Skip to main content
A marijuana plant © 2012 Reuters

(Washington) – Voters in three states approved ballot measures on November 8, 2016, to legalize the use and possession of small amounts of marijuana, part of a continued shift in United States drug policy, Human Rights Watch said today. In addition, Oklahoma voted to reduce its criminal penalties for drug offenses by making possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony.

“Personal drug use shouldn’t be addressed by the criminal justice system, and the results on election day helped move things in the right direction,” said Antonio Ginatta, US advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The US continues to move away from criminalizing marijuana use and toward rational drug policy grounded in a respect for privacy and human rights.”

The three states that legalized marijuana for personal use are California, Massachusetts, and Nevada. Results are pending on a similar ballot measure in Maine. Arizona’s legalization measure failed. California, Massachusetts, and Nevada join four other states – Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington – that have legalized marijuana use and possession over the past four years.

The state ballot measures are similar: they apply only to people age 21 and older – use by someone under 21 is still prohibited. People are allowed to possess up to one ounce (28.5 grams) of marijuana and grow up to six plants for private use – Massachusetts allows people to keep up to 10 ounces in their homes. People may transfer marijuana to other adults so long as the transfer is not a sale. California and Massachusetts also give local governments the authority to license establishments where marijuana can be used on-site.

US enforcement of drug possession laws ruins individual and family lives, discriminates against people of color, and undermines public health., Human Rights Watch said. A recent report by Human Rights Watch and the ACLU shows that police make more arrests for drug possession than for any other crime. The long-term consequences can separate families, exclude people from job opportunities, welfare assistance, public housing, and voting; and expose them to discrimination and stigma for a lifetime.

“In its decades-long failed attempt to combat drug use, the US has unfairly and excessively punished communities, harmed families, and made it more difficult for individuals who’ve used drugs to get a job and a home,” Ginatta said. “These election results should push more states to consider their own legalization measures.”

Marijuana continues to be illegal under federal law, though the Obama administration has stated that it would not interfere with state policy related to marijuana use. President-elect Donald Trump’s position on state marijuana policy is not clear.

The Oklahoma ballot measure – State Question 780 – while not legalizing personal use, is still an important step toward reducing the harm caused by criminalizing drug possession, Human Rights Watch said. Prior to approval of this ballot measure, a person could serve up to 10 years in prison for possession of a controlled substance other than marijuana. With passage of this measure, all drug possession crimes are now capped at a one-year maximum.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.