I am a person in long-term recovery from a substance use disorder and for me, that has included but not been defined by complete abstinence from alcohol, marijuana, opioids, cocaine and a host of other drugs for over 12 years. While wellness and recovery looks different for everybody and does not have to include abstinence, the choice to practice abstinence is the one I find best for myself and my continued wellness and success. To that end, the legality of a drug does not factor into my indulging in the use of it or not; for instance, alcohol, cigarettes and some opioids are legal and readily available to me but I do not consume them. Additionally, and to be rather blunt, the legality of substances never factored into my indulging in the use of them. I used marijuana daily for many years despite it being illegal. I had easy access to marijuana in my community at the age of 12 and in later years went on to sell marijuana in that same community. Prior to my initiating recovery and engaging in the personal practice of abstinence, the legality of a substance bore no bearing on my consumption of it and was a total non-factor when it came to my entering into recovery readiness. All of this is to say that my lived experience - and that of the vast number of people using drugs or in recovery with whom I have engaged over the years - is that the legality of a drug does not influence our consumption of it. If legality influenced consumption, nobody would overcome problem alcohol use or quit smoking cigarettes since those drugs are deemed legal, or we wouldn’t see the steady decrease in tobacco use among youth that we have seen over the past twenty years.
While the legality of a substance matters not when it comes to our consumption of it, legality does matter when it comes to the potential consequences. Criminalizing drug use and the War on Drugs has been racist, harmful, a waste of money and absolutely ineffective. When it comes to marijuana use, black people are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people despite using marijuana at the same rate as white people. In addition to the clear racial and socioeconomic disparities in the War on Drugs, the forced illegal and unregulated drug market causes tremendous harm in multiple ways to individuals, communities, our nation and across the globe. When I think of every time my life was most in danger prior to initiating recovery, I think of things like the time a gun was being pointed at me as a direct result of my involvement in the illegal drug market.
In addition to the harm caused by criminalizing drug use, the resulting stigma that drug use is shrouded in fuels a lack of practical education for young people. Just like we learned about the ineffectiveness of teaching only abstinence as a strategy for safe sex to a population who we know is going to engage in sex, we are failing our young people by not providing real education about risks and how to use drugs safely when we know young people will use drugs. The decrease in tobacco use among youth provides an excellent example of why this is important. In fact, surveys of young people now show that they find cigarettes to be more harmful than marijuana! Stigma from criminalization also creates barriers to people seeking support if they are in the minority of drug users who, like me, do go on to develop a substance use disorder. Most people who use drugs are not like me - they do not develop a substance use disorder, and if they experience problem use, they resolve it naturally. But for those of us who do develop a substance use disorder or cannot resolve our problem use naturally, the stigma cast by the War on Drugs serves as significant barrier to reaching out for and receiving support.
And lastly, in addition to all of the reasons mentioned thus far, it simply comes down to this for me: people have a right to choose what they put into their bodies. It is hard to reconcile how we live in a nation deemed “land of the free” with our not being free to do with our bodies as we see fit. To me, the most important freedom of all is the right to decide what we do with our own bodies - to take away our freedom there is to take away our most inalienable right as human beings. Just as I have the right to not consume substances that I do not wish to put into my body, others have the right to consume substances they do wish to put into their body. At the end of the day, decriminalizing drug use is really about freedom — and my freedom will not be threatened by other people’s freedom. I will still not consume marijuana and I will celebrate the dismantling of the harmful and ineffective War on Drugs.