Psychedelic Exceptionalism

By Emma Gorsuch

Denver’s decriminalization of psilocybin, associated with hallucinogenic mushrooms, reflects a broader trend of psychedelic exceptionalism that is undermining larger efforts of harm-reduction. The stigma surrounding “hard” drugs is placed in contrast with policies that legalize “acceptable” drug use. This distinction has placed substances such as cannabis and certain psychedelics in an elite position: users mitigate the addiction and risk of “acceptable” drugs by contrasting them with socially stigmatized substances. This comparison plays up the risk of “hard” drugs and furthers “junkie” stereotypes in order to legitimize use of psychedelics and cannabis. While there are some legitimate chemical differences between types of drugs, psychedelic exceptionalism overemphasizes this distinction at the expense of marginalized groups. 

The War on Drugs has been widely criticized for a bias system of classification that labels certain drugs and methods of use as worse than others based on political, rather than scientific, factors. Though African Americans only make up 15% of drug-users in the U.S., 37% are arrested for drug violations, according to a 2006 publication from the American Civil Liberties Union. The Sentencing Project, in 2005, cited a 1998 study concluding that, among similarly situated white and black Americans, black Americans are 3.6 times more likely to be sentenced as “habitual offenders.” Arrests, conviction rates, long sentences, and mandatory minimum sentences are all disproportionately high among African Americans. The racialized effects of drug policy occur in part due to a warped classification system. 

Many people are familiar with the artificial distinction created between crack and powder cocaine users. Despite scientific data showing similar risks between both methods of use, a 2006 ACLU report found that sentencing occurred at a 1:100 ratio, with possession of five grams of crack carrying the same sentence as possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine. Due to the lower prices associated with crack cocaine, marginalized socioeconomic groups were disproportionately affected. Eighty percent of defendants sentenced were African American, despite making up only 34% of users. Despite drug policy changes in 2010, the ratio between powder and crack cocaine is still 18:1. The language surrounding the “cocaine epidemic” further reflects racial bias. Opioid abuse occurs primarily among the white middle-class and is addressed as a “crisis” whose victims need to be treated with empathy, while the cocaine “epidemic” placed blame on the users who needed to be punished in order to change their behavior. 

The implementation of cannabis legalization has also been racially divisive. Where cannabis remains illegal, the ACLU found that, as of 2010, black people are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested than whites despite roughly equal usage rates. According to a 2018 article from The Intercept, in Colorado, where cannabis has been legalized, arrests of African Americans and Latinos have increased by 50%, while arrests of whites have decreased, showing the continued racialized effects of drug policy. This divide is due in part to regulations regarding public use: for those in a lower socioeconomic class who live in public housing where smoking is illegal, little has changed. The first year following legalization in Washington D.C., a 2017 Washington Post article reports, arrests for smoking cannabis in public jumped from 142 to 400. Classification systems have historically acted to disproportionately affect marginalized groups with little to no scientific backing. Labeling psychedelics as separate from other categories of drugs legitimizes the concept that there are “good” and “bad” drugs that typically fall along racial and socioeconomic lines. 

Psychedelic users are overwhelmingly white and tend to be college-educated members of the middle-class, according to the National Institute of Health. Psychedelic research trials are almost exclusively conducted on and by white people; the lack of racial diversity in these trials can be chalked up to mistrust in the judicial and medical systems where minorities have been systematically discriminated against. States considering a bifurcated legalization process that begins with legalization for medical use risk furthering a socioeconomic divide between those who can afford to pay for psychedelic therapy and those who can’t. As a result, decriminalization does not help those who have been systematically disadvantaged by the War on Drugs, but rather benefits those who are already in a position of privilege.

Unlike other drugs, many psychedelics are treated as positive in nature, often associated with spirituality, mental health benefits, and creative insight. While the low risk of psychedelics are often highlighted (shrooms are treated as superior to synthetic drugs because they are ‘natural,’ and those in favor of psychedelic decriminalization emphasize that these substances are generally non-addictive), potential harms are often glossed over. Psychedelics can prompt risky behavior towards oneself or others and may trigger mental health issues in people with genetic predispositions. However, since the user profile for psychedelics does not match the stereotypical “junkie,” but rather consists of individuals in positions of privilege, psychedelics receive a favorable perception that is not extended to other drugs. 

By contrast, so-called “hard” drugs are often associated with people of color and in a low socioeconomic bracket, even though this is often not the case. Theodore J. Cicero, a professor of psychiatry at Washington University, explains that many associate heroin use with lower income, inner-city, black Americans. In reality, most heroin users are wealthy, white, and suburban. Additionally, a comparison between the 2016 Homeless Needs Assessment and a 2014 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey found addiction rates to be relatively similar between homeless and housed people. However, the nature of homelessness makes drug use more visible, compared to those who use in the privacy of their own home. Traditionally “successful” users are not as visible, thereby distorting the public image associated with “hard” drugs. Stigma surrounding certain types of drug use coincide with the perception, even if it is inaccurate, that the user of a certain drug is low-income or an ethnic minority. This isolation of “bad” drug users is emphasized by terms like “crackhead”, “pill head”, “tweeker”, or “junkie,” all of which dehumanize people, reducing them to their drug use. 

While some substances do carry higher risks than others, the harms associated with “hard” drugs are often overemphasized by comparison to “soft” drugs. Perceptions surrounding chemically similar drugs are often arbitrarily distinguished based on stereotypes rather than scientific differences. Methamphetamine and MDMA are structurally similar; likewise, ketamine is a derivative of PCP, yet in both examples, one drug has been vilified while another is more broadly accepted.  Perceived distinctions in risk can come from stereotypes regarding who uses a certain category of drug, as mentioned above, as well as drug-related, rather than drug-specific, consequences. Harmful governmental policies and social isolation, which is caused by criminalization and stigma surrounding drug use, may create an illusion regarding the effects of specific drug types. Likewise, underlying issues that can prompt drug use, such as mental health issues, trauma, and abuse, are often conflated with the effects of drug use. Although there are also real differences between drug types, they can be overstated. Dr. Carl Hart, a professor at Columbia University, explains that “these differences do not make drugs inherently more ‘dangerous’ — responsible and informed use can be practiced with all of them. Certain drugs, of course, are more likely than others to be dangerous if we do not exercise the right level of responsibility, respect for their power, and thoughtfulness.”

Oregon is attempting to address these concerns by extending decriminalization beyond “acceptable” forms of drugs. The Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act is currently in the process of gathering signatures in order to make the 2020 ballot. The initiative would remove criminal penalties for the possession of small quantities for personal consumption of all Schedule I, II, III, and IV drugs. Instead of facing criminal penalties, individuals would be faced with either a $100 fine or a health assessment from an addiction recovery center. On top of these measures, the act would channel tax revenue from cannabis sales to fund treatment centers. As more cities, counties, and states attempt to revise their local drug policies, it is the responsibility of voters to ensure that the groups which have been most harmed by the War on Drugs are not resigned to the wayside as middle-class, white users gain access to psychedelics while further perpetuating and benefiting from drug stereotypes. We ought to take Oregon’s model as a first step forward and focus on replacing a criminal-based approach to drug addiction with a health-based one that encompasses all individuals affected. 

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One thought on “Psychedelic Exceptionalism

  1. Portugal has made astounding strides in its effort to reduce the harm caused by addictive drug use and has set the bar for the rest of it European neighbors who seem to be quickly following suite. I’m glad to see some of the same types of scientific approaches being adopted in the USA. Thanks for your thoughts on this matter.

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