Written by: Rhiannon Thomas, COUNTERfit Program Coordinator
Did you get excited reading that? If you did, you are among the many harm reduction advocates and people who use drugs who have been calling for years to decriminalize all drugs. Cannabis was finally legalized in Canada on July 1, 2018, and the story of marijuana legalization can tell us not only what is possible when there is political will, but also a lot about what legalization does to change attitudes about different substances.
For people who have been using cannabis (or other illegal substances) for many years, legalizing weed seems like a no-brainer. Although any substance can be harmful, marijuana has widely been used safely for hundreds of years or maybe even longer. When you think of the “reefer madness” movies of the past and all the supposed dangers of marijuana, it seems ridiculous when you now consider that the biggest danger to consuming cannabis might be not being able to reach the chips.
But for people who use substances that continue to be criminalized (and for those in criminalized communities who have been serving their communities for years by supplying weed without access to legal market status), looking at public attitudes towards marijuana says a lot about how drugs are seen. As a kid in the “Just say no” era, we learned that all drugs are evil and lead to after-school PCP and jumping off roofs. Acid, weed, coke, heroin – these were all equally dangerous (or so Nancy, Tipper and crew would have us believe). Anyone who does these drugs, or looks at scientific facts about them, would know that wasn’t true. You can’t really overdose on acid (though I wouldn’t recommend taking more than a hit or two unless you have lots of experience and a guide). You smoke too much weed and most likely you’ll just fall asleep. Coke and heroin, though – different story. Too many days up doing coke and your nervous system will be a jangled mess, or too big of a hit and you can stop your heart. Too much dope and your breathing slows until your heart stops.
This kind of information would have been useful to a lot of young people experimenting with drugs. The problem wasn’t the drugs, it was the lies told about them, falsehoods based on moral judgement, and systemic attempts to control and incarcerate Black, brown, Indigenous and poor people, as well as anyone who powerfully criticized patriarchal capitalist power.
And then what happened when weed became legal? Not much except that, within three years, it’s legally widely available, in every form, colour and flavour you could ever want. More importantly, every dose you could want. And the stigma around marijuana use seems to have continued to dissolve.
One major downside is that those people who made a living from selling weed have either lost business or are now even more heavily criminalized. This situation could be remedied by expunging all marijuana possession and trafficking charges from people’s records, and offering small business support and loans so that people who have experience and expertise (and probably a client base) could have options to open shops or delivery services without as much risk of policing. Similarly, we could seriously improve the health and economic status of thousands of people in this country if we followed a similar path for stimulants and opioids. There are already many types of opioids and stimulants that are legally regulated for quality and dosing, we just have to make them available with or without a prescription as we did for cannabis.
“But what about the children?” say the usual suspects. Well, there are legal sanctions in place to prevent access to marijuana, alcohol and tobacco for minors. We know that young folks can still access, and this has happened for substances that are both illegal and legal. The legality of the substance has nothing to do with young people accessing it. You know what does make a difference to the health and safety of young people? Knowing what they’re taking, what the dose is and getting access to factual information. And more importantly, just like weed, the stigma around using these substances will diminish so that talking about using drugs gets easier. And that benefits the rest of us, too.