It’s one big mistake

I’ve been waiting for the current moment – the moment in which systemic psychedelic legalization is actually possible – for thirty-one years, and working on it with the tools available to me for a little more than twenty-eight. There are others who have been waiting, working, preparing for decades longer than I have – a lifetime, not just half of one. In that context, this moment is narrow. There are three years and approximately three months until the next presidential administration begins in January 2025. (The time in which to maneuver is even more narrow if we measure it as the year and half-month until the 2022 midterms.) When I refer to psychedelic legalization, I don’t mean FDA approval, although access via prescription within the federal medical use-only system is a form of legalization; I mean a legal system that permits some form of autonomous, self-directed use without the requirement of medical justification, restricted only to the degree commensurate with the risks inherent in the substances.

The path to legalization is wide open in a way it has never been before. The movement’s only serious obstacle is itself. I present here my understanding of a basic specific aspect of the challenge: the psychedelic sector as a whole does not appreciate how it fits within the context of from a much larger struggle to change policy governing psychoactive substances generally and therefore cannot articulate to others whose actions affect its fate why (a) it is unique and (b) must be able to operate uniquely as an equal partner in that movement.

In my experience, there has always been an ambiguous relationship between the collective drug policy reform movement and the psychedelic scene. That relationship has improved, in my assessment, over the last 5-10 years or so, in terms of mutual recognition and respect, but I still see significant disconnects. There is the lightning-rod issue of psychedelic exceptionalism. There is the lack of regard, whether ignorant or intentional, on the part of certain sectors of the psychedelic population for the concerns of the drug policy reform movement, e.g., mass incarceration and its societal consequences, violent death, crippling injury, or – at a minimum – mental trauma at the hands of law enforcement or others, and multiple public health crises, in favor of self-referential self-fulfillment. There is the practical – maybe pivotal – question of how to integrate (a) state legislation decriminalizing possession of ‘personal use amounts’ of all controlled substances, e.g. Measure 110 in Oregon and its follow-on bills in other states, and (b) legislation directed exclusively to decriminalizing a range of actions involving psychedelics, e.g. SB519 in California, or authorizing psychedelic-assisted therapy, e.g., Measure 209 in Oregon. (Of course, there are the other fierce splits within the psychedelic sector itself.)

The divide between the psychedelic sector and other drug policy reform sectors is one among multiple divisions in the broad drug policy reform movement: there is a wide array of organizations focusing on the wide array of consequences of criminal prohibition of certain substances under all circumstances and of other substances outside a narrow “medical” context. There is the vast expanse of cannabis issues – from hemp to medical cannabis to over-the-counter CBD and other non-psychoactive cannabinoids to the high drama of all aspects of THC-cannabis to the intersectional combat between social and economic equity imperatives on the one part and the power of Green Rush prospectors on the other part to the arcane wizardry of banking and tax policy reform – which is all just one room in the castle, because there are also the efforts to stop human rights abuses in source countries and transit countries (as well as responding to the gangs and refugees arising out of the violence of criminal markets whose proceeds sometimes finance armed insurgencies), opioid and stimulant epidemics that have ebbed and flowed for decades with no relief in sight, the efforts to reduce the spread of blood-borne diseases through unsafe consumption practices, and so on receding into the horizon. As to theaters of operations, they range from the activism of NGOs inside the United Nations through attempts to effectuate policy change at the municipal level. (Incidentally, alcohol, tobacco, and legal psychiatric medications should be part of the conversation as well, and the fact that they’re considered separate policy issues is probably an essential part of the problem, but to keep things simple it’s enough to focus on how vast is what’s colloquially called “drug policy,” i.e., the results of Europe’s encounter with psychoactive plants and fungi in other parts of the world.) The horror of mass opioid deaths dominates governmental drug policy priorities, while cannabis policy reform advocates demand action to correct the horrors of cannabis prohibition, a mistake so obvious and fundamental that there are no words that can adequately explain its insanity. While prevailing opioid control policy is – in the absence of things like safe consumption facilities, depenalization, and expanded access to medication-assisted treatment – an unhealthy dose of doing nothing new, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether the madness of federal cannabis prohibition will end before the next (presumptively Republican) presidential administration, considering that it is a relatively small ship in the political hurricanes that threatens to sink civilization as we know it.

I want to propose a reconciliation: criminal prohibition of psychoactive substances is one big mistake with many distinct facets that interface with many disparate areas of social policy but are all still inseparably linked in certain common, fundamental ways. The mistake cannot accurately be reduced to one simple formula, but here’s an attempt: criminal prohibition subject to the narrow exception of medical use (described in Psychedelic Markets of the Future) is premised on an obsolete, reductionist construct of human consciousness formulated at a time when people were just beginning to figure out what a neurotransmitter is. Because the disparate facets necessarily interface with many disparate areas of social policy, efforts to undo, reduce, and/or prevent the harms arising from those different facets require their own unique strategies and tactics, yet since all the policy issues are faces of the same creature, none of them can be solved in isolation from the others.

I propose that there is a way to deconstruct drug policy into interests that are common to multiple constituencies. For example, everyone has in common at least one basic truth: consumers of psychoactive substances need places to consume them safely. In alcohol bars around the world people legally consume alcohol supervised by and subject to the control of the barkeepers. Many societies permit consumption of tobacco in demarcated public environments. The phenomenon of the “caffeine cafe” (a term I hereby propose) in which people consume high doses of stimulants in brewed beverages (such as coffee and tea) is well-known. I’m happy to live in a municipality in which kava and kratom are available in “onsite consumption sites” (to borrow a legal term from cannabis legalization), A/K/A kratom bars. There is no inherent reason why spaces cannot be made legally available for opioid consumers to consume opioids, for psychedelic consumers to consume psychedelics, for cannabis consumers to consume cannabis, and for stimulant consumers to consume stimulants. The dangers inherent in those substances should determine the safeguards required for each location. Everyone across the board – from psychedelic ceremony people to opioid overdose prevention people – should be able to get on the same page as to that point when engaging with the government in cross-endorsing solidarity with each other even if they don’t hang out together. Likewise, all drug consumers share a common interest in legalization of means of testing the contents of the merchandise they’ve obtained. Those are some starting points.

Large portions of the psychedelic constituency do not perceive that psychedelics are embedded in at least a century of a prohibitionist superstructure built on police control over opioids. My sense is that they do not even perceive that they are merely players in a much larger struggle over drug policy – and I have sensed for a long time that the drug policy reform movement considers psychedelics to be an irrelevant – if not frivolous – fringe issue. That divide is not just unfortunate: it is a major impediment to solving individual problems in the continuum of drug policy issues because those all the individual problems are manifestations of one big mistake and cannot be resolved in isolation.

2 thoughts on “It’s one big mistake

  1. Excellent writing and thoughts, Noah. I would go a step further and intersect drug policy reform with the effort to universalize access to high quality healthcare and public health resources. Indeed, this also has to be linked to matters related to the ecological crises, which has huge impacts on public human and more than human health. To the extent our behaviors are having disastrous consequences on the planet. Drug policy is about the constriction of certain consciousness states, and the quality of our consciousness collectively feeds so many of our social ills related to inequity and environmental degradation. Movements need to link up together.

    Liked by 1 person

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