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Election Day Decisions on Marijuana and Nonviolent Crimes Also Counter Racial Biases of War on Drugs

Voters in three states and Washington, DC made significant headway in ending criminalization of nonviolent and low-level drug offenses on Election Day. The new laws could help to significantly reduce the disparate impact of overpolicing and incarceration of people of color.

via Shutterstock
via Shutterstock

Voters in Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia approved legislation to legalize marijuana Tuesday. Alaska and Oregon approved marijuana for recreational use and sale, while voters in the nation’s capital weighed in on possession.

In Alaska, more than 52 percent of voters approved Measure 2, which would “tax and regulate the production, sale and use of marijuana” in the state. In Oregon, nearly 1.5 million residents cast their vote, with roughly 56 percent approving Measure 91. The Oregon law also permits the “possession, manufacture, sale of marijuana” and subjects the substance to state regulation and taxation.

Washington, DC voters may face the most uncertainty following Tuesday’s advances toward decriminalization of marijuana. DC voters overwhelmingly passed Initiative 71, which legalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana, up to two ounces, for personal use. Individuals in DC are also allowed to grow marijuana in their homes, but sale is still prohibited. Days ahead of the vote, the DC Council held a joint hearing addressing regulation and taxation of marijuana. DC mayor-elect Muriel Bowser suggested she did not want to move forward with full implementation of the voter-approved initiative until sale and regulation had also been addressed.

“I see no reason why we wouldn’t follow a regime similar to how we regulate and tax alcohol,” Bowser said following her win, adding that her transition team will take up the issue in the coming weeks. DC’s subjection to federal oversight, however, could delay -if not unravel -these efforts to further decriminalize marijuana in the nation’s capital. Maryland Republican Representative Andy Harris has already said he would actively attempt to block the DC law from taking effect.

DC Chief of Police Cathy Lanier commented that she respects “the clear intent of District voters,” but is calling for the DC Council to “provide clarity to the public and law enforcement officers” going forward. “[W]e need to recognize that the initiative cannot be immediately implemented,” Lanier said. “If the initiative is held up in Congress, attorneys for the District will need to provide additional guidance.”

In Massachusetts, voters were not asked to legalize the substance – but in eight districts, residents overwhelmingly endorsed a non-binding question that asked legislative representatives in the state house to vote in favor of legislation to regulate and tax marijuana like alcohol. On average, 72 percent of voters supported the question, though it has no impact on state law.

In California, voters passed a much broader decriminalization law. Nearly 3 million voters approved Proposition 47, which reclassifies certain drug and property offenses as lower level misdemeanors. The money the state saves in housing low-level offenders will be reinvested to support “school truancy and dropout prevention, victim services, mental health and drug abuse treatment, and other programs designed to keep offenders out of prison and jail,” according to the text of the initiative.

According to The Sentencing Project, approximately 10,000 people will be eligible for re-sentencing under the new law, helping alleviate the burden of overcrowding facing California’s prison systems. In 2006, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzneggar declared a state of emergency when the prison population reached its peak. In 2011, the US Supreme Court ruled that the administration of health care in the state’s prisons was constitutionally inadequate because of overcrowding. The Court ruled that the state must reduce overcrowding to 137.5 percent within two years. Last year, the United Nations lead torture investigator, Juan Mendez condemned the state of US prisons nationally, and called for access to California prisons specifically to ensure that prisoners’ rights were being protected.

Despite the fact that African Americans and Hispanics make up only a quarter of the US population, they represent 58 percent of all prisoners in the US. African Americans represent 12 percent of monthly drug users in the US, but make up nearly a third of persons arrested for possession. When it comes to time served for non-violent offenses, people of color are sentenced to as much time for non-violent drug offenses as white folks are sentenced for a violent offense. According to a 2013 report from the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, more than 80 percent of all arrestees in the nation’s capital were African American. Of that number, 90 percent were arrested for drug-related offenses. More than 19 out of 20 arrests in Washington, DC were for nonviolent offenses. A similar picture emerges for people of color nationally. Together, all the state-based measures help chip away at the disproportionate rate of arrest, incarceration, and over-policing of people of color by law enforcement.

Florida was the only state to emerge from Tuesday’s elections with a failed vote on marijuana. Amendment 2, which would have legalized medical marijuana, fell shy of the 60 percent majority required for approval. However, more than 3.3 million people voted in favor of the amendment – more than any single federal or executive candidate in the state.

Media Resources: Alaska Secretary of State Election Results 11/2014; Alaska Board of Elections 3/2014; Oregon Secretary of State Election Results 11/2014; DC Board of Elections 11/5/14; Council of the District of Columbia Hearing Notice 10/30/14; WAMU-FM News 11/5/14; Washington Post 11/5/14; Florida Division of Elections 11/2014; MassLive.com 11/6/14; California Secretary of State Statewide Results 11/6/14; The Sentencing Project 11/6/14; California Office of the Governor Emergency Proclamation 10/4/06; Los Angeles Times 10/18/13; Washington Lawyers’ Committee For Civil Rights & Urban Affairs 7/2013; NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet

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