Why I Believe Cannabis Exceptionalism Hurts the Drug Reform Movement

Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.

In my experience as a drug policy reform advocate and cannabis community member, I’ve witnessed time and time again an outdated ethos reign forth: cannabis exceptionalism, or the idea that cannabis is the supreme drug of choice.

Students for Sensible Drug Policy characterizes cannabis exceptionalism “as a certain attitude common among some cannabis users — including many within the drug policy reform movement — that cannabis is inherently and categorically different from other types of drugs.”

This dogma justifies the criminalization, prohibition and stigmatization of other drugs and claims cannabis is an unproblematic, all-natural medicine, while other drugs are considered purely recreational street concoctions without any therapeutic value.

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This mentality is incorrect and inherently contradictory. Cannabis exceptionalism ultimately reverses social progress made toward ending the drug war. Read on to learn why I believe this mindset is harmful to the larger drug reform movement that is due credit for historically popularizing the push for cannabis legalization.

Why is cannabis exceptionalism harmful?

Cannabis exceptionalism creates a nonexistent delineation between “good” versus “bad” drugs. Drug addiction is a serious medical condition that should be further supported by federally funded treatment services. However, it’s important to remember that not everyone who uses drugs medically and/or recreationally develops an addiction.

The moralistic dichotomy of “good” and “bad” drugs suggests the legal status of drugs can and should be based on how harmful drugs can be. For instance, on the Drug Enforcement Agency’s list of federally controlled substances, heroin retains Schedule I drug status due to its potential for addiction. Meanwhile, cannabis is also listed in the same category as heroin as a Schedule I drug. While consuming any drug (even prescription pharmaceuticals) involves inherent risk, the legality of drugs appears to me to be inconsistent.

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How does cannabis exceptionalism harm the larger drug reform movement?

Cannabis exceptionalism falls back on drug-war logic because it keeps certain drugs criminalized, prohibited and stigmatized. However, I see this line of reasoning as faulty and easily fragile. In certain parts of the country, cannabis, psychedelics and other drugs are legalized on a state or municipal level. Meanwhile, alcohol and caffeine are two drugs that are federally legal and socially accepted for regular consumption, despite both having potential health hazards if consumed in excess.

Though the government justifies drug-war logic as a means to discourage drug use, this rarely — if ever — actually works. Take the failed D.A.R.E. (Drug Abstinence Resistance Education) program, a program borne out of the “Just Say No” campaign of the ’80s. Twenty years ago, Rolling Stone reporter Jason Cohn disputed the program’s legitimacy and wrote, “despite all the ‘scientific’ claims to the contrary, drug-prevention education — at least the abstinence-based model that reigns in America’s schools — is just as likely to have no effect or to make kids curious as it is to persuade them not to use drugs.”

From my perspective, the dichotomy of “good” versus “bad” drugs hurts other adjacent drug reform movements (e.g., the push for safe consumption sites, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid use disorder and safe supply for stimulants). When we focus on cannabis reform exclusively, we don’t leave enough room for discussion of other potential innovations, such as ketamine for post-traumatic stress (PTSD) treatment and cocaine for anesthesia. Plus, cannabis exceptionalism for the most part rejects all-drug decriminalization, which we’ve seen implemented in other countries like Portugal. As Time reported, all-drug decriminalization could hold a potential answer to the War on Drugs. We’re even seeing this play out in Oregon where voters voted to decriminalize nearly all drugs but are still tackling implementation challenges.

When we stigmatize drug consumption, we stigmatize people.

Most importantly, cannabis exceptionalism usually ends up stigmatizing people: particularly street-based drug consumers, who are especially worthy of our support and solidarity. Due to state-based legalization, cannabis consumers are afforded new privileges street-based drug consumers are not. For example, cannabis use is no longer a punishable, jailable offense by law in many state-level jurisdictions while nearly all other drugs remain criminalized. As advocates of social justice and drug reform alike, I believe we have to extend the rights of cannabis consumers to other drug consumers who are routinely criminalized by drug-war-focused policing.

Steps toward ending the drug war as we know it are possible and within our reach. We have much to gain and very little to lose, because ultimately the drug war is harmful. The cannabis community should work to dispel cannabis exceptionalism to avoid perpetuating these harms.

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