Fear and Loathing in Atlanta: Racism and the War on Drugs

Content warning: racism, violence, forced miscarriage.

I was on my way to the airplane that would take me back home, to Canada. I boarded the train between the Atlanta airport’s two terminals, eyes bleary from sleep deprivation and last night’s makeup. A blind man and an airport employee helping him walked onto the train, led by his dog. Minutes passed in silence before he told a story, out of the blue, foggy eyes staring at nothing.

“One time I was leaving a store, and my dog, she led me into the wrong car,” he said to his helper. “It wasn’t my wife in the front seat. ‘I think you’re in the wrong car,’ I heard a woman say. ‘I think you’re right,’ I said.”

I shifted my backpack and smiled at the story.

“I’m just glad she didn’t have a .45 on her,” the blind man added.

“Yeah. That would have been messy,” the helper responded.

They said it seriously, but so casually. Like it was nothing. Normal.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I broke down crying.

* * *

Just five days in the U.S. south, at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference, changed how I view the work I’m doing. I’m a PhD student who studies the effects of drug prohibition on drug users and sellers. I know about gun violence, about racial oppression, about how the War on Drugs systematically targets the poor and people of colour. I’ve read everything I can get my hands on, I’ve watched the documentaries, I’ve talked to people, I’ve done a Master’s degree’s worth of ethnographic research on the subject. I’ve lived in Mexico and seen the ugly effects of cartel power in person. There’s a reason I’m doing this work. But I’d never seen what I saw in Atlanta, so much in so few days.

Monstrous things that seemed to faze no one. Monochromatic homelessness, all black. I was catcalled constantly on the street, and then later told I was an idiot for walking alone at night at all – you can’t do that here. The transit security guard on the subway had a gun. I guess all of them do. I got a physical shiver when I saw it, a weight in my stomach. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw a gun in person. I live in the kind of place where you can go months, even years without seeing a gun.

Photo 2017-10-11, 1 04 06 PM

A group of black men being bothered by cops for no reason I could discern, one of the first things I saw when I got into the city.

I heard story after story of people being arrested for drugs, years of their lives and their mental and physical health taken away from them, families destroyed. Racial tension was everywhere. Fear was everywhere. Buzzing, insidious, toxic textures at the periphery of the senses. Fear seeped from the walls and coated every interaction. Hackles raised, human connection difficult without concerted effort. I made the effort and was rewarded with tiny moments of solidarity, bright sparks, smiles. Atlanta, like the US as a whole, is full of good, kind people, trapped in a cultural venn diagram of overlapping toxic systems that are slowly killing them and keep them turned against each other instead of against the systems themselves.

White supremacy is real, and it is everywhere. The geographic and economic segregation along racial lines was astounding. I sat eating a Big Mac in a McDonald’s at 11 pm on a Wednesday, the only white person among 30 black people. I then walked six blocks north and was hit by a wall of white bodies in confederate flag shirts—returning from a Garth Brooks concert, I later learned. I was very uncomfortable in the latter situation and felt fine in the former, but the sheer, naked, normalized segregation in both made me deeply uneasy.

I sent my partner a drunk text about how the food here didn’t feel digestible. That Big Mac haunted me. It was like eating ash and plastic, no nutrition at all. You don’t have to believe me, but I mean this honestly when I say that American fast food is worse than the fast food I’ve eaten in any other country. You can taste the difference in agricultural production and food standards. It hurt to think that it’s all that millions of people can afford. It’s barely food. They deserve so much better.

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These signs don’t exist where I live

I fended off catcalls as I walked home that night, a deep sense of shame and disgust at my skin colour setting in already, at how I was necessarily perceived to be one more white link in the chains that hold half that country hostage. I couldn’t hide my whiteness, so I shamefully found myself hoping people would at least notice my broken glasses and crappy old boots and think I’m poorer than I am. I’m not wealthy—I just barely identify as middle class—but I am not poor. Not like the homeless man to whom I gave my change instead of all the money in my pocket like I should have. My partner and I don’t make much money, but with free health care and the various other social and academic supports I have access to, I can afford to fly to conferences in other countries where I deal with the embarrassment of being a walking pile of privilege by hoping my taped-up glasses camouflage my relative wealth. I have to remind myself as I walk by that those people don’t have nothing because I have something: those people have nothing because a small handful of people have everything, and will not share until we make them. I channel that knowledge back into my work. Guilt is not productive. Action is.

