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Losing the War on Drugs, Finally.

While public attention is understandably focused on the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, November 3rd provided for other significant changes in American governance. I am, of course, referring to the several drug legalization and decriminalization measures – all nine of which overwhelmingly succeeded in liberalizing drug policy.


These measures ranged from the mundane and anachronistic permission of medical cannabis in Mississippi to the more radical - such as the legalization of recreational cannabis in red South Dakota or the decriminalization of drugs entirely in Oregon. These victories for personal liberty have had several outlets claiming the true champions of this election are drugs themselves.


The war on drugs has long served as a critical building block on the edifice of government-imposed social control. This apparatus has always been more or less transparent, as embodied in the now famous language of Nixon aide John Ehrlichman:


You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin [ a]nd then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders. Raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.


While some communities have lived and understood this reality for decades, the results of these drug measures are an encouraging sign that the American public is beginning to reject the war on drugs as racist, ineffective, wasteful, dangerous, and harmful. It should come as no surprise that a more educated and politically aware body politic is overwhelmingly discarding a horrific “war” that has distorted our constitutional protections, massively proliferated militarized policing, and violated the most basic tenets of justice and liberty.


The language of the drug war provides a powerful example of the nature of the state. American government power, to this point in history, defaults to understanding social problems in the context of war and violence. The solution to crime? Well, a war on crime. The solution to indigence and misfortune? A “war on poverty.” Drugs? Of course, yet another war. Even the heartbreaking reality of medical diseases like cancer can only be framed as an enemy of the state that must be combated with force and violence. These ostensibly good-faith attempts of our elected to leaders to serve our communities belie a state that is, at core, indistinguishable from coercion and repression.


So while we suffer through the final weeks of the 2020 presidential election outcome, we can at least rejoice in the power of democracy to remove the arbitrary social control of drug prohibition. We can be reminded of the democratic will to both remove incompetent tyrants from executive office and disarm the law enforcement lobby. The United States has voted not only to step away from authoritarian leaders but to make incremental steps away from authoritarianism itself. One only hopes this process continues throughout the coming decades, as Americans reject the legitimacy of government control over what we put in our bodies.

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