Drug Policy: America, we’re doing it wrong

By Stephanie Thomas, for Elevated Nation

On Saturday, April 22, I attended the National Cannabis Festival in Washington DC.   There I was in our nation’s capital with 7,500 other people celebrating legal cannabis. That same evening in Philadelphia, authorities raided an event where people were also admittedly consuming cannabis.

What’s the difference between the National Cannabis Festival and the Philly Smoke Session?  Geography.

In Washington DC, adult use cannabis is legal. In Philadelphia, while minor marijuana possession has been decriminalized, law enforcement is clearly not ready to accept that.

Some people at the Philly Smoke Session were arrested and charged with various offenses; many others were detained and released after what was certainly a harrowing experience.  Judging from the images I’ve seen on news broadcasts, and media accounts of the event, a huge amount of resources went into the planning and execution of this massive police exercise.  Going forward, countless additional resources will be spent in judicial proceedings and related administrative costs in connection with this exercise.

When it comes to cannabis in America today, the difference between a criminal and a caregiver depends on where someone stands, literally.  In some states, adults can legally purchase and use safe, lab-tested cannabis products from regulated dispensaries.  Those states reap the benefits of increased tax revenue; in Colorado for example, that money is being used to support public education funding and public health initiatives.  In states where cannabis is prohibited, tax dollars continue to flow in the opposite direction, being spent on pursuing the arrest, conviction and incarceration of individuals who, but for their physical location, would otherwise be considered compassionate caregivers.  Instead of supporting public health in Pennsylvania, we’re throwing people in jail.

Twenty years ago this month I went to my first heroin overdose funeral.  I was in my second year of college at University of Pennsylvania, and I went home to South Jersey for the weekend.  I called an old high school friend who still lived nearby to see if anything was going on.  “Yeah,” he said, “Henry’s funeral.  You going?” (Editor’s note: Stephanie’s friend’s name has been changed)

Henry had been a close friend during high school, but I hadn’t seen him in a little over a year.  Henry had overdosed on heroin earlier that week.   The wake was that evening; the funeral service, the next day.   I went to both.  That weekend served as my first high school reunion, albeit a bit impromptu.

During high school, Henry had been in a severe car accident that left him with constant lower back pain.   He faithfully followed a prescribed regimen of codeine and physical therapy throughout most of his junior and senior years of high school, and during the process was inspired to have a career in the medical field.   Henry enrolled in a local college to pursue a degree in healthcare.  It was around that time that the doctors decided that he’d had enough codeine.  The prescriptions stopped.  Henry started to get desperate.

He’d buy (or beg) pharmaceutical opiates from anyone he knew.  When that wasn’t enough, he stole a prescription pad from a doctor’s office and wrote himself prescriptions for codeine.  Eventually someone turned him on to heroin, as a cheaper and more convenient alternative.

I remember the first time he excitedly whispered the word heroin to me.  “Amazing, so relaxing, wonderful, better than sex!” he said, “and you don’t have to use a needle.  You can snort it.”

I was skeptical, but what did I know?  Henry was older than me, and had older friends.  He certainly knew more about drugs than I did.  And besides, he was just snorting it.  I made him promise he would never inject it.  He promised he wouldn’t.  “No needles,” he said. “That shit’s crazy.”

Of course, he didn’t keep his promise to me; his addiction was too strong.  He began mainlining heroin within two months of being introduced to it.  He spiraled downward, crashed his precious car, lost nearly everything, and finally wound up in rehab.  He sobered up, got released, and got an apartment with help from his parents. A few weeks later, Henry relapsed.  Back home in his apartment, and less than a month before his 21st birthday, Henry injected heroin, overdosed and died.

After the events of this past weekend – both in Philadelphia and across the country – I’m bewildered. Disjointed drug policy across America simply doesn’t make sense, and our priorities are completely out of whack. Less than six miles from the White House, I and many other adults legally consumed cannabis and enjoyed the National Cannabis Festival event.  There was no violence and there were no arrests.

What difference does geography make?  In Washington DC, a cannabis event received an award for “commitment to reforming the nation’s failed drug policies and for encouraging public health alternatives to the so-called ‘War on Drugs’”.  In Philadelphia, people went to jail, and a lot of time and money was spent in the process.  In both places, the streets are filled with dangerous drugs that will kill people.  Cannabis is a plant that has never killed anyone, but in Pennsylvania, it’s still an illegal plant.  As such, authorities continue to expend limited resources on picking the low-hanging fruit, rather than use those resources to prevent and treat addiction to seriously damaging drugs.

The heroin problem in Philly has reached a crisis level.  It’s no secret, and it’s certainly nothing new.  Yet precious City resources were used to plan and execute a bust on a pot party, because as one officer reportedly told a party attendee, “Marijuana is still illegal.”

Twenty years have passed since Henry’s last visit, but the open-air heroin market in the Kensington section of Philadelphia continues to thrive.  As far as I know, it’s not advertised on social media, but it’s been on the front page of the newspapers at least once a week for the past few months and has gained national attention.   People have been overdosing and dying in a railroad gulch for over 20 years, and everyone knows about it.    Why aren’t we focusing our time and money on a more severe problem?

Philadelphia, we’re doing it wrong.  Pennsylvania, we’re doing it wrong.  America, we’re doing it wrong.

There’s an impromptu high school reunion being held in a funeral home somewhere in America today.  We need to do better.  Legalize cannabis, end the War on Drugs, and redirect those resources into fighting addiction and saving lives – nationwide.

Stephanie Thomas is the chairwoman of the Philadelphia chapter of WomenGROW. The organization holds monthly networking meetings to connect, educate and empower women and people of color to get involved in the legal cannabis industry.

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