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DoubleBlind: Decriminalize Denver activists watch a. major news network broadcast on their campaign.
DoubleBlind: Decriminalize Denver activists watch a. major news network broadcast on their campaign.
Activists from the Decriminalize Denver initiative watch a major news network broadcast on their campaign on Feb. 16, 2019. Photo by Eric Mitchel for Decriminalize Denver.

Inside the ‘Psychedelic Exceptionalism’ Debate: Should All Drugs be Legal, or Just Pot and Psychedelics?

Social justice advocates critique the psychedelic community for leaving behind those most impacted by the War on Drugs.

Madison Margolin // October 28, 2020

This story was originally printed in DoubleBlind Issue 3 (June 2020).

On a clear Thursday night in February, a group of 20 or 30 people—across a wide spectrum of age, race, and gender—gathered inside The Haven, a “conscious- oriented” community space that looks like a church on the corner of Telegraph Avenue near downtown Oakland. Tonight, 2/20/20, was the #thankyouplantmedicine storytelling event: All over the world and online, psychedelic enthusiasts came out of the closet, gathering in grassroots meetings and on social media to share their stories of how entheogens have changed their lives.

Indeed, any plant, drug, substance, or medicine can be life changing—depending on how you use it. From heroin to LSD, people have enjoyed pain relief and transcendence, suffered from dependency and “bad trips.” The difference between a medicine and a poison is simply the dose of the substance, UC Berkeley neurobiologist and professor David Presti used to tell us students taking “Drugs and the Brain.” He credits Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus with this adage, writing in his book Foundational Concepts in Neuroscience: A Brain-Mind Odyssey that even substances essential to human life, like water and oxygen, can be poisonous if taken in “sufficiently large amounts.” Of course, set and setting (i.e. your state of mind and location when doing a substance) make a difference, too, whether you’re talking about meth, mescaline, or anything in-between.

So the question becomes: Should psychedelics be treated so differently from other drugs, given that any substance may have the power to soothe or scorch the human psyche, and body, too? That’s the crux of the psychedelic exceptionalism debate—which becomes more relevant by the moment as advances in psychedelic medicine and policy hurtle into the public eye.

Here in Oakland—the birthplace of the Decriminalize Nature movement, where activists successfully passed a resolution preventing prosecution for the possession or use of naturally occurring entheogens—for hours upon hours, one after another, people shared their stories of transformation at the Thank You Plant Medicine event. For many, plant medicines were seen as a savior, a healing hero to repair the wounds of abusive upbringings, drug dependencies, and struggles with their identity—or in other cases, they were seen as epic comrades in the voyage of self- discovery and self-actualization, inspiring folks to get doctorates, form their own psychedelic societies, bond with family members, and simply have fun.

Should psychedelics be treated so differently from other drugs, given that any substance may have the power to soothe or scorch the human psyche, and body, too?

While it’s becoming more socially acceptable, if not encouraged, to come out of the psychedelic closet, some criminal justice reform advocates are asking: How long will it be before we see something like a heroin-coming-out campaign, à la #thankyouplantmedicine or #psychedelicsbecause, or a movement geared toward destigmatizing all narcotics, rather than just a few?

“The Drug War has helped inform our ideas of which drugs are good or bad much more than science has,” says Natalie Ginsberg, policy and advocacy director at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). “While I’m excited that with our psychedelic research, people are starting to understand just how terribly off-base we were about psychedelics, it’s imperative that we give the same lookover to all drugs we also misunderstood.” She points out that drugs like heroin, commonly thought to be dangerous, can in fact be used safely by responsible folks their entire lives. Such is the reality of say, casual opiate users, who may lead functional, fulfilling lives, though remain closeted due to the stigma.

For psychedelic enthusiasts, however, it’s becoming easier to go public, especially if you’re white or enjoy a certain degree of class privilege: The buzz around microdosing, FDA-approved research, and the movement to decriminalize psilocybin or all entheogenic plants in places like Denver or Oakland has helped reduce the stigma and validate the experiences of those who have benefited from these substances.

