For decades experts have argued whether marijuana is a “gateway” drug which, if consumed, leads to more harmful drug use. My background leads me to the conclusion that marijuana is, in fact, a gateway drug, but toward the grand prize of total drug decriminalization.
After legalizing medical marijuana, Colorado became the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use and Denver became the first city to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms. We see the trajectory of drug decriminalization in states like Colorado, Maryland, and Oregon. Oregon passed Measure 110, which greatly decriminalized dangerous drugs and the city of Baltimore announced a similar strategy. New York State is on a legislative path toward recreational sale of marijuana, and famous people are working to decriminalize marijuana on a federal level.
SB 519 in California is another example of moving the needle towards decriminalization. This legislation would decriminalize the use and possession of hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD, MDMA, and ketamine. The general consensus among supporters is that these hallucinogenic drugs are safe, provide some medical benefit, and decriminalization can somehow offset cultural appropriation. Proponents ignore the fact that ketamine is similar to PCP, that the MA in MDMA (XTC) refers to methamphetamine and there is no evidence that hallucinogen intoxication generates societal progress. People do, in fact, enter treatment with these drugs as their main drug of choice, including ketamine.
Given cultural considerations, it must be mentioned that adolescents and young adults do not use drugs in the same fashion as their adult counterparts. In my clinical experience, many young people in treatment with severe substance use disorder (SUD) struggle with hallucinogenic drugs because of their flawed notion that these drugs have mind-opening and insight building qualities. For instance, during group therapy a young adult, fortunate to be alive after suffering multiple opioid-related overdoses, shared that he ingested several hits of LSD to gain “introspect” into his current circumstances. As a licensed therapist, I asked if his acid trip clued him in to the reality that he is addicted to heroin and has a life-threatening ailment. This particular insight eluded him. Additionally, these drugs are extremely dangerous, as they can trigger psychosis. When “bath salts” were legal, there was a mini-epidemic and every person I treated with this as their drug of choice had suffered a psychotic break. After these drugs were made illegal, I saw fewer cases in treatment despite the recent event where a federal judge was accidentally killed by a driver allegedly intoxicated on bath salts.
I wish the best for the Columbia University professor, who made news by saying he takes heroin for life balance purposes. Despite the headlines, his revelation was not earth-shattering as most people with a severe SUD started using recreationally. The difference in this scenario is that an ivy league professor used his social status to advocate for loosening the boundaries on an extremely dangerous activity, heroin consumption. Given that our nation has experienced more than 81,000 overdoses this last year, I wish our leaders exercised more caution before celebrating the virtues of their private lifestyles.
I also believe it would benefit vulnerable Americans if our leaders stopped condoning drug use and opposed legislation that prohibits parental notification of underaged minors who have alcohol or marijuana offenses, as is the law in New Jersey. Youth substance abuse is often an indicator of bigger problems. I have worked in adolescent addiction treatment programs, and young people routinely use the lifestyles of cultural icons to justify their self-destructive behavior.
Proponents of wide-scale decriminalization like to highlight Scandinavia and other European countries for their drug policy acumen. None of these countries, however, shares a southern border with the world’s most dangerous drug cartels, nor do they seem as intent as some American leaders do about destroying lives by encouraging the flow of dangerous substances into their countries.
As a person in long-term recovery, I consider myself lucky to have survived the heyday of pill mills, which were essentially a decriminalized system of obtaining addictive drugs. As a result of the pill mills and open border policies, America has lost thousands of lives to the opioid crisis. I have advocated for a more effective intervention system to help those in need receive treatment. Unfortunately, it seems some policy experts are breeding dependency and enriching the cartels, when we should be breaking the chains of addiction. Because the opposite of addiction is freedom.