For those of us who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, anti-drug messaging was a constant. There were the PSAs with stars like Ally Sheedy, Kirk Cameron, and Pee-wee Herman delivering dramatic monologues slipped into our after-school specials (many of which had their own anti-drug messaging; one about angel dust, starring Helen Hunt, remains imprinted in my brain. Then there was the endless D.A.R.E. merchandise; the “this is your brain on drugs” fried egg commercial; and, of course, the earnest speeches by Nancy Reagan, a figurehead in the failure that was the racist war on drugs. The message was simple and always the same: just say no.
This week, with the passage of key drug-related measures in a diverse swath of states, it’s become clear that the majority of Americans are more than ready to just say yes. Arizona, Montana, and New Jersey all voted to legalize cannabis for recreational purposes; in Mississippi, the passing of initiative 65 will establish a medical cannabis program. South Dakota became the first state to simultaneously legalize recreational and medical cannabis; in DC, the use of entheogenic plants (aka shrooms) has been decriminalized. In Oregon, a pair of groundbreaking measures passed with broad support—110 will decriminalize all drugs (including heroin and cocaine, when in possession of small amounts) and 109 will legalize access to psilocybin for medicinal purposes. “These victories definitely send a message about what Americans in this country want,” says Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, about the seismic shift in public perception and a shift toward legalization that is widely bipartisan. “It signifies that this isn’t a red state issue or a blue state issue, it’s a common sense issue,” adds Hadas Alterman, a partner at Plant Medicine Law Group, a newly launched firm whose mission is to expand equitable access to plant medicine.
Evolving from criminalization to a more public health-focused approach certainly feels like a move rooted in common sense, particularly in the U.S. where drug possession is the most arrested offense. “For too long we’ve accepted jails and prisons as stand-ins for health services, despite years of data showing us that this approach just furthers the circumstances that lead someone to problematic drug use,” says Frederique. “Decriminalization approaches [like Oregon’s Measure 110] turn that on its head by removing the harm of the criminal justice system and providing connection to services that address the full range of people’s needs, whether that be evidence-informed treatment, harm reduction, housing, employment, or other health resources.” In Oregon, the connection between decriminalization and public health improvement is direct: As Vox explains, money saved from law enforcement and incarceration costs will go towards a new drug addiction treatment program overseen by the Oregon Health Authority.
These decriminalization measures also address another major roadblock for those seeking help: stigma. “The public health-based approach of decriminalization centers human dignity and connection,” says Natalie Lyla Ginsberg, policy and advocacy director at MAPS, an organization focused on developing medical, legal, and cultural contexts for the beneficial uses of psychedelics, including cannabis. “In contrast, decades of a global war on drugs built on a punishment-based paradigm of criminal justice have led to sharp rises in drug-related deaths, problematic substance abuse, drug contamination and adulteration, and the strength of drug cartels.”
When it comes to drug possession, it’s communities of color who have been overwhelmingly and disproportionately targeted by law enforcement, and who have experienced the most profound and enduring consequences of drug criminalization. Frederique explains that those consequences—from loss of employment and housing to denial of federal financial aid for college, nutritional assistance, or immigration status—may occur regardless of whether someone is convicted or incarcerated. “The drug war has always been used as a way to hold these communities down,” she says. “Drugs are the number one way these communities come in contact with the law. As we reckon with racism and policing, policies like Measure 110 are the way we begin to eliminate those initial points of contact and reduce systemic racism within the criminal justice system and more broadly.”
The many members of law enforcement that Alterman regularly talks to recognize that better drug policy laws will benefit them both professionally and personally. “Police and firefighters have some of the highest rates of PTSD and it’s a huge disservice to them that they’re not given access to cannabis as a means of healing,” she adds. Broader moves towards legalization of cannabis are coming at a time when more and more people are turning to it as a healing modality. “We know from studies that upwards of 60% of recreational consumers are in fact purchasing cannabis to ease legitimate health concerns like pain, anxiety and insomnia,” says co-founder of The Cannabis Advisory Group, Jackie Cornell. Continued research by institutions like Johns Hopkins, London’s Imperial College, and MAPS are revealing that psychedelic drugs like MDMA and psilocybin have profound medicinal potential. “PLOS ONE just put out a study showing that MDMA is a more cost-effective treatment for PTSD than anything else currently on the market, so it also makes financial sense to allow access to psychedelics,” says Alterman. Author and psychedelic activist Bett Williams sees the psychedelic drug movement just continuing to gain momentum. “The fact that psilocybin measures in both Oregon and DC passed in an election cycle marked by partisan vitriol proves that discussion around decriminalizing these entheogenic plants can bring the most unlikely people together,” she adds.
As Republicans appear to be clinging to a Senate majority, the coming together of unlikely people will be a necessity to impact the conversation around cannabis at the federal level where it remains classified as illegal. A September vote on the landmark Marijuana Opportunity and Reinvestment Act (MORE), which would permanently remove it from the Controlled Substances Act, was delayed, but the hope is that the success of these state-level ballot measures will reinforce the urgency. “Before the election, when the House vote on the bill was delayed, we were assured by leadership it would be rescheduled and passed right after the election,” explains Frederique. “Now it’s up to us to hold legislators accountable if the outcome of these votes don’t.”