Psychedelic Exceptionalism vs. Decrim All

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This entry has been published on January 26, 2021 and may be out of date.

Written by Josh McMillin ‘20, Kat Ebert ‘18
Edited by Abhi Dewan ‘18, Luis Montoya ‘16

After the 2020 election season, many of us were delighted to see that several US states passed historical initiatives for the progress of drug reform. Not long after, the UN rescheduled marijuana and the MORE act passed the house. The War on Drugs is steadily running out of favor in the eyes of the public; according to a recent Gallup poll, 68% of Americans support marijuana reform. It appears that people are realizing that the War on Drugs has failed to do much other than contribute to systemic racism and prove itself utterly useless in handling the overdose crisis. However, something about the drug policy reforms last November indicates that this is not the case and that the narratives of prohibition are still ingrained in the culture. Oregon was the only state to pass legislation for all-drug decriminalization while all the other state reforms were specific to a single drug or a single category of drugs (serial decriminalization). The loudest cries for drug policy change in the US are for the serial decriminalization of marijuana and psychedelics, but out of all the drugs out there, why are these two favored over all the rest?

The widely accepted narrative as to why marijuana and psychedelic reforms are passing is their medicinal uses in treating PTSD, substance use disorders, epilepsy, and chronic pain. In many areas of the US, the single-drug medicinal approach is the fast track to drug policy reform. It’s an effective strategy to push bills past the finish line, but it’s also counterproductive to shifting long-held views and stigma surrounding drug use to allow for conversations about all drug decriminalization. The medicinal approach is counterproductive to that goal when it’s done without recognition of the racist elephant in the room: the fact that the legislation for marijuana and psychedelics is passing due to their acceptance by white, upper-class academics in the US and not just because they have medicinal uses. Much of racial bias is implicit, meaning that people generally aren’t aware or are in denial of their racism. When the battle cry to end the War on Drugs through full decriminalization is “this is racist” it is often met with denial and prohibition is justified through focusing on the perceived physical and economic harms of drugs. In response to this, many drug reform activists structure their initiatives as white led efforts containing medicinal and economic benefits in order to increase chances of passing. This leads to the belief that marijuana and psychedelics are the only drugs that should be decriminalized because they’re “safe” and have medicinal qualities. This viewpoint is commonly referred to as “drug exceptionalism” and it’s a big problem in the Psychedelic Policy reform community.

The medicinal argument for decriminalization doesn’t make much sense. Possible medicinal benefits are present in all drugs and medical legalization has nothing to do with decriminalization. The success of serial drug decriminalization boils down to drug exceptionalism in white, upper-class, academia and has nothing to do with reducing harm or improving medicine. Any drug can be considered dangerous or medicinal depending on how it is used, including opiates and amphetamines, which aren’t decriminalized for the general public to possess or use at their own discretion. Many drugs prescribed to treat acute and chronic pain are opiates similar to heroin, and methamphetamine is prescribed to 16,000 people every year in the US to treat ADHD under the brand name Desoxyn. These two drug categories are only legal in a medical context but are also the two drug categories associated with the majority of overdose deaths and a high percentage of drug arrests in the US. Medical-use-only legislation isn’t preventing the harms associated with these drugs when they’re used outside of a medical context, but full decriminalization would. The major difference is that the medical professional supervising the administration of opiates or amphetamines is licensed and legally protected, which is precisely what supervised use facilities would provide with diverted funding after all-drug decriminalization.

When used safely and responsibly, the greatest harm from drugs is being arrested for possession. Drugs themselves are not the problem, the problem is a system that exploits, dehumanizes, and incarcerates people who use drugs while offering them little or no education and resources for safe use. All drugs, including psychedelics, can be harmful to an individual’s mental health and can result in dangerous or potentially lethal situations if the user is not educated on safe use and proper set and setting. Ending drug arrests is essential to reducing the harms of drug use, so if we were to pick a single drug to decriminalize, it should be one with a high arrest rate. It’s an extremely difficult task to find national numbers on psychedelic drug arrests as they aren’t frequent enough to have their own category on the DEA or FBI arrest statistics. With so few arrests, decriminalizing psychedelics alone won’t result in a great reduction of harm for the general population. Psychedelic decriminalization only benefits people who only use psychedelics. Marijuana is the other drug with widespread support in white academia. It’s somewhat of an exception because simple marijuana possession is the most common drug charge in the US. However, methamphetamine, opiates, and cocaine comprise the rest of the most common drug arrests category and their criminalization has resulted in unnecessary risks of health issues and overdose. All-drug decriminalization and implementation of harm reduction strategies would result in the greatest benefit to society, not serial decriminalization of drugs that don’t carry the same risks and don’t comprise a large number of arrests. Psychedelic reform is essential to the larger goal of ending the War on Drugs, but as drug policy and social justice activists, we must be wary of the beliefs and stigma that psychedelic-only legislation can perpetuate. We can continue to support serial drug decriminalization initiatives that will pass when all drug decriminalization won’t, but we must simultaneously continue to educate others about the implicit and explicit racism and stigma that influences all prohibitionist ideologies.