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Decriminalization Doesn’t End the Drug War: A Talk with DanceSafe’s Mitchell Gomez

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Decriminalization Doesn’t End the Drug War: A Talk with DanceSafe’s Mitchell Gomez

Mitchell Gomez is the executive director of DanceSafe, a peer-based, harm reduction nonprofit organization that promotes health and safety within the electronic music community. Among their other initiatives, DanceSafe provides drug checking services at events and festivals to detect the presence of potentially deadly adulterants. Gomez commented on the lasting impact of the RAVE Act legislation on risk reduction services in an earlier Lucid News story. An advocate for broad legalization of drugs, Gomez sat down with Lucid News to talk about his perspective on the one year anniversary of psilocybin decriminalization in Denver, what drug education should look like, what it might take for the U.S. to end the drug war, and more.

In the last year, psilocybin has been decriminalized in Denver, and plant-based psychedelics have been decriminalized in Oakland and Santa Cruz. What do you think about this strategy? 

I try to be an incrementalist. I certainly think that people not being arrested for psilocybin is better than people being arrested for psilocybin. Hands down. I’ll take all of those wins. But for anybody who thinks, if we just decriminalize possession, drug deaths will drop— I don’t think so. I think general decriminalization—an ending of the drug war as a system—is the right way to do it, rather than having this fight molecule by molecule. 

I’ve heard that focusing on plant-based drugs also potentially promotes an idea of: “This drug is natural and therefore better.”  

Yeah. “Natural” and “safe” are not synonyms. Cyanide is found everywhere. Totally natural. A couple hundred milligrams of that and it’s lights out forever. And LSD, which is synthetic, has no known fatal dose.

What are some of the reasons you think the United States hasn’t tried a more universal legalization approach?

This country was literally founded by Puritans. That strain has never left us. The idea that we should punish people who are enjoying things is a real strain in American politics. You see it in the anti-abortion debate too: “Don’t have sex if you don’t want a child.”

The decriminalization measures happened fast, whereas it took decades of work to get cannabis through. Why do you think that is? 

There’s an old saying that goes, “society progresses funeral by funeral.” One thing is the generation that really grew up deeply believing drug war propaganda is dying. Literally dying. Our generation just never bought into it. We’re the DARE generation. The people who went through DARE were statistically more likely to wind up using “hard drugs” than people who received no drug education.

The first time I realized LSD was still a thing that existed was in my DARE class. I was 13 or 14. I thought it was something that existed in the ’60s, and that the government had wiped out these drugs. This officer was talking about LSD and how it comes on little pieces of paper and saying it can cause schizophrenia. I certainly had some follow-up questions: “Who are these people I should be seeking to avoid?” And he started talking about raves. I managed to find a party that weekend.

What do you think drug education in schools should look like instead? 

I think the way to educate children is not through exaggerating the potential dangers, because that actually backfires. When you tell generations of children that if they smoke pot they’ll go insane, and then their friends smoke pot and none of their friends go insane, they immediately start being like, “Well maybe they lied about cocaine, maybe they lied about heroin, maybe they lied about meth.” 

There are drugs out there that are intrinsically more dangerous than other drugs. I still don’t have any judgment call on whether or not people should be doing them, but in terms of biochemical risk, there’s a difference between psilocybin and heroin. But you can’t message that to children if you’re lying to them about the dangers of psilocybin. 

So I think the solution is to be brutally honest about both the risks and benefits of these substances. And if that means more people are using substances, it means more people are using substances. If it means less people are dying, then it’s a win.

How would you describe the strategy the U.S. is using to respond to drug-related deaths now?

The head of the DEA under the first Bush said: the goal of the DEA is to make drug use so dangerous that only a crazy person would do it. So it’s an explicit harm maximization policy. They want drug use to be more dangerous. They want people to be injured by substance use. Because they think if they can make it dangerous enough, people will just make the rational decision to stop. They’re wrong.

People often ascribe very sinister motives to prohibitionists. I think a lot of them are being very honest about what they want. They want to end drug use. They believe by increasing the harms they can achieve that goal. They believe that substance use is a detriment to society, a detriment to users, that it’s worth sacrificing the Fourth Amendment to end these things. I don’t think ending the Fourth Amendment was the goal. They clearly feel it’s a trade off that’s worth it. 

But I think, as a society, we have to accept that the balance between slightly more substance use and Fourth Amendment violations, private prisons, the fentanyl crisis, is a balance we can live with. 

What might happen if drugs were broadly legalized? 

Step one is just stop tomorrow. No more people being arrested for drugs. And then we can discuss what comes next. I’m not necessarily saying sell heroin at 7-11. Maybe a prescription model.

Do what Switzerland does. They started this program almost two decades ago. Someone with a diagnosed substance use disorder can get free prescription heroin. HMT. Heroin Maintenance Therapy. They give them enough not to go into withdrawals. They’re not trying to wean them off. They’re not trying to stop them. They give them what they need. And the side effect of doing that was they completely collapsed the heroin black market in Switzerland. 

If you don’t have people looking every day for heroin, the infrastructure of struggling doesn’t make sense. If you just take all of the addicts out of the user population, the black market goes away. Now, people are just aging out of the program. Very few new people are coming in. It just works.

What do you think it would take to get the U.S. to that point? 

I think that the system is so deeply broken that we actually have a moment of change here where we can really take this on. We now have the largest prison population of any country in the history of the world. Both as a percentage of population and in absolute numbers. Any country in history. Fifty percent of them are there directly because of drug charges. Of that other 50 percent it’s probably another 50 percent that are there for tertiary crimes related to prohibition—like people robbing people to feed their heroin habit. Except heroin isn’t any more expensive to produce than refined sugar. It’s only expensive because it’s so illegal that every person down the chain needs to make a profit that makes sense to the risk they’re taking.

I also know that what ended alcohol prohibition was not people out there with picket signs fighting for beer. It was the Depression. We couldn’t afford to enforce prohibition anymore. So I suspect that major economic pain could actually bring about the end of drug prohibition. We’re already spending so much money on imprisoning these people. I don’t know how much worse it can get.

Our bridges are all collapsing, our roads are all falling apart. How much worse can this get before we just like stop wasting money on frivolous shit like arresting people over plants? Clearly worse than now, that’s the answer. I don’t know how much worse than now.

Do you think the Depression resulting from COVID-19 could turn the country in that direction? 

This is an unprecedented economic crisis, and all options to fix the economy should be on the table. It is estimated that ending the drug war would save us 41 billion in law enforcement costs alone, not to mention the hundreds of billions generated in tax revenue and the saved lives by ending fentanyl adulteration. It is, clearly, the right choice. 

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