The Election Shows Americans Are Rethinking The War On Drugs

17:15 minutes

an abstract design of a marijuana leaf surrounded by the states montana, mississippi, arizona, oregon, south dakota, new jersey
Credit: Shutterstock

state of science iconThis segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. Read articles by station reporters that take a look closer at drug decriminalization and legalization in Oregon and South Dakota.

Last week, all eyes were on the presidential election. But across the country, another major referendum was put before many voters. 

In every state where drug reform was on the ballot, it passed. Voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota legalized recreational marijuana. And medical marijuana got approved in Mississippi and South Dakota.

In Washington D.C., residents voted to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms. And in Oregon, all drugs, including heroin and cocaine, will now be decriminalized. The state will also legalize the use of psilocybin, the psychedelic drug found in magic mushrooms.

With so many states approving pro-drug measures, from the deep blue to the deep red, does this signal a major turning point for how Americans view the war on drugs? Joining Ira to talk about this are Amelia Templeton, health reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland and Lee Strubinger, politics and public policy reporter for South Dakota Public Broadcasting in Rapid City. 

Further Reading

Donate To Science Friday

Invest in quality science journalism by making a donation to Science Friday.


Segment Guests

Amelia Templeton

Amelia Templeton is a health reporter with Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland, Oregon.

Lee Strubinger

Lee Strubinger is a politics and public policy reporter with South Dakota Public Broadcasting in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. And now it’s time to check in on the state of science.

SPEAKER 1: This is KER–


SPEAKER 3: St. Louis Public Radio News.

SPEAKER 4: Iowa Public Radio news.

IRA FLATOW: Local science stories of national significance– all eyes last week were of course on the presidential election. But across the country, something else big was happening. In every state where drug reform was on the ballot, it passed. Voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota legalized recreational marijuana. Medical marijuana got the OK in Mississippi and again in South Dakota. In Washington DC, residents voted to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms. And in Oregon, all drugs, including heroin and cocaine, will now be decriminalized. The state will also legalize the use of psilocybin. That’s the psychedelic drug found in magic mushrooms.

So does this signal a major turning point for how Americans view the war on drugs? Joining me today to talk about this are my guests, Amelia Templeton, health reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland and Lee Strubinger, politics and public policy reporter for South Dakota Public Broadcasting in Rapid City. Welcome both of you to Science Friday.


LEE STRUBINGER: Yeah, good to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you both. Lee, was it surprising to you that South Dakota passed both medical and recreational marijuana?

LEE STRUBINGER: Well, it depends on who you ask. I mean, those backing the measure saw something in the state electorate that those in the political arena did not. I remember speaking with a national marijuana group the day it was announced the constitutional cannabis reform question would appear on the 2020 ballot. It was Matthew Schweich with the Marijuana Policy Project. And he said that they don’t get involved in a campaign unless they’re sure they can win.

And that being said, South Dakota is a very cautious state when it comes to reforms like this. Oftentimes, it’s the last in the country to do something. So you know, up until this summer, we were one of three states even without an industrial hemp program, Idaho and Mississippi being the other two. And we spent two legislative sessions and a whole summer in between that debating the issue of industrial hemp. You know, lawmakers say that kind of caution has served the state well in the past. So I think a lot of the political establishment here was surprised that this went through.

IRA FLATOW: Was it sort of the attitude of the public about, sort of, don’t tell me how to vote or don’t tell me what I can smoke or I can’t smoke?

LEE STRUBINGER: You know, the petition process in South Dakota is something that is very fascinating here. We were one of the first states in the country to allow its citizens to petition the government with ballot questions. And every so often, these kind of ballot questions will come up. And the voters will speak. And it will generally sometimes turn out the way that lawmakers don’t anticipate.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Amelia, you’re in Oregon. Now, that state has a real tradition of being quite liberal, doesn’t it?

AMELIA TEMPLETON: Yes, Oregon was very early to allow cannabis for medical use. We were one of the earlier states to pass a legal recreational marijuana program, And even outside of those issues, one of the only states in the nation to allow physician aid in dying, you know, death with dignity, so certainly, a state that has a bit of a libertarian streak when it comes to health and drug use as well. So I think that may have been one reason why national organizations thought Oregon was a good test case to look at for all-drug decriminalization.

IRA FLATOW: So not quite surprising, then, for the outcome?

AMELIA TEMPLETON: No. I don’t want to suggest it was a foregone conclusion. There was a vigorous debate in Oregon.

We had the Drug Policy Alliance, which is a national organization based in New York that’s been a major proponent of medical marijuana that came, spent more than $5 million qualifying this measure for the ballot in Oregon and then pouring money into the Yes campaign. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s foundation also made a large contribution. And then on the opposition side, really, small, local opposition, not really any national engagement against the measure in Oregon, and about $100,000 compared to the $5 million on the yes side– so you can either look at it as a state where this is something there is a lot of broad interest in, broad public support for. Or alternatively, you can look at it as a sort of well-oiled political campaign that produced the outcome that the proponents were looking for.

