I’ve developed a really nerdy, but kickass, superpower. Give me twenty minutes of one-on-one conversation time with a person, any person, and they will come out of that conversation convinced that illicit drugs—not even just weed, but the ‘bad’ ones like cocaine and meth too—must be decriminalized. Give me forty minutes with them, and they’ll be down for full legalization. It doesn’t matter what opinions they had about drugs going into the conversation. I can get them on board.
This is a skill I’ve developed over the last three years of dedicated research on drug use and drug policy (on top of 15 or so years of, let’s say, thinking about drugs differently than your average person). This isn’t because I’m the worlds greatest rhetorician, or because I’m generally good at debating, although practice has helped a lot. It’s because legalization just makes sense. It’s because the War on Drugs is a spectacular failure. It’s because the time is ripe. People are ready. The normies, the squares, the teetotalers, the smokers-and-drinkers, the legal drug users, the potheads who claim cannabis cures cancer but hypocritically shit-talk other illicit drugs—they are all teed up and waiting to be putted into the hole of drug policy pragmatism with the right arguments, even by someone who sucks at sports metaphors but uses them anyway.
They’ve been primed by The Wire and articles about MAPS research and (at least for the young ones) their own experiences with MDMA and weed not living up to the propaganda telling them ‘one toke and you’ll die.’ OxyContin has shown that legal drugs can addict and kill, and fentanyl has shown that illegal drugs’ purity is at the mercy of the unregulated black market. Overdoses kill more people than car crashes now in North America. Over a thousand people died of opiate overdoses in Vancouver last year alone. Shit is getting real, and drug prohibition is not helping. It’s at the heart of almost all of the problems.
People have heard about Portugal’s success with decriminalization. They’ve heard about the U.S. for-profit prison industrial complex that is fed by the War on Drugs, and they may have even connected the dots to police brutality and the school-to-prison pipeline for Black men. Odds are they don’t know about historical trajectories like the 13th Amendment in the U.S. or the racist origins of the first drug laws in Canada (which were opium laws used to oppress and terrorize Chinese labourers), but still. They’ve heard whispers of these topics, fragments of the yelling drug activists have been doing for decades finally getting amplified by social media, breaking the segregation of this information from the general public. And they can see with their own eyes how badly the War on Drugs has been lost. Drugs are winning, and they know it.
Still, completely legalizing drugs is a cognitive stretch for most non-users. It seems too radical. They don’t all see firsthand what prohibition is doing to drug users and to marginalized communities. Even those who do often still fail to see the structural forces at work, and end up falling into the ‘personal responsibility’ trap. They frown and balk as their affective instincts kick in, deep in the body, before their brain catches up to justify the feeling. Completely changing some of our most entrenched laws? That can’t possibly be the answer. They often instinctively defend the status quo just because, well, this is the way things are, so surely there must be a point to these laws—surely we haven’t fucked things up so incredibly badly as a society that we need to overhaul our entire approach to drugs?
Uh. Cough. Yeah, actually. We have. And we do.
So I’m here to help you get these people on board. Because, and this is the important part—we need these people. We can’t win this fight alone. Marriage equality didn’t happen until straight people marched alongside queer folks. People of colour will keep being subjected to oppression until white people get off their asses and form blockades. Feminism needs men taking Gender Studies classes and talking to their bros about catcalling and emotional labour. Movements don’t succeed until people who aren’t directly affected by the civil rights being demanded are on board, and this means that non-drug-users need to demand legalization from their politicians for the latter cowards to feel that it’s a politically safe move to make. The most important thing you can do to help change drug policy is to have a conversation about it with someone who currently thinks we should keep putting drug users and dealers in prison.
So, below are some tips on how to have those conversations successfully. It’s hard work, and it’s emotional work. People can be extremely heartless about the plight of human beings they think they can’t relate to. But you know what’s harder? Being in fucking prison, or losing your son in a cartel shootout, or being physically dependent on a drug that could kill you at any moment if it’s contaminated. So yes, it’s incredibly frustrating to hear someone coldly say that drug overdoses are Darwin at work—but swallow that anger, and do it for all of those people.
