Voters put a major dent in the drug war — that's good

Voters put a major dent in the drug war — that's good
© Getty Images

Tuesday’s election may still be in limbo, but there’s one certain thing: It was a big day for proponents of ending the failed War on Drugs. Five states and the District of Columbia had measures to reform drug policies, and all of the measures passed. 

Voters in Arizona, New Jersey, Montana and South Dakota voted to legalize recreational marijuana; voters in Mississippi and South Dakota voted to legalize medical marijuana; voters in Oregon decided to decriminalize all drug possession; and in D.C., voters chose to make enforcing possession of plant-based psychedelics the lowest police priority — effectively decriminalizing those substances.

These measures will all chip away at our over-incarceration system, help those with addictions get treatment, and save taxpayers money. 


Nationally, 450,000 people are incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses on any given day, making up about 20 percent of the incarcerated population. Some states that legalized marijuana on Tuesday are among the most punitive when it comes to incarceration.     

Arizona, for example, has an incarceration rate of 877 per 100,000 people. That means if Arizona were a country, it would have the 8th-highest per-capita incarceration rate in the entire world, only behind other U.S. states. Drug offenders make up 20.8 percent of the 42,562 people incarcerated in Arizona State Prisons. 

Much like Arizona, South Dakota and Montana have incarceration rates higher than the national average, at 855 per 100,000 and 726 per 100,000, respectively. In South Dakota, 64 percent of incarcerated females and 28 percent of incarcerated males are doing time for drug charges. Meanwhile, in Montana, drug possession is the top reason for incarceration, accounting for 18 percent of all state arrests.

Drug offenses will likely still be the top reason for incarceration in most states because methamphetamine arrests occur more often than marijuana arrests in both South Dakota and Montana. However, the legalization of marijuana will still help put a small dent in the incarcerated population. 

Oregon already has a lower incarceration rate than the other states at 582 per 100,000 people, but even that rate is higher than most Western democracies. Currently, 5,461 people in Oregon are either incarcerated or under state supervision for drug charges, making up 13.6 percent of the state’s entire carceral population.

Beyond allowing folks who have not committed a violent crime out of jail, legalization also has beneficial economic impacts. The Center for American Progress projects that national marijuana legalization would save $7.7 billion and create $6 billion in new tax revenues. Further, the federal government spends about $3.3 billion per year incarcerating people for drug offenses and state governments spend an additional $7 billion per year. 

If the federal government, or more states, followed Oregon’s lead on decriminalization, American taxpayers could save billions of dollars annually. 

Opponents of drug decriminalization and legalization argue that crime will increase and that more drug-related deaths will occur, but the data shows the opposite. 

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drug use. Drug overdose deaths dropped from 329 in 1999 to 30 in 2016, and HIV diagnoses from drug injections dropped from 907 to 18. Meanwhile, Portugal's crime rate remained fairly steady throughout the years after decriminalization and was lower last year than before decriminalization.

Marijuana legalization and decriminalization of other drugs is gaining traction in the U.S., with every drug reform measure passing on Election Day and two-thirds of Americans supporting marijuana legalization. It’s also clear that the War on Drugs has failed to make communities safer and has instead ruined millions of lives and cost taxpayers billions of dollars annually. 

It’s high time we start treating drug addiction as a health concern, not a criminal one. Tuesday was a good step toward that end. It’s something to be grateful for.

Dan King is a senior contributor at Young Voices. He covers civil liberties and criminal justice reform.