The pace of marijuana reform continues to accelerate, with more states approving medical programs and adult-use initiatives with every election cycle. Even at the federal level, momentum towards progressive drug policy has increased, and the War on Drugs is more unpopular than ever. What does this evolution mean for other criminalized substances? Could cannabis pave the way for the end of drug prohibition, or will the new administration stymy efforts to broaden the scope of legalization?
The cannabis movement sparked the hope that we can take a more sensible and compassionate approach to regulating substances, rather than relying on an entrenched “drug war” mentality that stigmatizes drug users. We’re now engaging in conversations surrounding drug policy in our communities and in the halls of Congress previously unimaginable to cannabis advocates; questioning the efficacy of our current drug laws, calling out the institutional racism that drove the drug war, and pushing public support away from a system of mass incarceration and toward one that prioritizes public health.
Marijuana reform has also provided drug decriminalization advocates with a blueprint for action. The earliest cannabis activists were successful because they reframed the dialogue, focusing on the medicinal, rather than recreational, aspects of the plant. At that time, many were unconvinced of cannabis’ healing powers; now, the numerous potential medical benefits are more readily accepted. The progress we’ve seen in the past 20 years began with a commitment to bringing safe medicine to people who needed it most, and, unsurprisingly, that passion translated into the path towards legalization.
“There are very few people being arrested and imprisoned for psychedelics…”
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) takes a similar approach in its work with psychedelics such as ayahuasca, LSD and psilocybin. MAPS, a research and educational organization dedicated to ensuring the right to benefit from careful use of psychedelics and marijuana, conducts research and advocacy, including clinical trials on MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for anxiety-related to life-threatening illnesses, and ibogaine-assisted treatment for drug addiction. According to Natalie Ginsberg, Policy and Advocacy Manager at MAPS, “We’re pursuing a medical route to legalize psychedelic substances. We believe medical research can lead to greater consciousness and understanding around these substances.”
Though Ginsberg acknowledges that cannabis reform “has allowed us to wake up to the reality that our drug laws aren’t based in science,” she doesn’t believe that cannabis offers a direct path to legalizing all drugs: “It’s been a very long process, and we still have far to go with cannabis. This is such a safe substance, and its use is incredibly widespread. It’s a bit different when we start talking about ‘hard drugs.’”
Furthermore, legalizing psychedelics may be the next logical step, but many advocates agree they’re not the highest drug priority. “There are very few people being arrested and imprisoned for psychedelics,” Ginsberg says. “When it comes to changing policy, we want to change the policies that do the most harm first.” People who seek out the most dangerous substances, such as heroin and crack cocaine, are frequently those who have already been marginalized. Criminalizing these substances and throwing individuals into the criminal justice system only perpetuates a cycle of negative impacts. “People using these substances need help, not to be sent to prison and traumatized even more,” Ginsberg asserts.
This is where marijuana reform can hamper progress on other decriminalization fronts: by attempting to prove the merits and safety of cannabis use, we create a dichotomy wherein cannabis becomes labelled as a “good” drug, while others are “bad.” The cannabis industry has worked hard to cast off outdated stereotypes surrounding marijuana consumption, yet these efforts can have the unintended consequence of further stigmatizing other drug communities.
An even greater obstacle has arisen for legalization, in the form of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions has hinted at reigniting and expanding the drug war, perhaps with the intention to return to the severe policies popular at its peak, including harsher prosecution for drug offenses and enforcement of mandatory minimum sentencing.
While cannabis regulation has brought drug policy reform to the forefront and illuminated a path towards change, it hasn’t necessarily set the stage for wider drug legalization. But advocates will continue to nudge the door open, even as Sessions’ DOJ may try to slam it shut.