“People who break the law are bad.”
This is perhaps the lesson children learn immediately after learning about the concept of laws. Like so many other ideas, the dichotomy of right and wrong or good and bad lend themselves to “legal and illegal.” The human race loves contrast, and why wouldn’t we? Dualities are easy. It’s a simple way to classify our entire world. We can label something as one or the other and get on with our lives, filing away whatever judgement we’ve made for a later date. We even identify ourselves by these dichotomies. Male or Female? Republican or Democrat? Vanilla or Chocolate?
Grey areas are difficult. They’re messy and confusing, and we have a difficult time dealing with them. In the absence of dichotomies, we create complex “if-then” scenarios. Each of those are still a dichotomy but function as a whole. They create circumstance and allow us to make individual choices. They also allow us to reevaluate or revise our judgements.
As a child who was raised during the War on Drugs and a graduate of the D.A.R.E. program, the image of a criminal and the image of a drug addict were the same. Addicts broke the law. They were bad. What the D.A.R.E. program instructed was that there was a legal (and morally implied) truth to the substances you consumed. Sure, alcohol was addictive and driving under the influence is a crime. But when you’re old enough, you have the choice to enjoy alcohol responsibly. Cigarettes were bad and should be avoided. But marijuana? Illegal. Bad. Same with cocaine, heroine and meth. But something a doctor gives you? That’s perfectly fine.
Marijuana is listed as a Schedule I substance by the DEA, implying that it is as addictive as heroine. Anyone who has tried marijuana knows this is not true¹. But drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamine are Schedule II, implying that they have some medicinal quality. Put it this way: the government thinks meth is acceptable and marijuana is not. Applying logic, one must conclude these classifications have less to do with science and more to do with a social or political agenda. The opioid epidemic has proven is that addictive substances are just that, regardless of DEA drug scheduling. It also proves that drug scheduling and laws can be used to punish some substance abusers and not others, which we now know has socioeconomic and racial implications.
Substances defy morality and should not be evaluated as such. As states continue to introduce medical marijuana legislation, and even recreational marijuana provisions, there is a division growing between medical and recreational users. One medical marijuana patient in Chicago had some harsh judgement for recreational users, ignoring the many legal drugs she certainly takes as a cancer patient. While I’m glad she felt welcome and her idea that a dispensary would resemble a “drug den” was dispelled, it is a judgement shared by many Americans that has roots in US Anglo-Christian values, and very little to do with logic and science.
Convincing people to fight substance abuse is a much more difficult task. It’s a grey-area task. It’s so much easier to point to drugs and label them as good or bad and bypass any introspection about our society’s need to medicate itself. Marijuana has the misfortune of existing in the grey area. There is science that confirms its medical benefits and there are stoners that can attest to its almighty dankness. The idea that a drug can be both medicinal and recreational is foreign in our culture. One of the reasons I’m cautious of grafting alcohol or tobacco legislation onto marijuana is for this very reason: those first two substances, in excess, will kill you. There is no proof that marijuana can do the same. While marijuana can be attributed to some deadly actions, its unregulated status and lack of available information is as much to blame. While humanity loves dualities, it also loves labels. Making marijuana just another vice belittles its medical benefits. Giving it the singular status as a prescription drug will needlessly prohibit enjoyment by those who aren’t fond of hangovers (or cirrhosis) or lung cancer².
Removing morality from conversations about drugs will help us talk about substance abuse as a disease rather than a crime³. It will help us heal from the injustices and failures of the War on Drugs. Hopefully, it will give us fewer opportunities to judge people based on how they treat their illness or how they spend their free time.