“Weed isn’t a drug, it’s a plant.”

It’s something many of us have heard or even said at some point in our relationship with cannabis. Usually, following an epiphany that everything politicians and the media told us about cannabis is wrong. A few natural conclusions follow: if they lied to us about cannabis, what other drugs are they lying about? If illegal drugs are supposed to be dangerous, then cannabis isn’t a drug.

In a 2017 study of 47 San Francisco Bay Area teenagers, 40 reported using cannabis at least once. The 13 percent defined as regular users (using more than once every two weeks) frequently didn’t perceive cannabis as a hard drug or even a drug at all. Rather, they view it as a hobby or medicine. Many considered cannabis safer than other drugs, including alcohol, which is accurate. 

Demonizing all illegal drugs as tools of legal and moral destruction is part of the war on drugs’ enduring legacy. Any chemical that changes how we feel, think or experience the world is a drug. Cannabis is also a plant, along with other plant-derived drugs like opium, valerian, coca, psilocybin, nicotine, caffeine and many more. Two truths can exist at once.

Paradigm shifts

The pendulum swings slowly — but steadily — away from criminalization and towards health-based drug policies. Trying to escape the war on drugs by arguing cannabis isn’t a drug only reinforces the same narrative that drugs, as classified by law, are inherently dangerous.

Throughout the early 20th century, the White House had two enemies: the Black population and the anti-war left. The most dangerous thing about drugs like cannabis was their affinity for political dissent. By halting research for the medical safety and efficacy of drugs in the 1960s, Nixon solidified a way to crush both. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news,” top Nixon aid John Ehrlichman later admitted. “Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Photo by Christopher Farrugia, courtesy of Pexels

Imperialism by any other name

The world over is still feeling the aftershocks of a nearly eighty-year war. From treaties to foreign aid, the United States government has used the war on drugs to coerce and directly influence international drug law for almost a century. But this war won’t be won or lost. No, the war on drugs will end because our classification of drugs will disappear — it’s already begun.

The line between legal performance enhancement and illegal recreational drugs is more blurry than it’s ever been. Still, reactionary flavours of the past lurk in political and social law. It looks something like the US Anti-Doping Agency and the World Anti-Doping Code — political bodies that campaign for criminalization couched in athletic fairness. This war’s enemy is no longer as straightforward as marginalized populations and scorched coca fields in the wake of Plan Columbia. The new enemies are mostly chemists like Patrick Arnold and BALCO. Users are harder to demonize, too. They look like Shi’Carri Richardson, like me, and like you.

In the words of Delic CEO Matt Stang, “people get so caught up on these stories [that are] built around a binary good versus evil, rather than understanding that things just are, and people take those things and use them to create meaning from them.”