Remember, too, that changes in opinion sometimes happen after the conversation is over and they’ve had a chance to think a bit. They may not seem to have budged while you were talking to them, but as long as you kept your cool and didn’t insult them personally, some of the things you shared will likely get through. You just might not get the joy of watching it happen, but no one ever said this work would be easy or immediately fulfilling. We’re playing the long game here.
How to convince people that the War on Drugs sucks and we need to legalize everything:
- Ask them questions. The idea isn’t to tell them how to think, it’s to guide them towards figuring it out for themselves. The argument really makes itself, it’s so obvious. Asking them questions also engages with them and shows an interest in their thoughts, instead of just lecturing or talking at them.
- “Do you think that prohibition is working to stop people from using drugs?” This is the most important question, because their answer will determine how you proceed. Sometimes even just asking the question does half the work; a lot of people just haven’t thought about it that way yet. If they admit that it’s not working, then you can start talking about alternatives. If they think it is working, then your job is to introduce them to reality: it’s not.
- “Why do you think alcohol is legal but other drugs aren’t?”
- “Does putting dealers in jail stop people from accessing drugs?”
- Remember that this isn’t an argument about whether or not people should do drugs. It’s about getting the person to pragmatically accept that we will never be able to stop people from doing drugs. Once they accept that, then it’s a natural next step to get them to realize that prohibition, therefore, will literally never work.
- Keep the focus on whether prohibition is working. Talking about whether illegal drugs are good or bad is not actually relevant to whether or not prohibition is good or bad, and can be distracting if they have zero experience with any drug except alcohol. Convincing them that many currently illegal drugs are not actually harmful is a bonus, but you don’t necessarily need to do that in order to focus on the fact that prohibition is what makes most illegal drugs dangerous in the first place, and is causing more human suffering through the prison system and the militarized, global War on Drugs than drug use itself ever could.
- Still, though: ask them if they’ve heard of the medical studies being done on the benefits of MDMA and psychedelics, and if not, share the good news. Especially don’t forget to mention that these studies are helping veterans with PTSD, survivors of child abuse, and terminal cancer patients—people who are hard to dismiss as burnouts. Then ask why they think these drugs aren’t legal while cigarettes are.
- Ask them if they think that getting addicts medical treatment and therapy would work better than arresting them and putting them in jail.
- “Well okay, I think marijuana should be legal, but not harder stuff.” Ohhh, I love this old chestnut. See the above question. Try also asking them if they think prohibition is preventing people from accessing those “harder” drugs. You can also poke them on the definition of “hard” drugs versus “soft” ones. This might be a good time to talk about the negative effects of alcohol, which is legal and should be, and compare them to something like MDMA.
- Demeanour is key! Be respectful and kind, and always ask questions with an air of gentle curiosity, not like you’re about to trap them in their own hypocritical stupidity (even when you are). They’re not bad people, even the jerks who think addicts deserve their overdose deaths—they’re just very misinformed. Dehumanizing anti-drug propaganda has done its job, and that sucks, but getting mad at a person for being ignorant isn’t going to help. If you find yourself wanting to swear at them for being a cruel moron, and you don’t think you can engage with them calmly anymore, just stop and leave the conversation. Giving in to your anger and calling them an idiot might feel good, and you might be totally justified, but it is not helping in the long run. Do better.
- Ask them if they think the government should be telling people what they can and can’t put in their bodies, and using physical force to enforce those dictates. Libertarians respond pretty well to this one, and feminists should too.
- Ask them if they think that people who finish their sentences and come out of prison and back into society—as almost all prisoners who are jailed for drug offenses do—are more or less likely to be involved with drugs afterwards. Note that prison traumatizes people, and trauma often leads to drug abuse. Note also that having a criminal record makes finding legal employment more difficult, which makes it harder to avoid the drug trade as a means of subsistence.
- If you’re talking with an incrementalist—someone who is turned off by the idea of rapid or drastic social change—first focus on decriminalization: let’s at least stop putting drug users in jail, because clearly that doesn’t help anything.
- Next, see if you can get them to agree that we will never fully eradicate drug use in our society. Then, shift it towards legalization with arguments around how, that being the case, we are currently allowing cartels and diffuse groups of individuals to control the entire illicit drug supply, completely unregulated. We, as a society, are making that choice. We are choosing to let dealers, some (not all) of whom don’t care about the quality or safety of their drugs, control the drug supply. We’re letting them do that by not regulating the drugs ourselves. It’s a choice. Legalization is the other choice we can make.
