Oregon decriminalizes heroin and cocaine, and two states legalize marijuana
By Thomas Fuller
The march to decriminalize drugs moved further across the nation Tuesday despite continued federal prohibition.
Oregon became the first state to decriminalize small amounts of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs. And in New Jersey and Arizona, voters decisively passed laws legalizing recreational marijuana. Cannabis is now legal across a large bloc of states in the West — from Washington down to the Mexican border — and well beyond.
Cannabis was also on the ballot in Montana, Mississippi and South Dakota. If all of the marijuana measures pass, it will be legal for medical use in three dozen states and recreational use will be allowed in 15.
The Oregon measure would make possession of small amounts of what have long been considered harder drugs a violation, similar to a traffic ticket, and no longer punishable by jail time. The law would also fund drug addiction treatment from marijuana sales taxes.
“This is incredible,” said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance. “This is like taking a sledgehammer to the cornerstone of the drug war.”
Possession of larger amounts could result in misdemeanor charges, and some cases that rise to what is considered a commercial level could still be charged as felonies.
Frederique said passage of the measure showed that voters were eager for a new approach on drug policy to handle it as a health issue and prioritize treatment. She said she expected other states to follow suit, mentioning efforts in states such as California, Vermont and Washington.
Separately, Oregon voters also legalized psilocybin, known as magic mushrooms, for people age 21 and older. Proponents said the move would allow the drug to be used to treat depression, anxiety and other conditions.
Even in a year when the number of citizen initiatives in states across the country was sharply down from the 2016 presidential election, the diverse slate of measures offered a chance to gauge the mood of the nation.
In Florida, where the two presidential candidates were within a few points of each other, voters approved a pro-labor amendment to the state constitution that will raise the minimum wage incrementally to $15 an hour in 2026.
Florida becomes the eighth state to enact a minimum wage of $15, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, but the first state that Donald Trump carried four years ago. The District of Columbia has also enacted a $15 minimum wage.
Florida’s measure, known as Amendment 2, earned a place on Tuesday’s ballot in December and needed at least 60% of the vote to pass. With 99% of the vote counted, the measure had slightly more than 61%.
Under the measure, the state minimum wage would rise from its current hourly rate of $8.56 to $10 in September, and then increase by $1 every September through 2026. After that, annual increases would be tied to inflation.
A study by the Florida Policy Institute, a think tank backing the increase, found that the higher wage would directly benefit 2.5 million workers in the state.
The amendment was supported by unions and the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, and was opposed by business organizations representing construction companies, citrus farmers, hotels and restaurants.
In Louisiana a measure supported by two anti-abortion Democrats, Gov. John Bel Edwards and state Sen. Katrina Jackson, passed comfortably. Amendment 1 would add these words to the state constitution: “Nothing in this constitution shall be construed to secure or protect a right to abortion, or require the funding of abortion.”
In Mississippi, voters approved a new state flag with red, yellow and blue stripes, a magnolia flower and the words “In God We Trust.” The state’s previous flag, which dated to 1894 and contained a Confederate battle cross, was decommissioned by lawmakers in June.
Two measures in California were won by those in favor of criminal justice reform, including former Gov. Jerry Brown. Voters rejected Proposition 20, which would have rolled back earlier measures that allow people convicted of certain felonies early parole consideration. And voters approved Proposition 17, which will restore the right to vote for felons on parole. In Oklahoma, voters went the other way, rejecting Question 805, a measure that would have prohibited using a person’s past nonviolent felony convictions to impose an enhanced sentence for another nonviolent felony.
There were 38 statewide citizen initiatives being decided across the country Tuesday, about half the level of the last presidential election, when there were 72. Experts attribute the decline to the effect of the coronavirus, which has made gathering signatures more difficult. When all measures are tallied, including those placed by legislatures on the ballots, there were a total of 124 statewide ballot initiatives this year, down from 154 four years ago.