Celebrate the Drug Policy Wins, But Don’t Accept Drug Exceptionalism

    Election day brought an unprecedented wave of victories for drug policy reform ballot measures in the United States. Oregon passed Measure 110, decriminalizing all drugs. The state also passed Measure 109, effectively legalizing psilocybin therapy, while Washington, DC passed Initiative 81, decriminalizing entheogenic plants, or plant-based psychedelics, by making them the “lowest law enforcement priority.” Five states additionally legalized cannabis or medical cannabis or both.

    Notablywith the key exception of Oregon’s first-in-the-nation all-drug decriminalizationthese measures all focused on specific substances or drug categories. That’s also true of the many previous state legalizations of medical or adult-use cannabis, as well as the city-level psychedelic decriminalization recently achieved by Denver, Oakland, Santa Cruz and Ann Arbor.

    Which raises the question, why choose one over the other?

    Filter has previously reported on how psychedelic exceptionalism risks harming people who use drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin, by perpetuating narratives about “good” and “bad” drugs and the people who use them. It could, for example, push against the introduction of innovative measures like heroin-assisted treatment, stimulant safe supply or safe consumption sites.

    Recently passed measures reflect a further arbitrary line drawn between “naturally occurring” psychedelics and synthetic ones.

    And it supports the idea that the legal status of drugs should be based on their associated harms—rather than centering the role of prohibition and systemic injustice in creating many of those harms.

    Recently passed measures reflect a further arbitrary line drawn between “naturally occurring” psychedelics and synthetic ones, with drugs like LSD and MDMA excluded from these reforms. Their omission implicitly stigmatizes people who use synthetic drugs by granting an exception to people who use plant-based drugs.

    It is a widespread misconception that plant-based substances are inherently safer or more effective than synthetics. Many plants have the potential to be harmful or deadly, and many synthetic drugs have beneficial properties.

    None of this is an attempt to downplay the significance and value of recent victories. The plant-based decriminalization movement makes important points about cognitive liberty, ethical sourcing and the benefits of psychedelics. Equally important in practical terms, it has demonstrated its ability to win.

    The movement’s outstanding grassroots efforts and focus on self-autonomy have many benefits, and people who have never cared about drug policy are beginning to be involved as a direct result.

    Yet while praising these achievements, we must not lose sight of the many people they leave out.

    As a strong proponent of drug education, I do not agree with the notion, emphasized by some advocates, that plant-based psychedelics or entheogens are not drugs. This idea runs parallel with the drug-war propaganda I heard growing up; with the insistence that prescription drugs are medicine, not drugs; with the common descriptor “drugs and alcohol;” or with the refusal of some people in the nicotine or methadone communities, for example, to term those substances drugs.

    By drawing these false distinctions, advocates for specific substances are seeking to further their cause by avoiding the damaging stigma associated with other drug use. But in doing so, they unfortunately increase the harms of the drug war, by distinguishing themselves from the drug users who are most subjected to criminalization, coerced treatments and many other abuses.

    You can find activists on both sides of this debate, but many recognize the nuance that psychedelic (or natural psychedelic) decriminalization is necessary but nowhere near sufficient.

    “Psychedelic exceptionalism has been a growing issue with the psychedelic-focused movements.”

    Oriana Mayorga, vice chair of the board of directors at Students for Sensible Drug Policy, recently spoke on a panel about decolonizing psychedelics. She sees the value in grassroots movements of all kinds, but highlighted the importance of working in a way that doesn’t harm marginalized communities.

    “Psychedelic exceptionalism has been a growing issue with the psychedelic-focused movements,” said Mayorga. She continues to advocate that many decriminalization movements fail to include communities of color, or to approach their work through a racial and economic justice lens.

    Myc, who preferred to be identified by his first name, is the director of communication at Decriminalize Nature Ann Arbor and a board member at the Michigan Psychedelic Society. He noted that Decriminalize Nature’s grassroots model is powerfuland importantly, ensures people’s right to grow these substances without having to go through a medical system that can be discriminatory and inaccessible.

    He strongly agrees with an all-drug decriminalization model, however. Yet he believes in taking the wins you can get, when you can get them. “Any amount of drug policy reform is a movement towards ending the War on Drugs, as long as conversations are being held about what’s lacking or next,” he told Filter.

    In Michigan where he works, “there are places where you could be more successful at the city level. Detroit, Kalamazoo, these are more viable options for an all-drug decrim, and that discussion is happening. [But in places such as] Big Rapids, Grand Rapids, widespread decrim is not viable right now but we may see plant decrim happening soon.”

    Rory O’Brien, a digital communications intern for Students for Sensible Drug Policy who has worked with Decriminalize Minneapolis, pointed out that there is a focus on “decriminalizing nature” despite the relative rarity of persecution for these substances. Nor does reducing arrests in itself remove racial injustice. “When Minneapolis decriminalized cannabis, arrests still occurred, but 46 out of 47 of those arrests were for Black men,” she told Filter. O’Brien added that a narrow focus on plant medicines perpetuates psychedelic exceptalism and fails to address the continued law enforcement targeting of communities of color.

    Taking wins where you can get them is a logical and legitimate way to continue making progress. But our movements must equally acknowledge the shortcomings of recent reforms, and center what it will take to have a broader impact. We need a unified front to continue to create sensible, rational drug policies that prioritize the most marginalized and impacted communities of people who use drugs.


    Photo by Tracy Lundgren from Pixabay

    • Kevin is a tobacco harm reduction fellow for Filter. He began working in harm reduction as a health educator, providing street-based syringe access services for people who inject drugs. He was later a bilingual medical case manager, providing case management for people living with HIV/AIDS. He has also been a chapter leader and member of the board of directors at Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

      Kevin’s fellowship is supported by an independently administered tobacco harm reduction scholarship from Knowledge-Action-Change—an organization that has separately provided restricted grants and donations to support Filter.

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