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Post-Election Recap: What New Drug Laws Mean for Addiction and Recovery

by Jeffrey Juergens ❘  

The War on Drugs

New medical and recreational marijuana laws spur conversations about the drug’s impact on society.

During yesterday’s midterm election, Americans across the country joined the discussion on drug reform through voting. Several states proposed legalizing marijuana in some form, a sweeping change from just a few years ago when marijuana was taboo except in extreme medical cases (and even then heavily regulated). This year, California also had a bill to reduce the punishment for some nonviolent crimes, including drug possession.

The State of Medical and Recreational Marijuana

Prior to yesterday’s vote, medical marijuana was already legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia. Medical marijuana laws legalize the drug as a pain reliever for patients with illnesses such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis and other ailments marked by chronic pain. Patients must present a medical ID card in order to purchase the substance.

Recreational marijuana was legalized in Colorado and Washington state during the primary elections in 2012. In these states, marijuana is regulated much like alcohol. In the 2014 midterms, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia all voted on recreational marijuana use.

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Drug Law Changes by State

With the results tallied, we know what the next few months will look like in terms of drug legislation throughout the U.S. Here are the major changes by state:

  • Alaska: One of the first states to legalize marijuana for medical use back in 1998, Alaska modeled its recreational marijuana bill after Colorado’s. Measure 2, which passed with a 52% majority, will legalize and tax a state-regulated marijuana market.
  • California: The successful Proposition 47 reassigns criminal penalties for nonviolent, low-level crimes, including drug possession. This means those found in possession of drugs would receive a misdemeanor instead of a felony and would face less time behind bars. Prop 47 made California the first state to de-felonize possession of all drugs, including heroin and methamphetamine. While no marijuana-specific bills presented themselves on California’s ballot this go-around, the state has already decriminalized marijuana and allows medical marijuana use.
  • Florida: As what would have been the first southern state to allow medical marijuana, Florida gave voters the opportunity to vote on Amendment 2. The bill needed 60% or more to pass and received just shy of 58%. Those familiar with drug policy might wonder if Florida’s history with rampant prescription drug abuse might have swayed cautious voters away from more drug-related painkilling legislation.
  • Oregon: The state’s Measure 91 received approximately 55% of the vote, making Oregon one of only 4 states (not including DC) to fully legalize the production, sales, possession and use of marijuana. Under this law, users must be at least 21 and may only possess up to 8 ounces and 4 plants.
  • Washington, D.C.: With an overwhelming majority, nearly 70% of voters said yes on DC’s Initiative 71 that will allow adults 21 and older to grow and share small amounts of marijuana. The initiative does not legalize, regulate or tax sales of marijuana.

The Effects of Marijuana on Society

This shifting tide in public perception of marijuana poses an interesting question for those in the addiction and recovery field. Contrary to popular opinion, marijuana is a decidedly addictive substance. Based on the DSM’s model for defining addiction, many frequent smokers exhibit signs of addiction, including:

  • Tolerance to the drug’s effects
  • Emotional or physical withdrawal symptoms when quitting use
  • Wanting to stop smoking but being unable to do so
  • Prioritizing marijuana use over other obligations
  • Continuing to use the drug despite known negative consequences

As we’ve seen with prescriptions such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, any painkiller that isn’t carefully monitored can be subject to abuse and eventual addiction. While it’s too early to tell whether there will be addiction backlash from the country’s clear shift toward lax marijuana policy, it is important to be aware of how this or any drug policy could lead to damaging effects on society—and, as always, provide viable recovery options for those already struggling with an addiction to marijuana and other painkilling substances.

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