It can take a while to determine the victor in a presidential election. But one winner was abundantly clear on Election Day.
Drugs, once thought to be the scourge of a healthy society, are getting public recognition as a part of American life. Where drugs were on the ballot on Tuesday, they won handily.
New Jersey, South Dakota, Montana and Arizona joined 11 other states that had already legalized recreational marijuana. Mississippi and South Dakota made medical marijuana legal, bringing the total to 35.
The citizens of Washington, D.C., voted to decriminalize psilocybin, the organic compound active in psychedelic mushrooms. Oregon voters approved two drug-related initiatives. One decriminalized possession of small amounts of illegal drugs including heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines. (It did not make it legal to sell the drugs.) Another measure authorized the creation of a state program to license providers of psilocybin.
Election night represented a significant victory for three forces pushing for drug reform for different but interlocking reasons. There is the increasingly powerful cannabis industry. There are state governments struggling with budget shortfalls, hungry to fill coffers in the midst of a pandemic.
And then there are the reform advocates, who for decades have been saying that imprisonment, federal mandatory minimum sentences and prohibitive cash bail for drug charges ruin lives and communities, particularly those of Black Americans.
Decriminalization is popular, in part, because Americans believe that too many people are in jails and prisons, and also because Americans personally affected by the country’s continuing opioid crisis have been persuaded to see drugs as a public health issue.
The war on drugs has lost its political allure for many conservatives. John A. Boehner, the former Republican speaker of the House, was once a staunch opponent of marijuana legalization. He is now the chairman of the National Cannabis Roundtable, a lobbying group.
“When cannabis is on the ballot, it wins,” Mr. Boehner said of Tuesday’s results. “Even with hyper-partisanship everywhere else, people of all stripes agree about cannabis reform.”
So do businesspeople. “It’s not really a hippie peacenik substance anymore,” said Martin Lee, a drug historian and CBD information advocate. “It’s big business. Billions of dollars are involved with this.”
The money that cartels and drug companies found in illegal and unintended use of drugs has become attractive to many, given the substances’ growing medical and cultural legitimacy. Plant-based drugs, for example, are a growing category in the booming business of wellness.
Michael Pollan, the author of “How to Change Your Mind,” which focused on the cultural history and medicinal use of psychedelics, said that he believed there were two currents at work in Tuesday’s results: the public’s exhaustion with the drug war and the reframing of marijuana and psilocybin as medicines.
Now marijuana, psilocybin and MDMA (the scientific name for Ecstasy or Molly) are increasingly seen as good for you.
“The image of psychedelics was closely tied to the counterculture and Timothy Leary,” Mr. Pollan said. “Now, when people think about psychedelics, many of them think about psychotherapy. They think about healing.”
‘It Is Time for Us to End the Drug War’
“Twenty years ago, no one thought a night like this would be possible,” said Kassandra Frederique, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which pushes for criminal justice reform on drugs. She called the passage of the measures, particularly in Montana and South Dakota, “a resounding mandate that it is time for us to end the drug war and that decriminalization is politically viable.”
In 1969, two years before the dawn of the drug war, 84 percent of Americans thought marijuana should be illegal, according to the Pew Research Center. By 2019, again according to Pew, 91 percent of Americans supported the legalization of marijuana.
Political opposition to marijuana has not disappeared entirely. Kevin Sabet, an adviser in the Office of National Drug Control Policy under three presidents who has fought against legalization, said that many of marijuana’s opponents had just gone underground.
Still, he said, they’re out there: “If you read my email inbox, you’d see all the messages of support.”
Emily Dufton, the author of “Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America,” said that marijuana had always became more socially acceptable when other, more dangerous drugs began to concern the public.
Crack cocaine, which became a focus of the media in the mid-1980s — but whose impacts were overblown and whose policing was racist — displaced worries about marijuana for many years.
And the opioid epidemic, which has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans — about 48,000 died from opioid overdoses in 2019 — has also helped contextualize marijuana as a significantly less dangerous drug. (On Thursday, The New York Times reported that three major drug distributors and a drug manufacturer were close to agreement on a billion dollar settlement with state and local governments for the companies’ role in the epidemic.)
“The cultural campaigns against pot can’t gain a foothold when opioids today, or crack in the 1980s, seemed so much scarier or more deadly,” Ms. Dufton said.
President Nixon started the war on drugs but it grew increasingly draconian during the Reagan administration. Nancy Reagan’s top priority was the antidrug campaign, which she pushed aggressively as her husband signed a series of punitive measures into law — measures shaped in part by Joseph R. Biden Jr., then a senator.
“We want you to help us create an outspoken intolerance for drug use,” Mrs. Reagan said in 1986. “For the sake of our children, I implore each of you to be unyielding and inflexible in your opposition to drugs.”
