Should drugs be legal? Should people who use drugs face criminal penalties? Should substances like heroin and cocaine be available through regulated channels? Should people have the right to put whatever they want into their bodies as long as they do not impact the rights of others? The deeper you dive into the drug legalization question, the more complicated it becomes. While it is evident that a drug’s legal status is not necessarily related to the harm to users and others (I’m looking at you alcohol!), age old ideas about drugs, who uses them and their perceived harm have clouded the discussion of exactly what we should do with or to people who choose to use intoxicating substances. Cannabis and psychedelic exceptionalism is the belief that your drugs of choice should be legal and safely accessible and that consumers should not be subject to criminal penalties WHILE believing that consumers of other illegal substances should. It’s a strategy amplified by “soft” vs. “hard” drug messaging. But the thing is, by pitting drug users against each other, it’s easier for those in power to continue the war on all of us. So, let’s talk about two main beliefs that drug warriors use to keep exceptionalism alive and well.
That some drugs are so addictive, one time is enough to get you hooked
Believe it or not, this trope was used around cannabis as well. Early drug propaganda films often showed characters smoking a joint for the first time, and then getting injected with heroin the next day. And while the use of cannabis is prolific enough that this idea has been largely debunked, the relatively small number of people who use other drugs along with the silence and secrecy about use forced by the illegal status of these substances makes us all vulnerable to the “one time and your hooked” messaging. This belief is used to support the continued criminalization of drugs like heroin and meth because the average person believes they are just too dangerous to be released from the grip of the criminal justice system. But, just as we know that the use-to-dependence pipeline is not a sure thing with drugs like caffeine, alcohol and cannabis, it is also not the case with what we consider “harder drugs”. Dr. Carl Hart dives deeper into this in his book “Drug Use for Grownups: Chasing liberty in a land of fear”, as does Jacob Sullum in “Saying Yes: In defense of drug use”. I highly recommend both.
That the chemical makeup of some drugs makes all who use them dangerous to themselves and others
In the 1980’s the argument was made that crack use needed to be punished way more severely than cocaine because crack made users (usually described as people of color) impervious to the bullets used by police. You may remember this same argument made about cannabis in the early 1900’s when testimony at the Marihuana Tax Act hearings described scenarios where a man, all hopped up on marijuana, killed his family and terrorized communities with unhinged violence. Of course, none of it was accurate (the man in question had been diagnosed with a mental illness) and was being used as a scare tactic to gain support for drug criminalization. And while the effects of some drugs can hamper decision making (looking at you again alcohol!), most consumers do not commit crimes or become violent after use, and those who do, usually had those tendencies outside of their use. Bottom line, all psychoactive substances have the potential to impact a person’s behavior, but they rarely change who a person is inside at their core. And while those experiencing severe drug dependence may engage in acts unlike themselves in order to obtain their substance of choice (a direct result of a criminal vs. safe supply approach), all use is not abuse, and, for many, drug use, even the “harder” drugs, is occasional and non-problematic.
How does this feed exceptionalism?
As a result of the government’s concerted efforts to demonize the consumers of certain drugs to fit the social narrative and policy strategy of the time, blatantly untrue statements about people who use drugs have been a constant. Today, this presents as pushback towards public health and compassionate driven policies for people who use drugs that aren’t cannabis or psychedelics. The “soft drug” vs. “hard drug” mentality has resulted in people who say they believe that it is a human right to use cannabis and mushrooms, also saying that people who use heroin or cocaine should not have that right. When we consider theories of moral philosophy, Deontology and Consequentialism beautifully summarize this issue. Deontology supports that certain acts are immoral on their face, regardless of the consequences. Consequentialism says that the morality of an act must account for the impact that the behavior has on self and others. Non-prescription drug laws (outside of alcohol, nicotine and caffeine) have been largely Deontological. Simply being in possession of an illegal drug is enough to warrant punishment. Alcohol laws are consequentialist. Drinking is not a crime. Drinking and then driving your car and putting others at risk is a crime. Cannabis and now psychedelics are moving from Deontology to Consequentialism. Other drugs are still stuck in Deontology. So, I go back to the assertion that humans have the right to put what they want in their bodies as long as they aren’t infringing on the rights of others. If you believe this, then you should support Consequentialist based policies for ALL drugs, regardless of how they have been described and packaged to you by the government. If no one deserves to go to jail for consuming cannabis or psychedelics, then NO ONE DESERVES TO GO TO JAIL FOR ANY DRUG USE. You may not agree with a legal market for all drugs, but you should at least support the decriminalization of use and possession for all drugs.