jeff sessions is an absolute monster

So much blood on this man’s hands

The next day at the conference, I listened to a formerly incarcerated black woman on a panel tell her story. She was in federal prison for selling drugs, and she was pregnant when she was locked up. The water that came out of the taps in the prison was brown. She told them she couldn’t drink it, and they told her to go thirsty. One day, she began feeling pain in her belly. They took her to the infirmary—they didn’t have the right paperwork to get her to a hospital, and didn’t bother finding it. They shackled her, bleeding, to the bed, as she begged for help. She miscarried and lost her child. They threw her sheets, and the fetus, into the trash. Soon she was forced to return to her “job,” welding bunk beds for the men’s prison. Three beds high, three feet of vertical space per bed. The audience quietly cried as we listened. She sold things to people who wanted them, and the state robbed her of unborn child and gave her post-traumatic stress disorder.

Hers was not the only story like this.

* * *

Photo 2017-10-12, 3 59 53 PMI was saved by the people at the conference, hundreds of tiny lights in a landscape of confused darkness. Activists, scholars, authors, health care workers, psychonauts, researchers, patients, libertarians, socialists. All of us bound together by the knowledge that drug prohibition is the modern day Jim Crow and the driving force behind death and destruction in the Americas. We clung to each other for sanity, sharing our successes and failures, our experiences, our self-care rituals. Every victory was tainted by the knowledge that while capitalism stands, its vultures will always find a way to profit and oppress. Marijuana is being legalized—great! But anyone with a felony record is barred from working in the legal market, meaning all the people of colour who were selling it before—shit. Companies who make ankle GPS trackers, video call systems for prisons, and opioid medications pour billions of dollars into lobbying to maintain the system the way it is, while Black and Latinx communities have their young men stolen from them and their women and children surveilled by the state through the welfare system.Photo 2017-10-12, 6 42 40 AM

“Poor activist communities are being destroyed by the prison system,” said one panelist. “If you want to disrupt social justice, put all the men in prison and all the women under welfare surveillance.”

One woman on a psychedelics panel was asked about her experiences. She said she could never fully relax and enjoy a journey, given the space she occupies in the world. “Not even psychedelics can bring me to a place where I can escape from the reality of being black in America.”

Later I sat and watched Falcons fans on the way to a football game, laughing and shouting like everything was fine, and wondered if I was going mad.

Photo 2017-10-13, 8 31 07 AMSometimes, among drug policy activists, it feels like we’re the band playing on the Titanic. Sometimes it feels like maybe we can make a difference, like we’ll win. Like there’s no way we can’t win when all the evidence, and all the empathy, is on our side. But it doesn’t matter either way. We have to try. There’s just no other option.

We have to do this work. Or who will?

* * *

Tiny squares of paper, an unlikely team: Leslie, from San Francisco, and Mark, a 21-year-old from New Mexico who’d never been outside his home state. All conferences have a culture of drinking—the culture at this one is a bit more unique.

Fear and loathing in Atlanta, hotel escalators like an Escher drawing. We managed to get to a club, where I danced like I could drown out my thoughts if I just moved hard enough. I listened to the lyrics of all my favourite hip-hop songs as if I’d never heard them before. Pain, power, poetry. They wrapped around my heart and pulled it down into the ground. The energy on the dance floor, the smiles, the movement—they crackled with intensity. I never wanted to leave.Photo 2017-10-14, 9 17 08 PM

Later, we stayed up til long past sunrise, trying to make sense of what we’d experienced that week. Legs stretched out on the hotel carpet, ears ringing. Talking to Leslie that night had been a moderating influence in the stark differences I kept seeing between our two countries. There were certain things she said didn’t exist in San Francisco either. But still, I began to feel terrible for how many times I pointed out how things like needing to carry mace with you is not normal in Canada, and should not be normal anywhere, let alone a country with this much wealth and resources. Transit officers with guns on the subway should not be normal. Having to ask whether the tap water is potable should not be normal. Fearing shootings in public should not be normal. Spatial segregation by race and class in a multiracial society should not be normal. Having to create GoFundMes to pay for surgery should not be normal. People fighting tooth and nail to keep professional sports team names that are straight-up racial slurs should not be normal.