America’s airwaves were flooded with antidrug initiatives. An ad campaign that starred a man frying an egg and claiming “this is your brain on drugs” was introduced in 1987 and aired incessantly. Numerous animal mascots took up the cause of warning children about drugs and safety, including Daren the Lion, who educated children on drugs and bullying, and McGruff the Crime Dog, who taught children to open their hearts and minds to authority figures.
In 1986 Congress passed a law mandating severe prison sentences for users of crack, who were disproportionately Black. In 1989, with prison rates rising, 64 percent of Americans surveyed said that drug abuse was the most serious problem facing the United States.
The focus on crack meant that when pot returned to the headlines in the 1990s, it received comparatively cozy publicity. In 1996, California voters passed a measure allowing for the use of medical marijuana. Two years later, medical marijuana initiatives were approved by voters in four more states.
“The playbook in legalizing marijuana was, first, change its image from a recreational drug to a medicine,” Mr. Pollan said. “Once you’ve changed its image, you have a much easier time legalizing it for everybody.”
In Every Vice, an Opportunity
Vivien Azer, a managing director at Cowen, an investment and financial services company in New York, said in a note to investors on Wednesday that she expected the marijuana market to expand to more than $34 billion by 2025, given the success of the various ballot initiatives.
David Culver, a vice president at Canopy Growth Corporation who focuses on governmental relations — Mr. Boehner made millions as a board member of a marijuana investment firm bought by Canopy — said that his pitch to politicians mainly hinged on convincing them that the drug was a powerful tool electorally. It is, Mr. Culver believes, more a generational issue than a partisan one.
“It’s something that’s wildly accepted in the under-40 crowd,” he said. “It’s something that the under-40s will vote on as single-issue voters. It’s also becoming more and more popular with seniors.”
Psilocybin may be a tougher sell to some. But Mr. Pollan said that there was stronger research for the health benefits of psilocybin than for cannabis.
Supporters of the psilocybin measure passed in Oregon note that it will not turn psilocybin into a street drug, but instead will set up the state to regulate it as a medicine. Amanda Eilian, a partner at Able Partners, a venture capital firm that has invested in the future of psychedelics, said that Tuesday’s results would boost the legitimacy of the nascent industry.
“I do think you’ll see growth on investor side and the company formation side,” she said.
Even as public opinion has changed, law enforcement still aggressively polices the possession of drugs — even legal drugs — by Black people, who, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report released earlier this year, are more than 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. As of March of this year, 20 percent of the more than two million incarcerated people in the United States were imprisoned because of drug offenses. Many of those people have not been convicted of any crime, and are held in local jails after arrest.
Mr. Pollan noted that even as the war on drugs had receded, the federal government had introduced other powerful law enforcement measures, including the Patriot Act and the surveillance apparatus associated with the National Security Agency.
Amber Littlejohn, the executive director of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, said that it would be a mistake to presume that support for legalization meant that voters were ready to grapple with the damage done to Black and Latino communities by the war on drugs.
“Once the legalization happens and the money is on the table for large operators and the state, it becomes so hard to strike those bargains and to make sure there is enough that is done for the communities that have truly been harmed by prohibition,” she said.
As the tide turns, Ms. Littlejohn said, Black entrepreneurs are concerned that they will be shut out of the market. The struggle to share in the wealth coming from legalization is only just beginning.
What Comes Next?
If states are the laboratories of democracy, then, as Mr. Pollan put it, some of the measures passed on Tuesday will set up interesting experiments.
Neighboring states will watch as Montana and New Jersey create regional cannabis destinations to be envied, imitated or scorned; unlike some other states, Montana and New Jersey do not directly border states where marijuana is fully legal, so they could draw more customers from out of state (though it is illegal to bring marijuana into a state where it is criminal).
And it’s not entirely clear that marijuana is always the fiscal boost its champions say it is, even as cannabis tourism has helped states like California and Colorado. A state assessment of the financial impact of legalization in Montana, for example, showed that the state expected significant revenue — as much as $48 million a year in 2025 — but that its implementation costs would be nearly as high.
Policy wonks will assess the performance of Oregon’s health authority as it creates its program to license psilocybin distributors, an unusual function for a state department of health regardless of the drug in question. And Americans all over the country will note — warily or hopefully — what happens in Oregon, now that possession of all controlled substances has been decriminalized.
Adam Eidinger, an activist in Washington, D.C., who proposed the ballot measure that pushed to legalize marijuana there, was also the treasurer of the campaign to decriminalize psilocybin. (The campaign operated out of his house in the Kalorama neighborhood, home to the Obamas and Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.)
Next year, Mr. Eidinger plans to campaign for an initiative in D.C. to decriminalize possession of all controlled substances, much like the one that passed in Oregon. “People want to end the drug war,” he said.
Mr. Sabet, the former White House drug policy adviser, did not expect the nation to follow in Oregon’s footsteps — at least not immediately.
“I don’t know if I’d put my money on America wanting to legalize heroin tomorrow,” he said.