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“Considering the failures of the War on Drugs, perhaps our modern societies should look into the past and learn something from ‘the primitive’ so that we might find out how to maximize the potential benefits and minimize the potential for harm of substances that humans have been using for millennia,” – Dr. Elisa Guerra-Doce, associate professor of prehistory at the University of Valladolid

As many drug policy experts have pointed out in recent years, the War on Drugs has really been more of a war on people. Not only has it been wasteful and ineffective, societal ills like crime, addiction, and drug-related deaths have been blamed on drugs and the supposed immorality of those who choose to use them. But the truth is, the consequences of the War on Drugs is actually the result of the zero-tolerance criminalization of these substances rather than the inherent nature of the drugs themselves. It can take a while for that idea to sink in, as it’s basically the opposite of everything we’ve been told, but years of failed policy and successful drug legalization efforts leave little doubt.

So how do we go about unlearning everything we’ve been told about mind-altering substances? It helps that this attitude has started to become more mainstream in recent years, going from a revolutionary outsider perspective to a stance taken publicly by some of the highest drug authorities in the world. But beyond that, the solution we really need is harm reduction, a movement that provides upfront education about the effects and potential dangers of drugs and seeks above all to minimize harm for those who choose to alter their consciousness regardless of their reason.

Reframing Our Understanding of Drugs

People have sought out ways to alter their consciousness to gain new perspectives, insights, and experiences since pretty much the beginning of human culture. Substance use is an intrinsic part of human society; it appears in nearly every culture that’s ever been studied. Indigenous peoples exhibit the most mature understanding of mind-altering substances, often using them as a spiritual sacrament or for practical purposes such as stimulation during extended periods of manual labor. Drugs are neither good nor bad, but they are simply part of the cornucopia of medicine, and as such, have appropriate uses and a potential to be misused. It’s the artificial separating out of some drugs as “bad” and others as acceptable that underlies the failure of the War on Drugs. It’s ultimately as ridiculous as outlawing saws but accepting hammers, or making blue dresses illegal but celebrating dresses of other colors.

The biggest harm done by the War on Drugs is not only this fundamental error in drug classification but the decades-long spread of misinformation. We’ve been taught that illegal drugs like psychedelics — which have been scientifically proven in countless studies to be generally safe and have dozens of therapeutic uses  have no redeeming qualities whatsoever, while prescription drugs that kill over 20,000 people a year and trap many more in cycles of addiction are considered socially acceptable and important to human health. So again the question arises: how do we go about unlearning what we’ve been told and create public policy that embraces the truth about mind-altering substances? The harm reduction approach lies in sharing the truth rather than propaganda and reaching out a helping hand to those who are misusing substances and becoming addicted.

Harm Reduction in Action

There are some great examples of harm reduction in practice all over the world, ranging from entire countries adopting harm reduction policies to nonprofit organizations working on the front lines to help and educate people. Here are a few highlights:

  • In 2001, Portugal became the first European nation to decriminalize all drugs and offer treatment rather than incarceration for drug addicts. Fifteen years later, they’ve seen drug use rates among young people drop, HIV infection rates drop, drug-related deaths drop, and the amount of people actively seeking help for addiction rise.
  • Needle exchange programs where addicts have access to clean needles have helped to reduce HIV infection rates across the US and in many other countries.
  • Nonprofit organizations like DanceSafe offer peer education about drugs at music festivals and on-site drug testing so that people can avoid overdosing on mislabeled street drugs.
  • The Zendo Project and similar groups like Harmonia create safe spaces at festivals for people who are having difficult psychedelic experiences and offer educational outreach and harm reduction training throughout the year.
  • The newly appointed “Drug Czar” Michael Botticelli has publicly stated that the drug war has been a failure and that substance abuse should be treated as a health issue rather than a criminal one.

Take a Part in Harm Reduction

If you’re interested to be an advocate for harm reduction, there are a few things you can do. Reach out to local harm reduction organizations and volunteer your time. Encourage friends and family to learn more about the research that’s shown that the message we’ve been told about drugs has been distorted. Most of all, be honest and open with your own experiences with mind-altering substances, demonstrate discernment and respect when approaching any drug experience, and be an example of a responsible advocate who wants public opinion and policy to reflect scientific fact.