But, “if psychedelics are about healing,” says Ginsberg, “then it’s absolutely essential that in the process of liberating psychedelics, we are not causing more trauma and pain by marginalizing other people and other drugs.”

That’s the risk of psychedelic exceptionalism, the idea that less physically harmful or addictive substances are inherently better or more desirable than others. It’s one thing to destigmatize psychedelics, amidst working toward legal reform; it’s another to do so at the expense of further stigmatizing other drugs and communities who use them.

That’s not to say that celebrating psychedelics, such as during that evening in Oakland, automatically demonizes other drugs. But the question more so is whether we can break down the dialectic between psychedelics (in this case, including cannabis) and everything else.

More than 100 jurisdictions around the country are now working to decriminalize magic mushrooms and psychedelic plants, while the FDA has fast-tracked psilocybin and MDMA to become prescription medications taken in the context of psychotherapy. Yet, the sole focus on psychedelics has some activists worried about psychedelic exceptionalism—so much so that some are instead advocating for the decriminalization of all drugs, like what was done in Portugal in 2001.

The question has begun to gnaw at the drug policy and harm reduction communities: Is the focus on psychedelics a benefit, paving the way for other drug policy reform and de-stigmatization down the line (like cannabis has done for psychedelics), or does it reinforce the divide between “good” drugs and “bad” drugs?

“If psychedelics are about healing, then it’s absolutely essential that in the process of liberating psychedelics, we are not causing more trauma and pain by marginalizing other people and other drugs.”

“The premise that this drug is better than that drug reinforces the dangerous architecture of the War on Drugs,” says Ginsberg. But when the conversation about harm reduction (a technique aimed at reducing the negative consequences of drug use) includes everything from heroin to LSD, everyone benefits.

Take the concept of supervised injection facilities, where people can safely use opioids with sterile equipment and there’s staff on- hand in case of emergency. “Safe consumption sites are key to bringing dignity and safety to stigmatized drug users, and could also offer models for psychedelic community centers,” says Ginsberg. “There’s a lot of missed opportunity because of the stigma and separation right now.”

What’s needed, she argues, is for the psychedelic community to stand in solidarity with other communities of drug users—though it’s a delicate relationship to navigate.

DoubleBlind: Decriminalize Denver activists watch a. major news network broadcast on their campaign.
Activists from the Decriminalize Denver initiative watch a major news network broadcast on their campaign on Feb. 16, 2019. Photo by Eric Mitchel for Decriminalize Denver.

In Oregon, for example, voters will be deciding on two measures this election: The 2020 Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act (DATRA) to decriminalize all drugs, and the Psilocybin Service Initiative (PSI 2020) to legalize psilocybin for medical use. Whereas once PSI 2020 was a full-scale psilocybin decriminalization initiative, chief petitioners Tom and Sheri Eckert say its broad decrim component was removed, in part, so as to “complement” DATRA. Some see this as calling attention to an underlying tension between the all-drug decrim movement and the psychedelic decrim movement. Others in the psychedelic community have criticized PSI 2020 for prioritizing a medical model—with the intention of profiting—over a decriminalization model—which gives people more freedom to decide how they want to use drugs without fear of criminalization. Moreover, DATRA only decriminalizes psilocybin possession for up to 12 grams, raising concerns about possession limits for medicine cultivators, all while the perceived threats of corporate consolidation in the psychedelic space continue to linger in the discourse.

Psychedelic policy reform activist Noah Potter—author of The Psychedelic Law Blog and an attorney with cannabis firm Hoban Law Group—argues, however, that psychedelics are unique in contrast to other categories of drugs.

“Advocacy around psychedelics focuses to a large extent on their use as breakthrough treatments that are qualitatively different from other mental health and wellness substances,” he says. And not to mention, he adds, psychedelics (unlike many other substances) also have a sacramental aspect, established by generations of ceremonial use and subject to legal protections. “There’s no reason why psychedelic reform advocates can’t cross- endorse other organizers,” says Potter, but he disagrees that psychedelic activists should compromise their cause for the sake of full-scale decriminalization.