Canada, like every country, has many serious problems that need immediate attention. I could write endless pages about what’s wrong with the capitalist, colonial state that I live in (and I often do.) Racism, inequality, misogyny, homophobia—they all exist in my home too. But it’s not the same. It’s just not.

Sometimes, we just sat in silence, the weak morning sun peeking through the hotel curtains.

“I’ve been very angry and afraid of other people for a very long time,” realized Mark numbly.

* * *

Photo 2017-10-14, 11 26 02 PMI’m not naïve: I knew all of this existed. I’ve been obsessed with American politics, how similar our two cultures seem until you scratch beneath the surface, for years. It’s not possible to be a hip-hop fan from a young age, or study the War on Drugs for a living, and avoid the global vortex of injustice and power that centres on the US. But knowing about it, and coming face to face with the sheer day-to-day mundanity of it all, are two different things. I’ve been all over the West and Northeast, where the cracks in the cultural pavement are more subtle, but touching and seeing and smelling a Southern American city for the first time, while listening to first-hand stories from around the country, poured gasoline on my deep belief that to accept conditions like this as “just the way things are” is the most dangerous possible reaction. The normalization of structural violence, white supremacy and drug prohibition allows all of it to continue, at a scale that boggles the mind. I don’t want to become complacent. I don’t want to get used to it. I don’t want to accept it.

Judges who own bail companies and have shares in private prisons is not okay. A man facing five years in prison for picking mushrooms in a forest in Washington is an outrageous injustice. Thousands being held without even being charged, imprisoned for the crime of not being able to afford bail. Dozens of people shot every day by police. Women sexually violated by roadside cavity searches. All because human beings like getting high, and a group of wealthy, powerful people figured out how to turn that desire into capital by weaponizing racial oppression.

None of this is okay. Nobody deserves this kind of life.

I love Americans, I really do. They are incredible people, and so many of them have accomplished amazing things in the face of all this oppression. Watching American activists at work, fighting tirelessly under such difficult conditions, inspires me every day to work harder, work better, listen more closely, see more critically. But the country itself, the ideas that prop it up… How can we wake up the white American prohibition-supporting mainstream—which includes most liberals—to what is happening to people in their own country because of their complacency? I want to run around and shake people. Rip out the tentacles of media propaganda poisoning their minds, convincing vast swaths of the US that it’s their neighbours who are the problem, not corruption and inequality.Photo 2017-10-11, 12 54 33 PM

I guess it’s easier to be in denial, to feel like surely all those black people are wrong, overreacting with their protests and kneeling, than to confront the fact that your whole worldview is based on a mammoth lie. They’re like cult members—they just double down on their beliefs when they’re confronted with reality, because changing those fundamental beliefs, admitting the lie, would be too painful to bear. Maybe that’s how we need to start treating Trump supporters: like cult members who need deprogramming. They’ve bought into a certain narrative, that the US is fundamentally good, and to shatter that illusion would destroy a part of their very identity, their sense of self. Maybe we need to give them an out that allows them to shift that narrative towards something that provides the same positive identity, but acknowledges the truth: if you love your country, the most patriotic thing you can do is help to make it better for everyone in it.

* * *

It was Sunday morning. I’d slept for two disoriented hours. As I walked towards the subway train that would take me to the airport and the sweet sanctuary of home, I was torn between desperately wanting out, and feeling an urgent need to stay—there’s not enough time, I need to talk to more people. As if there could be an amount of time, or enough conversations, that would quiet the existential dread in my belly.

I passed a Muslim family outside the subway station. I wanted to run up to them, to every person of colour I saw and tell them I’m sorry for how hard it is to be them on this continent. I want them to know that I see them, I see what the world is doing to them, and it’s not okay, and I’m doing what I can to change things. That their experiences are real and valid. I don’t want to be one more person feeding into the twilight zone society that pretends this isn’t happening.

Photo 2017-10-12, 7 06 38 AMI’ve been texting with Mark regularly since I got back. We supported each other through our re-entry. “I was in a weird fugue state for a week when I got home,” he told me. “It felt like everything was going in slow motion.”

