The decriminalization of cannabis has long been at the forefront of drug policy reform. Cannabis advocacy has existed for decades, and as a result, thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have passed laws broadly legalizing cannabis in some form, and an end to federal prohibition is no longer a pipe dream. Despite the persistence of federal drug war policies, advocates and legislators have implemented state programs that work in defiance of the Controlled Substances Act. Yet many cannabis activists shy away or dissent completely when conversations shift to decriminalizing the use of other drugs such as current national conversations about Overdose Prevention Sites (OPS), also known as safer consumption spaces where people can use pre-obtained drugs in sterile spaces with immediate access to life saving interventions.
Sometimes the reason for dissonance is based on the assertion that cannabis isn’t a “hard” drug. However, promoting drug exceptionalism is short-sighted as it fails to acknowledge the reality that the Food and Drug Administration still schedules and penalizing cannabis as harshly as heroin, LSD, and MDMA. There is no “hard” and “soft” distinction at the federal level.
Additionally, activists must realize that cannabis businesses could be subject to the same scrutiny for “enabling drug use” as OPS are. If an OPS was effectively obstructed for violating the “crack house” statute, a piece of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 that intended to prevent businesses from allowing drug manufacture, distribution, and consumption on their property, then federal authorities might have more impudence to go after dispensaries for the same reason – not to mention the proliferation of cannabis clubs which directly profit off of people using cannabis in a recreational setting. Ultimately, any talking points meant to distance cannabis and OPS only discredit real strides towards ending drug prohibition.
Furthermore, until we end federal drug prohibition, no drug, including cannabis, will be safe from adulteration in the black market. Drug policy reform activists know that the greatest health risks from drug use stem from the lack of quality control and ability to safely consume. The current overdose epidemic is the greatest public health challenge of our time, and death rates from drug overdoses in the U.S. have been on an exponential growth curve that began at least 15 years before the surge in opioid-involved deaths.
States began legalizing medical cannabis in the 1990s in response to a public health need and evidence of the benefits of using cannabis for people with dire health conditions. When Americans are dying at an average of 130 per day from drug overdose, the mountain of research demonstrating the life-saving impacts of OPS is indisputable. We must authorize these programs now with the expectation that our federal laws will adjust.
It is paramount that as advocates working against the War on Drugs, we unite ourselves to eliminate the harms of prohibition of all drugs, not just cannabis.
Owen O’Keefe & Tricia Christensen are the Advocacy Intern and Advocacy Coordinator of Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition
Join us at the 4th annual National Cannabis Festival in Washington DC this weekend! Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition will have a demonstration Overdose Prevention Site set up. Come see for yourself what OPS could look like in Maryland!
BHRC has co-organized an effort to end cannabis policing as a means to end the racist War on Drugs and policing culture that has led to increased risk of overdose. To learn more, email firstname.lastname@example.org.