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In Blow to Drug War, House Backs Decriminalizing Pot as Voters OK Legalization Ballot Initiatives

StoryDecember 08, 2020
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Image Credit: Unsplash/Add Weed

We look at how the House of Representative voted Friday to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level and “address the devastating injustices caused by the War on Drugs,” as voters in Arizona and New Jersey approved ballot measures in November that legalize the possession and use of recreational marijuana for adults aged 21 and up. Oregon also became the first state to decriminalize low-level drug possession while legalizing the recreational use of psychedelic mushrooms under Measure 110. Ronald Newman, national political director for the American Civil Liberties Union, says the overall trend toward undoing the drug war is positive. “We are developing a collective consensus that we need not throw people behind bars for use of marijuana, and we should be happy about that progress,” he says.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

In a historic move, the House of Representatives voted Friday to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level and expunge nonviolent convictions for marijuana-related offenses to, quote, “address the devastating injustices caused by the War on Drugs,” unquote. Next year will mark half a century since President Richard Nixon declared drugs, quote, “public enemy number one.” The MORE Act also authorizes a 5% sales tax on marijuana products to be reinvested in community grants and programs, including job training, legal aid and substance abuse treatment for communities that were disproportionately targeted by the “war on drugs.” This comes as Arizona and New Jersey voters approved ballot measures last month to legalize the possession and use of recreational marijuana for adults aged 21 and up. In South Dakota, voters approved both medical and recreational marijuana.

For more on this and other key ballot initiatives that passed this election, we’re joined again by Ronald Newman, national political director for the American Civil Liberties Union.

We don’t have much time, Ronnie. And thank you so much for joining us. Why don’t you start on the marijuana legislation, both in the House and these ballot initiatives around the country?

RONALD NEWMAN: Absolutely. Thank you, Amy. Very good to be here this morning.

You mentioned “historic.” That is the key fact to highlight about the vote in Congress. Never before has Congress passed a legalization bill of this nature.

You also mentioned some of the key elements that came in that legislation, and those are elements that we, as an institution, care quite a bit about — the social justice aspects of that legislation: first, expungement, so people aren’t saddled with the collateral consequences of having a marijuana conviction on their record; in addition to that, the reinvestment provisions that try to ensure that tax proceeds are funneled back into communities that have been destroyed over the last 50 years by the misguided “war on drugs.” That action in Congress was a really big deal.

There’s more to do. We still need to make it through the Senate, and that will take some time. But that’s good news. And the trendline is also strong. You mentioned the ballot measures, in blue states, in purple states, in red states. We are developing a collective consensus that we need not throw people behind bars for use of marijuana, and we should be happy about that progress.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you give us a sense of the scope over these last 50 years? Are there numbers on the number of people who were arrested for marijuana-related crimes?

RONALD NEWMAN: We are talking millions of people. Even today, even after the progress that we’ve made, half a million people are arrested every year for marijuana possession. And these arrests and convictions have consequences that stick with people for a lifetime. This misguided approach to drug use has hurt millions of people, and we must aggressively move beyond it. And it is important to also note that it’s had a disproportionate impact on communities of color. Again, even today, Black people are four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, even though study after study has demonstrated the usage rates are roughly the same between Black people and white people. So the damage has been significant.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about some of the surprises in how states voted? I mean, we’re talking Oregon, Arizona, New Jersey, Montana, South Dakota. What surprised you most? And how will it change the laws in these states?

RONALD NEWMAN: Yeah. So, the cross-ideological and sort of bipartisan support for this direction is the most promising and most surprising piece. I mean, take a state like South Dakota, where Trump won handily. Sixty percent of the population voted for Trump, but they also voted, pretty convincingly, to legalize marijuana. So there’s a cross-ideological consensus there. Montana, same story: Up and down the ballot, conservative Republican candidates won, and the race for the president and the race for governor and the race for Senate, but, despite that, marijuana legalization passed convincingly. And so, that is important. And that shows that the country as a whole is moving in the right direction.

I would like to take a quick second on Oregon, because that is historic and precedent-setting in a different, especially unique way. For people that don’t know, in Oregon, the voters passed a ballot measure that decriminalized drug possession for all drugs, not just marijuana. But the population of Oregon made a collective judgment that for people engaged in low-level drug use, regardless of the drug, the best, most reasonable, most appropriate response is treatment, not prison. And that also is a philosophical corner that we’re turning as a people that is something to be proud of. So what we need to do now is we need to take Oregon to other states and, when we’re having this conversation five years from now, have Oregon be the default, as opposed to the one-of-a-kind event that happened this electoral cycle.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you, Ronald Newman, for joining us. And we’re going to talk to you after the show and post it online about the right to counsel for people who are facing eviction in Boulder, Colorado. Also we want to talk about low-wage jobs and what happened with legislation there. Ronald Newman, ACLU national political director.

A very happy birthday to Carla Wills! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe. Wear a mask.

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