If done tactfully, says Kevin Matthews—who led Denver’s psilocybin decriminalization campaign and co-founded the advocacy and educational nonprofit SPORE (Society for Psychedelic Outreach, Reform, and Education)—focusing on psychedelic decriminalization doesn’t necessarily stigmatize other substances. “We believe that decriminalizing psychedelics and educating about their use can open the door to decriminalizing other substances,” he says. “Our work to educate and spread awareness about the benefits of psychedelics, that’s our lane and we believe that what we’re doing is complementary to the efforts of other groups working on broad drug policy reform.”

“We believe that decriminalizing psychedelics and educating about their use can open the door to decriminalizing other substances.”

What’s important, Matthews continues, is that the psychedelic movement learns from (the failures of) the cannabis industry in terms of creating equitable access to the medicine for all people—especially marginalized communities.

Groups like the Washington D.C. branch of Decriminalize Nature have adopted a hybrid approach: Once they pass a measure to decriminalize all naturally occurring psychedelics, the group has already expressed plans to work on a full drug decriminalization bill. “I think that’s an example of using the excitement about psychedelics to educate people about the broader context,” says Ginsberg.

And that broader context is not just about criminal justice, but more so about class, race, and public health. The evidence shows that most people who try highly stigmatized drugs like cocaine or heroin do not become addicted, says drug policy activist Jag Davies, communications director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

DoubleBlind: Scott Durah, former candidate for Denver's City Council, attends a Decriminalize Denver campaign meeting on March 28, 2019
Scott Durah, former candidate for Denver’s City Council, attends a Decriminalize Denver campaign meeting on March 28, 2019. Photo by Eric Mitchel for Decriminalize Denver.

Instead, “it’s mainly about poverty,” he says. “Most of the social problems people attribute to drugs are really just a way of talking about poverty.” The better your socioeconomic circumstances, the less stigmatized your drug use, whereas the more precarious your circumstances, the more you’re likely to have problems: Fears around prohibition and breaking the law could influence your set and setting going into a trip, or dissuade you from calling 911 when at risk of an overdose.

Indeed, President Nixon’s former domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman even admitted that the Drug War was founded to criminalize Black people and hippies, who could be targeted as perceived drug users. “Whether or not drugs are illegal is based on race and class,” says Davies.

Read: How the Psychedelic Industry Can Learn From the Cannabis Industry’s Mistakes

While the opioid epidemic burdens a mostly white population, the ills of the crisis by-and- large target working class folk. Some therefore believe that the silent majority of functional, non-addicted, well-to-do opioid and cocaine users need to start coming out of the closet. “I think the chances are good if we continue the pressure and put the respectable white guys up front, and let people know that ‘shit, your psilocybin or LSD use is just like my crack use,’” says Columbia University psychology professor and neuroscientist Dr. Carl Hart, who himself has come out of the closet about his drug use, from psychedelics to heroin. “What people need to understand and acknowledge is that other people who use drugs are doing those drugs for the same exact reasons they’re doing psychedelics.”

“Most of the social problems people attribute to drugs are really just a way of talking about poverty.”

At Horizons, a psychedelic conference in New York last year, Hart gave the example of PCP and its trendy derivative, ketamine. PCP is also a psychedelic, but with different class associations. While ketamine has been recently paraded for its therapeutic value, sterilized in its potential as a clinical tool in mental health treatment, and the latest object of desire among pharmaceutical companies looking to cash in on the new psychedelic “green rush,” PCP has been left out of the conversation, if not altogether vilified. Take the cases of Laquan McDonald, Rodney King, and Terence Crutcher—all Black men who were killed or beaten by police, who claimed they were under the influence of PCP, which itself has been shown to have spiritual applications.

In truth, it’s not about the drug, but the socio- economic ramifications and associations linked to that drug. And that’s what needs to change, so we may even out the conversation, eradicate the stigma, and end the Drug War. “It’s really simple: We’re all seeking to alter our consciousness,” says Hart. It doesn’t matter which class of drug we choose to do so with. “What matters is that I know I like to alter my consciousness, so I have to make sure that I fight for everyone’s right to do the same, no matter what they use. I must see their humanity the same as I see my own.”

Madison Margolin is DoubleBlind’s co-founder and managing editor.

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