IRA FLATOW: Amelia, let’s talk about what it is like. Walk me through this decriminalization measure. What does it entail? What actually happens?

AMELIA TEMPLETON: Well, currently in Oregon, simple possession of a small amount of a substance like cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, a person, if it was their first offense, could wind up with a misdemeanor charge, probation potentially, or in rare cases, maybe a jail sentence. Under the new system established by Measure 110, possession of small amounts of those kinds of drugs goes from being a criminal matter to being a civil matter. So people would be facing a civil violation similar to a traffic ticket. They could either pay a $100 fine to resolve that or opt to get a health screening and a screening for substance abuse disorder, no possibility of jail time, really no sort of coercion involved in this. That would be true whether or not a person was stopped the first time with one of these substances, or the second time, or a third time.

And I do want to just draw a distinction. A lot of people– in many states, there are diversion programs. There are things like drug courts, treatment courts where a person is given the option to participate in a treatment program. And when they have successfully completed that treatment program, they can either have their record cleared or avoid a jail sentence.

This is very different from that. This is essentially 100% happening within the civil justice system, not the criminal one. And a person doesn’t have to pursue treatment. They merely have to pay $100 or go through a screening process. And whether or not they ultimately pursue treatment is up to them.

IRA FLATOW: Is there some sort of limit to what you can carry or use, and then after that, you sort of go outside the bounds of niceness and you get to be looked at as maybe a dealer, or a seller, or something illegal?

AMELIA TEMPLETON: Yeah, absolutely. So this is really intended to cover personal possession and user amounts of drugs. It varies by the drug. So I believe it’s 40 pills of oxycodone, a couple grams of things like heroin or cocaine.

And beyond that, a person is looking at a misdemeanor charge if they have a larger quantity of drugs, or even in some cases, potentially, a felony charge if there is other evidence of a commercial drug offense. So a person who is arrested with stolen property and a large quantity of drugs or with a weapon, those types of things, they could still see felony charges in Oregon. And manufacturing and distribution, those remain crimes.

IRA FLATOW: Can you give me a timeline on this? This doesn’t just happen tomorrow, does it?

AMELIA TEMPLETON: Implementation is set to begin in February of next year. However, the state legislature, I think, is likely to want to look at what the citizens have approved and make their own adjustments or changes. There is a number of questions around the funding for this measure. It uses Marijuana Tax revenue to fund the health assessments and potentially greater access to treatment. That marijuana revenue has already been dedicated to other county and city programs, so they’re going to need to do some shifting of money in order to backfill some of the cuts in the programs that were expecting Marijuana Tax revenue.

And then we’ve already seen a lobbying effort to look for changes to this measure. So one example, there isn’t any special language in the measure about juveniles who are found possessing small amounts of drugs. Some people would like to see a separate system for juveniles.

So I think there will be a conversation at the legislature. And one of the big questions I think will be, are they going to stick to the timeline, the pretty aggressive timeline that the citizens have approved? Or will the legislature try to push that back?

IRA FLATOW: Lee, same question to you in South Dakota, what could the timeline look like for setting up medical and recreational marijuana?

LEE STRUBINGER: Sure. So it won’t be legal to use recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older or for medical marijuana until July 1st of 2021. That’s when ballot measure questions go into effect unless they’re otherwise stated in the ballot question. And that gives the state legislature at least one session to sort of smooth out any conflict within state law. And the state also has a deadline of April of 2022 to draft rules and regulations for marijuana sales.

IRA FLATOW: I’m getting the impression from listening to you talk about this that it seems like the legislators were not as enthusiastic as the public was about this.

LEE STRUBINGER: Yeah, there was various groups that were against this measure. Interestingly enough, the state voters approved this recreational marijuana ballot question. And Republicans in the state legislature actually picked up more seats.

A lot of Republican lawmakers came out against this when it looked like it was going to be on the ballot and spoke out against it here and there. Like Amelia said earlier, there was an organized campaign against this by various groups that came together like the Chambers of Commerce in two of our major metro cities, if you will, Sioux Falls and Rapid City. And then the State Chamber of Commerce, they all said that they opposed it. Our governor Kristi Noem opposed it, various law enforcement agencies. But the pro question was very well funded there towards the end.

IRA FLATOW: When you say very well funded, does that mean there were advocacy groups supporting it and good support from the public?

LEE STRUBINGER: There was one national group in particular, New Approach, out of Washington DC. Towards the final stretch of the campaign, they pumped in nearly $1 million after an independent poll sort of came out that the race was going to be very close. There was a poll that came out about a week before the election that said Amendment A, which was this ballot question, had 51% of support from the South Dakota voters. And so they kind of backed up that campaign towards the final stretch there.