- Some points you can use:
- Drugs are purer, stronger, cheaper, and more accessible today than they were when the Drug War was started by Nixon. So, uh… Yeah, the current approach is clearly not working.
- In response to, “we’re just not hitting the dealers hard enough, or being tough enough with our borders”: We can’t even keep drugs out of prisons, the most heavily controlled and policed environments on earth. Why do we think heavier policing is going to work anywhere else?
- Most opioid addicts get addicted initially through legal prescriptions. Drug addiction is a health issue, not a criminal issue.
- In this fucked-up era, not only do facts not really mean anything anymore, words often don’t either. But that’s okay. (It’s actually not but whatever.) The facts are on your side anyway, so you can try using them. It might work. But what you really want to do is get the other person to feel something. To empathize with drug users, drug addicts, and their families. To understand how our drug laws are used to systematically oppress people of colour, and get angry about it. This is often the hardest part, because illicit drug users have been strategically dehumanized and stigmatized for decades, and that dehumanization runs deep. It can be helpful to talk about all the “regular” people who do drugs, as a way of showing that drug users are people too, and addiction can happen to anyone. (This tactic is problematic for other reasons, but in the short term, it’s still useful.) Some examples: Steve Jobs and LSD, indigenous South American communities and ayahuasca, literally everyone and weed, Freud and cocaine, blue collar labourers and opioids for pain. You can point them to the entire Master’s thesis that I wrote about regular, hardworking people—doctors, social workers, teachers—who use all sorts of illicit drugs and are completely fine (and in most cases, better off because of it).
- If you’re a person who uses illicit drugs from time to time, and you’re feeling really bold, and the person you’re talking to knows you—come out of the closet as a drug user. If they already respect you, it’s the most effective way to change someone’s perception of all drug users as homeless or addicted or whatever other discriminatory way they view human beings who make different recreational choices from them.
- If you’re Canadian, British or from another country with socialized medicine, you have a huge advantage! (Americans, I’m really sorry. I feel deeply for you, for real. Keep fighting for single payer.) Because our countries have decided that all people deserve medical treatment, that means we’ve socialized the costs of said treatment. Which means we don’t leave overdose victims to die, we try to save them. This costs huge amounts of money—more money than preventative care and treatment would cost—and when added to the costs of enforcing drug laws, it’s a crazy amount of money. And it’s all money we could be pouring into prevention and treatment (there’s Portugal again!). Furthermore, most of the overdoses that we’re sending ambulances and firemen to are a result of unregulated substances. No one dies because the alcohol they drink was unknowingly 100 times stronger than the person they bought it from said it was. This is because we regulate alcohol. If we did the same thing for opioids, fentanyl wouldn’t be such a problem, and we wouldn’t be spending nearly as much money on overdose response. (Note: If the person believes that we should stop helping overdose victims at all because it’s their fault: first, take a breath and try not to call them a sociopath. Try to steer them towards a more practical acceptance of the fact that with socialized medicine, we are going to help people regardless of how the person got hurt. That’s just how it is, and how it should be in any half-decent society. If they want to privatize medicine that’s a different conversation, but as things stand, the costs are a reality.)
- Guns are literally designed specifically to kill things, but we still let people have them. We just train them first. So ask them if making guns illegal would work better than our current system of regulating them. (This argument probably only works outside of the U.S.)
- People hurt themselves and others with cars, so our response as a society is to regulate when, how and under what conditions people can drive. Doesn’t this make more sense than banning something that many people enjoy and use?
Most people just don’t think about drug policy enough to have an informed opinion on it. They rely on instinct and the status quo without even knowing why. Be the person who informs them. And be proud of doing this hard work.
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Follow Hilary on Twitter for more rants about drug policy, criminal justice reform, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro
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Any other tips to share for talking with people about drug policy? Please leave them in the comments! Anything else to add or correct? Let me know! (I wrote this while tired and drained and trying to proactively distract myself from all the hurricanes and forest fires and Nazis with something productive, and will be working to continually fine-tune and improve it over the coming weeks.