It was refreshing to be around so many people with the shared goal of bringing the war on drugs to an end and yet so many diverse motivations and paths towards that goal. Many people I met had been more deeply impacted by the drug war than I could have imagined, and several of the plenary speakers were former prisoners of nonviolent drug crimes, true victims of drug war policies. The first day opened with a resounding reminder that while the war on drugs has universal impacts on our society, it is overwhelmingly a war on people of colour, based not on who uses what substance but who is perceived to use those substances. While there were certainly victories being celebrated—the Obama administration is in the process of pardoning thousands of prisoners—there are still many who suffer in a very direct way simply by virtue of their interest in, or perceived need to use drugs.
With an interest in mental health and research, I am not often exposed to the full spectrum of ways in which people’s lives are destroyed by our current drug policy. Hearing the accounts of Kemba Smith, Jose Hernandez and others make it difficult to ignore the dehumanizing nature of existing drug policies and affirmed my belief that drug policy reform is one of the most important unresolved issues in our society. Kemba was chained to a bed after giving birth in prison for a ‘crime’ that effectively amounts to having dated an emotionally abusive drug dealer. I would argue that this is in violation of at least several human rights stipulations. Unfortunately, there are many and more such violations occurring regularly.
While discussion on drug policy tends to take the form of reducing the harms of taking drugs, I found myself interested in where we can go with decriminalization following the continuing success of the cannabis reform movement. In addition to what harms we remove from people’s lives, I wanted to know what improvements we can bring with drug policy based on scientific evidence and respect for the rights and freedoms of the individual. In fewer words – what does the endgame of drug policy look like and how do we get there? I knew that a session in the first round of talks, titled “What are the Goals of Drug Policy Reform and How Do We Connect the Dots?” would be an ideal way to set the tone for the weekend. This talk covered the Drug Policy Alliance’s four ultimate goals.
- Legalize Cannabis
- End Mass Incarceration
- Decriminalization of All Drugs
- Create Legal Access for Determined Consumers
At first hearing that legal access of all drugs to consumers was a goal, I’ll admit I was surprised. Not because it seemed an undesirable aim, but rather by the fact that such a progressive motive was behind policy approaches. But the argument provided is as simple as it is persuasive. Legal access is itself a form of harm reduction. It makes little sense to decriminalize use and leave individuals to the hands of unregulated markets for their supply. To do so would be to increase harm by virtue of the law alone. Ideally, we should not only minimize the risk for infection and disease associated with injection drug use – we should also protect the integrity of the individual’s body, brain, and overall health.
This is simply not possible if we don’t respect the fact that people will always use drugs regardless of what is done to prevent that. This set of ideas was taken further in a session I attended on Friday about the Darknet and the Silk Road. The panel included Kirk Ulbricht, father of the Silk Road’s founder, Ross Ulbricht. Silk Road was a darknet market, an eBay-style black market for selling goods online in exchange for cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin—in due time it became a place where one could find and purchase drugs, weapons, and other illicit goods. It was started in 2011 and brought the darknet into the public eye in 2013 when its founder, Ross Ulbricht, was convicted of operating Silk Road. Unsurprisingly, this only resulted in a number of other sites popping up to fill the void in the market. Ulbricht’s case is infamous, as his prison sentence of two life terms hinged on the use of unproven allegations that murder for hire had been transacted on Silk Road.
Ulbricht’s case has also brought up an interesting debate: Is he a criminal, or are services like Silk Road actually reducing the harms of drug use? Standard arguments revolve around reducing instances of what one panel member referred to as “the Scarface moment’. This is the time where the buyer and seller of drugs meet in person. The internet ultimately proves to be safer for purchasing drugs because, as one panelist said, you can’t really get stabbed on the internet. Substance analysis research has shown that drugs purchased through such online markets also tend to be purer. Feedback and rating systems create accountability that prevent dealers from continuously selling bad product. People will simply stop buying from sources reported for adulterating or giving false information about the drugs they are selling. This sort of accountability is not always possible in street level transactions. In keeping with the goals of the Drug Policy Alliance, it is always safer to have choice over what you put into your body.
Another discussion that left an impression on me was on the topic of novel psychoactive substances. With a research interest in psychedelics, I felt I couldn’t miss this. Many of these novel substances (NBOMES, DOI) are sold in place of LSD. Not only do these substances result in quite uncomfortable experiences, they are many times more dangerous than LSD (which is in fact one of the most pharmacologically safe drugs). 25I-NBOMe, for example, can cause extreme constriction of the veins and multiple organ failures resulting in death. Some LSD experimenters may be looking to meet a god of sorts, but certainly not that literally. The question to be asked then is this:
Do current drug policy approaches and methods make drugs themselves more dangerous?
Many seem to agree that this is the case. Substances that are banned can be replaced as quickly as within a week, and these novel substances are generally not being tested for safety. This makes the need to appropriately regulate existing compounds all the more pressing. By making substances that we know to be at least fairly safe (i.e., cannabis, LSD) illegal, we are effectively exposing people to harm that would not otherwise exist by driving them to seek legal but less safe alternatives.