The airport alone was a surreal experience. I kept seeing innocuous but slightly bizarre things. I saw ads about “shopping for health care” and thought, those words don’t make sense together. I watched a man in the seat ahead and across from me sit and read all of the Wall Street Journal. He spent a particularly long amount of time on an article called “NFL weighs new anthem rules.” At one point, he pulled a wad of bills out of his pocket, counted them, and then put them back in his pocket.

I watched the guy next to me do a crossword puzzle, and it felt… I don’t know. Amazing. Ridiculous. Something. How can you do something so benign and simple and quaint and pleasant when the world around you is falling apart? How can you be so calm when 96 of your fellow citizens will die today from being shot with a gun? How are you not screaming with pitchforks at the front gates of every billionaire’s house?

I wanted to turn to the people across from me and ask, “Did you know that we’re living in the darkest timeline and everything we’re told about the way things work is a racist lie?”

But I couldn’t figure out exactly how to word that, so instead I asked them about football.
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I did talk with another Canadian headed to the same flight as me, and told her how I was feeling. “Atlanta is nothing,” she said. She’d gone to school in North Carolina, and left when she was done her degree because, she said, “it was too racist.”

* * *

When I started crying on the train after the blind man’s story, I couldn’t stop. I made my way to a fast food area with tables in the airport, sat down and sobbed. A woman—this woman—was playing the cello nearby, and I lost myself in the music, slow and sad. My body heaved as I wept. I was ignored by the other people at the tables. No one said a word to me.

By the time the music finished, I had too. I locked eyes with the cellist, whose name turned out to be Jenn, and she walked straight over to me as I stood up. She embraced me tightly, and I felt everything all at once.

We broke apart and I thanked her for her music. “I needed that,” I said.

“I could tell,” she answered. “Is there anything you want to share?”

We talked for a while, with another woman, and every second was both confusing and nourishing. Nothing I managed to verbalize about my feelings seemed to surprise them, and they were sympathetic. “It’s important to accept that not everyone is capable of feeling as deeply as you do,” one of them told me. It makes sense as a short term strategy, but it’s a pill I still refuse to swallow for the long-term. Everyone is capable. We’re just torn away from each other. We can rebuild empathy.

I had to go. They both hugged me goodbye as I wiped away tears, trying not to be embarrassed. “It’s okay,” I sniffed. “I’m okay.”

Jenn held my shoulders as she looked into my eyes. “It’s alright if you’re not okay, too.”

I felt the warmth in her words, and smiled. “I will be.”

* * *

Photo 2017-10-15, 1 49 54 PMOn the plane, I listened to Kendrick and let every word cut into me like wounds I never want to heal, wounds my soft, safe body will never actually have.

I’ll prolly die anonymous, I’ll prolly die with promises
I’ll prolly die walkin’ back home from the candy house
I’ll prolly die because these colors are standin’ out
I’ll prolly die because I ain’t know Demarcus was snitchin’
I’ll prolly die at these house parties, fuckin’ with bitches
I’ll prolly die from witnesses leavin’ me falsed accused
I’ll prolly die from thinkin’ that me and your hood was cool
Or maybe die from pressin’ the line, actin’ too extra
Or maybe die because these smokers are more than desperate
I’ll prolly die from one of these bats and blue badges
Body-slammed on black and white paint, my bones snappin’
Or maybe die from panic or die from bein’ too lax
Or die from waitin’ on it, die ’cause I’m movin’ too fast
I’ll prolly die tryna buy weed at the apartments
I’ll prolly die tryna defuse two homies arguin’
I’ll prolly die ’cause that’s what you do when you’re 17
All worries in a hurry, I wish I controlled things

If I could smoke fear away, I’d roll that mothafucka up
And then I’d take two puffs
I’ve been hungry all my life
I’m high now
I’m high now


Hilary is on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro

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How to convince people that drugs need to be legalized: a guide for getting skeptics on board.

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.

11012449_10153502860849245_3423341969182463811_nThey’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.growtheeconomy

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.canada-america-poll-angus-reid-marijuana-legalization
  • 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. cops-say-legalize
  • 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.leap_billboard_350
  • 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.

Please share this article with anyone you know who could benefit from it!

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.