Push to relax drug laws gains big victories on state ballots

Sheldon Smith holds up photos of his two children, who both have sickle-cell anemia.
Sheldon Smith of Mississippi holds up photos of his two children, who both have sickle-cell anemia and who he thinks would benefit from medical marijuana treatment for pain.
(Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press)

A nationwide push to relax drug laws took a significant step forward Tuesday as five more states legalized marijuana for adults and voters made Oregon the first state to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of street drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.

The drug measures were among 120 proposed state laws and constitutional amendments that were on the ballot in 32 states. They touched on an array of issues that have roiled politics in recent years: voting rights, racial inequalities, abortion, taxes and education, to name a few.

The Oregon drug initiative will allow people arrested with small amounts of hard drugs to avoid trial, and possible jail time, by paying a $100 fine and attending an addiction-recovery program. The treatment centers will be funded by revenues from legalized marijuana, which was approved in Oregon several years ago.


“Today’s victory is a landmark declaration that the time has come to stop criminalizing people for drug use,” said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which backed the measure.

The proposal was endorsed by the Oregon Democratic Party, as well as some nurse and physician associations. The Oregon Republican Party denounced the drug decriminalization measure as radical, and some prosecutors called it reckless.

Oregon voters also approved a measure making the state the first to legalize the therapeutic use of psychedelic mushrooms.

A month after seven people were shot at an illegal marijuana cultivation site, Riverside County’s worst mass killing in recent memory remains a mystery.

Voters in New Jersey and Arizona approved measures legalizing marijuana for adults 21 and older. In New Jersey, the Legislature now will have to pass another measure setting up the new marijuana marketplace. The Arizona measure also allows people convicted of certain marijuana-related crimes to seek expungement of their records. The passage of the measure signaled a change in attitude, after Arizona voters narrowly defeated a pot legalization proposal in 2016.

South Dakota on Tuesday became the first state where voters authorized both recreational marijuana and medical marijuana via two separate initiatives in the same election. The legalization of recreational marijuana was approved by voters in Montana, and medical marijuana won approval in Mississippi.

A decade ago, recreational marijuana was illegal in all 50 states. Voters allowed it in Colorado and Washington state in 2012, sparking a movement that already included 11 states and Washington, D.C., heading into Tuesday’s elections. Supporters hope that additional victories, especially in conservative states, could build pressure for Congress to legalize marijuana nationwide.