The 2020 presidential election wasn’t just a victory for Joe Biden. It was also a win for drug decriminalization, making many drug advocates – including shroom dealers, hemp farmers, and student activists – celebrate across the country.
A first for the U.S., Oregon voters passed a measure decriminalizing the possession of hard drugs and legalizing psychedelic mushrooms. Washington D.C. also voted to decriminalize shrooms and other psychedelics.
“Decriminalizing all drugs, I’ve never seen that on a ballot in any way that wasn’t a joke,” said Alexandra Knighton, a senior at Lewis and Clark College who worked on the campaign to get drug measures on Oregon’s ballot. “It’s a massive ideological change.”
New Jersey, Arizona, South Dakota, and Montana also joined the 11 other states (and D.C.) that have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Mississippi approved marijuana for medical use, as well.
American Voters, especially younger ones, have shown increasing support for marijuana legalization in the past decade, according to the Pew Research Center. In a previous report from Annenberg Media, some first-time voters even cited Biden’s lack of support for cannabis as a reason they felt hesitant to vote for him.
Hard drugs, though, can be more controversial.
“[Oregon’s decriminalization] was definitely a surprise to me,” said a 20-year-old student who deals shrooms at USC. “It’s a pretty radical ballot measure.”
Knighton, however, was surprised instead by the overwhelming support from Oregon voters across the political spectrum she encountered while canvassing.
“Even people who were anti-maskers were like, hell yeah let’s decriminalize drugs!” Knighton said. “Anyone here probably knows someone who’s died of a drug overdose, and they probably wished there was a way to get help, like treatment centers that hopefully will now open.”
Knighton canvassed not only in Portland, but also in more conservative suburbs like Clackamas and Milwaukie. The petition, she said, ended up with over 20,000 more signatures than needed to get the measures on the ballot.
Still, Knighton was concerned that when Election Day came, voters would get confused by the wording on the ballot. “The way the law is written, it just says decriminalize drugs, which freaks people out,” Knighton said. “They think that means it’s legal for me to have cocaine and heroin, and that’s not at all what that means.”
Decriminalization does cause alarm for some, including Diona White, a 45-year-old woman from Anchorage, Alaska. “I’ve seen the whole run of what drugs can do to a family,” White said, as her 41-year-old brother has been a heroin addict for almost 20 years.
White is concerned that if hard drugs are decriminalized, people won’t be discouraged enough from using them. “My brother stole a car on New Year’s Day,” she said. “He paid a $200 fine, and he was out in two hours. If there’s no penalty, the crime just keeps going.”
White also cited increasing crime rates in Anchorage, Alaska’s least safe city, as a reason she doesn’t support decriminalization. Anchorage has a property crime rate that’s over twice as high as national levels, according to a report from the National Council for Home Safety and Security.
Though there is no data that shows the relationship between drug use and property crimes in Anchorage, Deputy Chief Ken McCoy said in a 2017 report from Anchorage Daily News that he believes the two are linked.
“Every single person on our street has had something stolen,” White said. “A lot of people want to move out of this area, but where do you go? It’s all over this town.”
In place of penalties like arrests, jail time, and prison sentences, Oregon’s Measure 110 allows people who are caught carrying small amounts of drugs like cocaine, heroin, oxycontin to pay a $100 fine and attend an addiction recovery program.
“When an addict goes to prison, most of the time their addiction will continue because prisons don’t rehabilitate at all,” Knighton said. “To finally have a state-funded and state-supported way to make good on the promises of what a government should be doing anyway – providing medical care to people who need it – can help people get back on their feet.”
Jeb Slate, a 21-year-old farmer who works on Virginia’s first legal hemp farm, thinks decriminalization also has the potential to help veterans suffering from addiction and substance abuse. Slate lives in Virginia Beach, a huge military town.
“They shouldn’t be in jail,” Slate said. “They should be in rehab, because it’s not gonna get better in jail, and a lot of people will never be able to come back from that.”
Enrique Castillo Garcia, a USC junior from Tucson, Arizona, voted to legalize marijuana in his state because he sees it as “a good starting point for actual lasting criminal justice reform.”
“I’ve seen many members of my community have their lives ruined for minor drug charges,” Garcia said. “This will allow the police to worry less about minor drug offenses, and declog the justice system for that’s been clogged with minor offenses for too long.”
Garcia is also excited to see the benefits that may come due to increased tax revenue from cannabis sales, money he hopes will go toward funding the Arizona Department of Health Services.
The USC shrooms dealer is also hopeful that Oregon’s legalization of psychedelics will have positive impacts on drug research and psilocybin therapy, a campaign point used to promote the measure in Oregon. However, the dealer said he thinks Oregon’s legalization “would have to cause a pretty radical positive change” for other states to adopt similar measures.
Drug legalization, specifically for marijuana, has been historically led by states on the west coast. California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996. Then it took until 2012 for the first states – Colorado and Washington – to legalize recreational use. Nine other states have followed in the past eight years, and many more for medical use.
Slate hopes this election’s results will pave the way for legalization in his own state. Since Virginia decriminalized marijuana in July, Slate says he’s already seen positive changes in his community. “The decriminalization has helped so many people,” Slate said, “because now it’s not gonna ruin their lives if they get caught.”
Slate added that drug laws are deeply rooted in racism.
“Especially in states in the South and the Midwest, [the laws are] targeted more toward minorities,” Slate said. “It’s a way for cops to pull Black kids over and put them in jail just because they found weed on them.”
Alison Thomas, a senior at George Washington University, works as a research assistant on an election reform project. She explained how drug criminalization, rooted in President Nixon’s War on Drugs in 1971, has led to the mass incarceration of minority groups.
“Drug laws disproportionately impact low-income individuals, people of color and especially Black people,” Thomas said. “If we actually care about helping those with serious drug problems, we should be investing in treatment.”
This election saw victories for cannabis in other ways, too. In California, the weed delivery service Eaze saw a 17% increase in orders on Election Day and an 18% increase in Los Angeles alone, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Many USC students admitted to getting high on election night, something they can enjoy without worry, since recreational marijuana has been legal in California since 2016.
“I hadn’t looked at any [election results] all day,” said Justice Schiappa, a senior at USC. “And when I finally did, I was so overwhelmed I smoked two joints back to back.”