Voters in four states approved the legalization of recreational marijuana on Tuesday, while one state voted to legalize medical marijuana and another elected to decriminalize harder drugs in an effort to promote addiction treatment programs over criminal sentences.
The Catholic bishops in many of the states had spoken out against the drug legalization measures, pointing to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which teaches that drug use “inflicts very grave damage on human health and life.”
In June 2014, Pope Francis condemned the legalization of recreational drugs in an address to drug enforcement agencies.
“Let me state this in the clearest terms possible: the problem of drug use is not solved with drugs! Drug addiction is an evil, and with evil there can be no yielding or compromise,” the pope said. “To think that harm can be reduced by permitting drug addicts to use narcotics in no way resolves the problem. Attempts, however limited, to legalize so-called ‘recreational drugs’, are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they fail to produce the desired effects.”
Oregon passed Ballot Measure 110, making it the first state to decriminalize the possession and use of small amounts of controlled substances including heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines. It will reduce penalties for possession of large amounts of such controlled substances.
Fifty-nine percent of voters approved the measure, while 41% opposed it, with 82% of results reported.
Recreational marijuana was legalized in the state in 2014.
The text of Measure 110 cited poor access to drug addiction treatment compared to other states. Backers of the measure argue that reduced arrests and incarceration will provide savings that can be used to make addiction treatment more widely available and free of charge. They also say drug crimes are disproportionately enforced against racial minorities.
The Oregon Catholic Conference adamantly opposed the measure, arguing that treatment and rehabilitation should be the focus of addiction recovery, without programs that will promote the use of illegal drugs.
The conference cited local communities and treatment groups that have expressed reservations about how the program would be applied. Other critics have said decriminalization of the drugs would cause more addiction by making drugs easier to acquire and by removing law enforcement and the courts from drug regulation, the New York Times reports.
Oregon voters also approved Ballot Measure 109, which will legalize psilocybin, a psychoactive compound found in some mushrooms, for mental health treatment. The initiative drew the support of 55% of voters.
Though the FDA has deemed psilocybin a potential breakthrough therapy for major depression, studies are inconclusive. The American Psychiatric Association and the Oregon Psychiatric Physicians Association both oppose the measure, saying proponents overstate the drug's usefulness in treating many phenomena including anxiety and addiction.
Voters in South Dakota approved Amendment A, which will legalize recreational use of marijuana for those 21 years and older. It will legalize possession or distribution of up to one ounce of the drug. It will also require the state legislature to pass laws providing for a medical marijuana program and the sale of hemp.
The measure, which passed 53%-47%, was opposed by the South Dakota bishops.
“Human beings are endowed by God with the gift of reason. Reason aids us in differentiating between right and wrong and is foundational for human freedom and personal responsibility,” they said. “Thus, we can understand that to directly intend to suppress our God-given rational faculties is gravely wrong.”
The bishops warned that in Seattle and Denver, where marijuana businesses are legal, they are disproportionately located in poorer neighborhoods. According to one analysis, they said, every dollar raised in marijuana sales costs $4.50 in unwanted effects, primarily in healthcare and reduced workforce readiness.
In Montana, voters approved two measures that will legalize recreational marijuana in the state.
Constitutional Initiative 118 will change the state’s constitution to allow adults age 21 and up to purchase recreational marijuana, and Initiative 190 creates a framework to legalize and regulate marijuana use, creating a 20% tax on non-medical marijuana and allowing counties to ban dispensaries.
Both measures passed by roughly 57%-43% of the vote.
The bishops of Montana opposed the measure as “a threat to the flourishing of individual persons - particularly, the young, the poor, and those who struggle with either substance abuse or mental health challenges.”
They stressed that since Colorado legalized marijuana in 2012, the state has seen a higher prevalence of marijuana use in suicides.
“Publications link marijuana use with cognitive impairment, lung damage and an increased risk of psychotic disorders (among other concerns),” the bishops said. “Legalization of recreational marijuana will only exacerbate the already serious mental health crisis gripping our state.”
In Arizona, citizens approved Proposition 207, which will both allow persons 21 and older to possess one ounce of marijuana and provide for the legal sale of the drug.
Also known as the Smart and Safe Arizona Act, the measure passed 60%-40%, with 85% of results reported.
The Arizona Catholic Conference had criticized the proposal, saying it would send the message to children that “drug use is socially and morally acceptable.”
“It is anticipated that legalizing the recreational use of marijuana in Arizona will lead to more abuse by teens, increase child fatalities, and result in more societal costs,” the Arizona bishops warned in a Sept. 23 statement.
They noted that self-reported marijuana use of Arizona middle- and high-schoolers has already increased because fewer youth believe it is risky. They also pointed to a report out of Colorado showing significant increases in traffic deaths, crime, emergency room visits, and youth usage of marijuana after the drug was legalized for recreational use.
In New Jersey, citizens approved Public Question 1, which will legalize recreational marijuana, with a state-run program to oversee it. The measure drew 67% of voter approval, with 63% of votes recorded.
Legalized drug sales have been touted in the state as a way to boost revenue and employment, save money and redirect police resources.
Medical marijuana presently sells for about $400 to $500 per ounce in the state, the New York Times reports. The state legislature's research arm estimated that a developed recreational marijuana industry would generate about $126 million in tax revenue a year.
Backers of the New Jersey measure also point to the disproportionate criminal charges against Black Americans for marijuana possession, even though they use the drug at similar rates to white Americans.
Voters in Mississippi overwhelmingly approved Initiative 65 to license and regulate marijuana dispensaries and allow a patient to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana to treat any of 22 conditions.
The measure won 74% of voter approval. Over 228,000 Mississippi voters signed a petition to place the initiative on the ballot.
Critics have said the amendment fails to restrict the number of marijuana businesses. They also argue the amendment could trump local zoning laws. Pot dispensaries are barred within 500 feet of a school, church or child care center, but the language says zoning ordinances on dispensaries must be no more restrictive than they are on pharmacies and “shall not impair the availability of and reasonable access to medical marijuana.”
Some law enforcement leaders say the amount of legal purchase allowed is enough that patients would be able to re-sell marijuana on the streets.
Fees on dispensaries will fund only the medical marijuana oversight program. The language prohibits revenue from going into the state's general fund.