Top 10 Drug Policy Reform Moments of 2021

by Robert Hofmann and Mike Liszewski

With 2021 drawing to a close, Students for Sensible Drug Policy is reflecting on the drug policy milestones and victories over the past twelve months. Despite the challenges to political organizing that COVID provided, SSDPers and other drug policy reform advocates were busy advancing sensible laws and programs to end criminalization, reduce the harms associated with substance use, and repair the damage caused by decades of racially biased enforcement of the War on Drugs. In no particular order, here are 10 drug policy reform moments from 2021 that are worth celebrating and building upon in the new year.

  1. SSDP’s Resolution to Advance Sensible Drug Policy was unveiled

2021 saw the introduction of the SSDP-led Resolution to Advance Sensible Drug Policy, a resolution to make local policy change in multiple states and begin to directly end the War on Drugs by directing pressure at their town and county governments. Taking advantage of SSDP’s reach across the U.S. and an increasing focus on decriminalization of all controlled substances at the state and federal level, SSDP decided to create the resolution and organizing campaign t empower all SSDP members and their allies to further the movement to end the war on drugs in their local context, with support from an international movement.

To celebrate the completion of our Resolution to Advance Sensible Drug Policy, Students for Sensible Drug Policy hosted a two-part panel featuring SSDP members currently leading campaigns around the Resolution, as well as the co-founders of Parabola Center, a new think tank creating drug policy co-founded by SSDP alumni and former board member Shaleen Title,  to benefit people, not corporations. Check out our Resolution Map for details about our current campaigns, and if you’d like to pass a Resolution of your own, email policy@ssdp.org!

  1. Connecticut, New Mexico, New York, New Jersey, and Virginia approve cannabis legalization

The number of states that have legalized and begun to regulate marijuana increased significantly this past year. The entire New York-New Jersey-Connecticut trio state region passed tax and regulation laws, with New York and New Jersey adopting some of the most comprehensive equity-focused state marijuana legislation to date. The passage of New Mexico’s law saw the expansion of marijuana legalization in the United States that now stretches from Ciudad Juarez to the Canadian border. Meanwhile, activists in Virginia won the first adult-use marijuana victory south of the Mason-Dixon Line. In addition to legalizing marijuana for adults 21 and over, each of these laws removed criminal penalties or reduced civil penalties for underage possession (several other states also reduced penalties for underage possession of marijuana). Many SSDPers worked or volunteered their time to each of these efforts, and played crucial roles with the efforts in Connecticut and New Jersey.

  1. Senate Leaders offer the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act and SSDP’s comments on the legislation

In July, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA) was announced by Senate Democrats, including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and longtime marijuana reform champions Cory Booker and Ron Wyden. Building off of the MORE Act in the House, the CAOA would remove marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act, empowering states to set and maintain their own cannabis policies free from federal interference. During the bill’s comment period, SSDP solicited comments from our network and submitted a formal letter to Senate Democratic sponsors, emphasizing our youth focus and our priorities regarding restorative justice and social equity.

  1. New York opens the nation’s first overdose prevention center

In a major victory for advancing harm reduction services, advocates in New York successfully launched the nation’s first overdose prevention facility. The facility allows people who use drugs to do so in a supervised setting with access to peers, health care professionals, and wraparound services. SSDPers played a role in building public support for the facilities. With Rhode Island signing into law a bill to establish a safe consumption program, drug policy reform. 

  1. Plant Medicine Resolutions Sweep Across the Country

2021 was a busy year for municipal-level efforts to decriminalize entheogenic plants or designate them as the lowest law enforcement priority for local police departments thanks to the efforts of organizations like Decriminalize Nature. From Massachusetts to Michigan to California, several cities and towns across the United States reformed the local policies on psychedelic plants. In October, Seattle became the largest US city to pass such a measure. Local reforms like these can put pressure on state and federal lawmakers to make similar changes at those levels of government. 

  1. The first federal all drug decriminalization bill was introduced

In June, Representatives Cori Bush and Bonnie Watson Coleman introduced a federal bill to decriminalize drug possession, the Drug Policy Reform Act of 2021. The passage of this bill would signal a massive step in the U.S. rolling back the War on Drugs we started over 50 years ago. SSDP is looking forward to working with the Drug Policy Alliance and other organizations on this legislation. Also on the 50th anniversary of President Nixon formally launching the War on Drugs, Maine’s House passed an all-drug decriminalization bill, but unfortunately, the state senate failed to move it forward.

  1. The U.S. House passes the EQUAL Act to end the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity 

Near the peak of the Reagan era of the War on Drugs, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was passed to apply the sentencing standards for 500 grams of powder cocaine to 5 grams of cocaine in crack form. This resulted in a large number of mandatory minimum sentences that were applied overwhelmingly against Black Americans, causing racially disproportionate mass incarceration to rapidly increase. Although the disparity was reduced from 100:1 to 18:1 in 2010, racially-biased sentencing is still enabled by the current laws. This year, the House passed the EQUAL Act with overwhelming bipartisan support, and chances are good this could be one of the first major drug policy reforms that could overcome the threshold of votes needed to avoid a filibuster in the Senate in 2022.

  1. The SRA raises the floor on Republican-led marijuana descheduling efforts

The introduction of the States Reform Act (SRA) by South Carolina Republican Congresswoman Nancy Mace increased the standards for what GOP-led marijuana descheduling efforts should look like. What the bill contains several provisions and lacks many provisions that should trouble equity-focused marijuana reformers, such as designating a portion of marijuana tax revenue for law enforcement and failing to create a community reinvestment fund like that found in the MORE Act, the SRA also has several sensible provisions. In addition to ending federal marijuana criminalization, the SRA has significant expungement provisions and designates a portion of marijuana tax revenue to fund Small Business Administration programs. 

  1. Oregon’s 2020 all-drug decriminalization ballot measure creates $300M for health services

The successful ballot measure campaign in Oregon back in 2020 continues to pay dividends for people who use drugs and harm reduction service providers. Measure 110. By designating a portion of the marijuana industry tax revenue for treatment and harm reduction services, the state generated over $300 million for treatment, safety, and services.  

  1. Legalization in Mexico and Malta

Drug policy reform victories were not limited to within the borders of the United States. In Mexico, the nation’s supreme court declared marijuana prohibition to be unconstitutional after the legislature failed to comply with the court’s 2018 to pass legalization legislation. While the decision does not provide for a commercialized retail system, personal cultivation and possession are now enshrined as constitutional rights in Mexico. In Europe, the island nation of Malta became the first European country to officially end marijuana prohibition. While countries like Holland and Spain have adopted de facto policies of tolerance towards marijuana activity, Malta became the first to fully repeal criminal penalties for personal use and home cultivation.

With thousands of SSDPers on the front lines globally, these victories would not be possible without SSDP supporters like you. We have less than 48 hours to raise $9,000 in order to meet our year-end goal of $50,000. If everyone reading this email gave just $7, our fundraiser would be over in an hour. Can we count on your support?