But you know, 54% of South Dakota voters ended up approving this measure. That means a lot of the state’s Republicans voted in favor of it. Brendan Johnson is the president of South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws. And he summed up the support like this.


– We’re a conservative state. We have a libertarian streak. And I think that you actually see Democrats and Republicans coming together maybe sometimes for different reasons, but both sides agree that the prohibition on marijuana simply has not worked.


LEE STRUBINGER: Johnson is a former US attorney for the state of South Dakota. He was there during the Obama administration. He says, for Democrats and liberals, it’s a social justice and criminal justice reform issue. And for Republicans and conservatives, he says they feel like the state is spending way too much money on jails and law enforcement on something that Johnson says should be a personal decision.

IRA FLATOW: Amelia, same thing for you, who is in support of across-the-board decriminalization in Oregon? And who was against it?

AMELIA TEMPLETON: It had the support of a number of medical professional organizations, the Oregon Nurses Association, which is the big nurses union. A couple of different physicians groups came out and endorsed it. And you know, they essentially said, we believe that the science says addiction is a medical condition, a medical disorder, and that the focus should be on treatment, not on punishment. We also saw a wide range of groups that do sort of racial justice work. A lot of people who do harm reduction work who provide services like needle exchanges or health care to homeless populations, to people with drug use addiction disorders endorse the measure.

And then there were interesting endorsements from a couple of progressive district attorneys, actually. So the district attorney that represents Multnomah County where Portland is located endorsed it as well as a district attorney from Central Oregon. Most of the district attorneys in the state, though, I should say, were squarely against it. And on the opposition side, there were also some interesting groups that do work with people in recovery and that provide treatment.

So the largest sort of coalition of treatment providers in Oregon actually opposed the measure. And they said, look, our state ranks extremely poorly for the number of treatment beds that we have compared to the number of people with addictions who need treatment. And to do this kind of big experiment in a state that doesn’t have a really well-built, robust treatment system is just too risky. And the comparison they made was essentially, when we de-institutionalized people with mental illness, closed a bunch of really grim state hospitals, but didn’t provide the community support that we said we were going to provide for people, I think they’re afraid of something that looks like that all over again.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. And this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. So how will this impact people who are currently in jail in Oregon for drug possession who might now have not been arrested in the first place, Amelia?

AMELIA TEMPLETON: That’s a great question. I think the short answer is, we don’t know yet. That is one issue that the supporters of the measure said, if the state legislature gets involved in what this looks like and implementation, that’s something that they would like to see addressed, but it’s not the focus of the measure. It’s not really explicitly called out. So I think that’s something I’ll be keeping my eye on in the future.

IRA FLATOW: Lee, South Dakota?

LEE STRUBINGER: Yeah, similarly, we don’t know yet. The constitutional amendment didn’t really address what would happen with people who are currently in jail or prison. The state legislature could do expungement or pardons, but without action, it seems like it will kind of remain the same for those people.

IRA FLATOW: South Dakota, as you’ve highlighted for us, is quite a red state. Do you think that the state legalizing weed is a turning point for marijuana in the rest of the country, Lee?

LEE STRUBINGER: I mean, certainly, the national organizations that backed this campaign see it as a turning point. You know, of the four states that did legalize recreational marijuana on election night, South Dakota certainly has a case for being the most conservative. I don’t think this vote will go unnoticed on a national scale. But the case that groups like the Marijuana Policy Project will make in the future will be something like, hey, look, marijuana reform is a bipartisan issue. And they hope that this vote really provides evidence, and to take that to Congress for further action.

IRA FLATOW: And Amelia, Oregon is now the first state in the nation to decriminalize drugs across the board. Do you feel like all eyes are on Oregon to see how this goes?

AMELIA TEMPLETON: Yes, absolutely. I think people here understand that we are a test case. And the people who’ve fought really hard for this measure and see it as a potential lifesaving new approach are going to really push for as many treatment dollars as they can get and everything they can do to make it a success.

I think that opponents are going to be looking to see if some of the unintended consequences they’ve predicted, things like an increase in property crimes or like falling numbers of people getting into treatment happen. So you know, it’s certainly what one source called a grand experiment. And we will have to wait and see how it plays out.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that’s about all the time we have for today. This was really interesting. , I would like to thank both of you, Amelia Templeton, health reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland, Lee Strubinger, politics and public policy reporter for South Dakota Public Broadcasting in Rapid City. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today.


LEE STRUBINGER: Thanks for having me.

Copyright © 2020 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

Meet the Producers and Host

About Kathleen Davis

Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

Explore More

Oregon Voters Decriminalize Possessing Illegal Drugs

The ballot measure makes personally possessing small amounts of drugs a civil violation, while also providing addiction services funding.

Read More

South Dakota Voters Pass Marijuana Measures

The federal government may still prohibit the drug, but South Dakota joins the many states who have legalized or decriminalized it.

Read More