Earlier this year, Hawaii, decriminalized cannabis in the state. Decriminalization is different than legalization. Hawaii still can fine you for possession up to $130 but jail time has been removed. Decriminalization is a vital part of the changes in both the legal system and the rise of cannabis culture.

The War On Drugs

Richard Nixon, armed with his “great silent majority” took the war on drugs seriously. Although we found out years later, in typical Nixonian style, his desire to drive drugs from the street had political motives behind it; Nixon started the War on Drugs in the early 70s. By the end of the 1970s, the drug was in full swing and simple possession could earn people decades in jail. Many of those convicted in those early days missed decades of their lives. Some convicted in the 80s are still in jail and still more died in prison.

The War on Drugs stems from America’s puritanical past and a desire to see a society free from substances. Prohibition and early marijuana prohibition stemmed from the same idea of protestant, sober living as promoted cultural by regular people and even people like Henry Ford. The war is still on-going complete with a $1 Trillion price tag and adverse impacts on communities of color that destroyed 2 generations of black and latinx people. The War on Drugs is on-going despite the changes in attitudes towards marijuana.

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Changing Tides

Although we are not likely to see the decriminalization of all drugs any time soon, the tide towards Marijuana is changing. California allowed medicinal uses in the 1990s and in 2012, Colorado became the first state in the nation to legalize recreational use of the drug. Marijuana has enjoyed popularity in this country since the early part of the 20th century and became iconic in the 1960s counter-culture causing a generation of people to use it for its relaxation and euphoric purposes. It also enjoyed a tremendous subculture with magazines, literature, and support across a variety of demographics.

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Freeing The Prisoners

This change in society’s attitude towards Marijuana has changed how people perceive those who use marijuana and those still sitting in prison for something that is now becoming legal has become an area for activism, even from people like Kim Kardashian. In late November, rumors hit the internet that the Trump administration was considering national legalization as more and more states allow recreational use of the drug and a majority of states allow medical uses. Even those possessing small amounts of other drugs like crack and powdered cocaine are coming under scrutiny for the long sentences assigned to these prisoners who were usually people of color.

Portugal is known the world over for taking a different approach to drugs and crime. Portugal had a terrible drug problem due to systemic issues like high youth unemployment, common in Europe, and instead of arresting more and more and putting them in prison, Portuguese officials began a process of decriminalization drug possession and use and instead pushed people towards treatment programs. Their drug addiction rate plummeted. Crime improved and Portugal has become a test case for the possibility of drug reform.

This debate has even hit the 2020 presidential race. Former Vice President Joe Biden has been questioned for his advocacy for the 1994 crime bill that brought mandatory minimum sentencing laws to a national scope. Senator Kamala Harris, the former Attorney General of California has also had her record on drug arrests questioned while she was California’s chief law enforcement officer. America’s policy towards drugs and the people that use them has been broken for decades.

Opioids: The New Crisis

It seems as if each decade brings a new drug crisis and the drug crisis of the 2010s has been the rise of the opioid epidemic. This is created a new class of criminals and a new problem for local agencies dealing with overdoses. The opioid crisis has also brought the return of heroin as a popular drug again (they do the same thing) and this has created an environment where even librarians keep NARCAN (the popular nasal spray to save someone during an overdose) handy in case of an overdose. Instead of offering treatment, most of the people suffering from the addiction ended up in jail and will continue to do as the addiction persists through the United States. The opioid crisis has once again demonstrated that the United States is woefully ill-equipped to deal with addiction. The American system offers two choices: death or jail with very little in between, especially for the socio-economically disadvantaged.

Drug Crime

Marijuana is seeing the end of its day as a criminal offense. Soon, marijuana will be legal or at least decriminalized in the United States. This follows the example of Canada in this area. However, in the larger conversation in the conversation on drugs, it is important to consider a policy of reviewing onerous sentences for those incarcerated and also to consider decriminalizing drugs and pushing addicts towards treatment. We at Rouges Magazine believe that cannabis activists should begin being active in this area. Letting people sit in jail for many are now doing legally is simply unjust. Cannabis activism has a broad base of support and supporting high profile cases taken on by people like Kim Kardashian needs to be an important part of cannabis activism. Pushing for decriminalization and treatment is another area where cannabis activists can make their voices heard. Social Justice Warriors and other activists need to coalesce around this important issue. The War on Drugs should no longer be destroying America. It’s time for the expensive War on Drugs to stop and for new measures to be taken in the future. Rouges calls on those who care about this issue to make their voice heard with their Congressperson and within their local politics. Change in this area cannot wait.