay broke ground this year by submitting a proposal to legalize marijuana under government-controlled regulation and sale, making it the first country in the world where the state would sell marijuana directly to its citizens. The aim of the measure is to combat the rising insecurity and crime in Uruguay by removing the profits of marijuana sales from drug gangs and separating the marijuana market from those for other illegal drugs. Uruguay’s proposal moved the discussion and debate from whether to regulate marijuana to how to regulate marijuana.
5. Caravan of Mexican and U.S. Organizations to Highlight Failed Drug War on Both Sides of the Border
Criticism of the failed drug war not only came from the Latin American presidents and “grass-tops” but from people most impacted and from the “grassroots.” A broad bi-national coalition of more than 100 U.S. organizations joined with the Mexican Movement for Peace with Justice & Dignity (MPJD) to embark on the “Caravan for Peace” across the United States to highlight the devastation of the drug war on both sides of the border. The Caravan was led by renowned Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, who emerged as a leader of the movement after his son Juan Francisco was killed in senseless prohibition-related violence last year. Joining Sicilia were 60 other Mexicans who have lost loved ones to the tragic violence that has taken more than 60,000 lives since Calderon launched his “surge” against the drug traffickers in 2006. The caravan traveled more than 6,000 miles through more than 25 cities, fostered powerful connections between people devastated by the drug war in both countries, and generated thousands of stories slamming the drug war in the U.S., Mexico and Latin America.
6. Harm Reduction Solutions to Overdose Crisis Spreading Across Country
There is an overdose crisis in the United States. Nationally, overdose deaths are the second leading cause of accidental deaths, trailing only behind car fatalities. That is the sad news. The good news is that there are two concrete actions that could prevent many of these deaths and states across the country are starting to adopt them. The two best strategies to reduce overdose deaths are, firstly, enacting “911 Good Samaritan” immunity laws that encourages people who are witnessing an overdose to call 911 without fear of arrest and, secondly, making the drug naloxone available (also known as Narcan), which can reverse the effects and restore normal breathing in two to three minutes if administered following an opioid overdose. In 2007, New Mexico became the first state in the US to pass a 911 Good Sam Law. This law has now spread to 10 states (California, Connecticut, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island and Washington State) with many more considering adopting it. Naloxone is also gaining traction and acceptance; an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report this year crediting the drug with reducing more than 10,000 overdose deaths.
7. Award-Winning Films Slam Racist Drug War and Enlist World Leaders to Speak Out
Two critically acclaimed films are generating incredible debate and mobilizing people against the drug war. Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In is a brutal attack on the racist drug war. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and is on the shortlist for an Oscar. Jarecki has enlisted the support of celeberties Brad Pitt, Danny Glover, Russell Simmons and John Legend and has generated an avalanche of interviews and articles in outlets like the Daily Show with John Stewart, Charlie Rose, and the CBS Early Show, plus hundreds of articles in national and regional papers.
Coinciding with The House I Live In is Breaking the Taboo, a film narrated by Morgan Freeman and produced by Richard Branson’s son Sam, which takes a critical look at the global war on drugs and how it has failed. The documentary feature follows the Global Commission on Drug Policy on a mission to break the political taboo over the United States-led war on drugs and expose what it calls the biggest failure of global policy in the last 40 years. The filmmakers are experimenting with a novel distribution plan – releasing it through Google and YouTube and offering it for free. Their strategy is to reach millions of people by encouraging people around the world to watch the film. In less than a week,Breaking the Taboo has already been viewed more than 260,000 times and is generating worldwide press on CNN, BBC, Time magazine, Newsweek and more.
8. Politicians Saying No to Drug War... And Winning!
While the vast majority of Americans know the drug war has failed, the issue has been a “third rail” issue among elected officials who have been terrified of being labeled soft on crime. This started changing in 2012 with politicans speaking out against the drug war and winning at the ballot box. Marijuana legalization supporter Beto O'Rourke defeated eight-term Congressman Sylvestre Reyes in the Democratic primary for Texas's 16th congressional district. Congressman Reyes was an ardent supporter of the drug war and tried to use Beto O’Rourke’s positions as a major issue in campaign.
Also this year, the Democratic primary for attorney general in Oregon featured a similar dynamic. Ellen Rosenblum won a surprising victory over favorite Dwight Holton, in a race in which medical marijuana became a major issue. Rosenblum is supportive of patients’ right to safe and legal access to medical marijuana, while her opponent, former Interim U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton, is sharply critical of the program. Although Holton was heavily favored early in the race, he was targeted for defeat by supporters of medical marijuana after actively trying to undermine responsible state regulation.
Building on this trend, we saw New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has known presidential aspirations, along with Chicago mayor (and former White House chief of staff) Rahm Emmanuel, come out in support of marijuana decriminalization. Cuomo and Emmanuel are part of the Democratic establishment with their fingers to the wind. Their support of marijuana decriminalization shows that politicians are realizing that support for reforming drug laws is a good political move.
9. Despite Progress, Drug War Grinds On as Viciously as Ever
For all of the progress in 2012, the war on drugs is as vicious as ever. The worst drug war policies remain entrenched, as more than three-quarters of a million people are arrested for marijuana possession every year, and more than half a million people are still behind bars today for nothing more than a drug law violation. The bloodbath in Mexico has taken 60,000 lives in the last six years and shows no signs of slowing down. And overdose fatalities have doubled in the last decade.
We are at a paradoxical moment in our country. We are clearly moving in the right direction, toward a more rational drug policy based on science, compassion, health and human rights. But we need to step up our efforts, grow our numbers, and continue to win hearts and minds because the casualties from the war continue to mount every day. If the people lead, the leaders will follow.