Allan Steiner

In 2016, I found myself with the horrifying responsibility of informing traditional cannabis farmers, with decades of cultivation experience, that their assets and knowledge would not be enough to move through the legal licensing process following California’s legalization of recreational cannabis. For some farmers, there were options: work with local government to find a solution, join forces with other local growers, carefully consider taking on investment. For many others, the cost of continuing operations in any form was simply unfeasible, forcing them underground. Many of the most significant barriers that prevented cannabis farmers from participating in the legal market were documented in California Growers Association’s report, An Emerging Crisis: Barriers to Entry in California Cannabis. This report categorizes these major barriers into five main categories:

Timeline:  Nonstop deadlines and evolving requirements combined with optimistic timelines

Local Policy Barriers: Local bans; lack of local permits and land use requirements

State Policy Barriers: Regulatory confusion, a shortage of testing labs, lack of legal transportation from rural farms

Financial Barriers: Lack of banking, no access to loans, subpar investment agreements, and high taxes

Cultural Barrier: Growers living off the grid, mistrust of government due to the War on Drugs, prejudice against growers, and lack of business acumen

Advocates in the psychedelic space question why the cannabis movement would have fought for policies that disadvantaged traditional practitioners while allowing wealthy investors to cash in.

Advocates in the psychedelic space question why the cannabis movement would have fought for policies that disadvantaged traditional practitioners while allowing wealthy investors to cash in. The short answer is that they didn’t. During our talk at the Psychedelic Liberty Summit, Steve DeAngelo explained how the original language intended for the 2016 ballot was changed dramatically when Sean Parker, the key financial backer for Prop 64, fired the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), who had worked with stakeholders across the cannabis industry to develop language for the initiative. Parker then replaced DPA with an outside consultant who made compromises that advocates never would have allowed. Within its 62 pages, this new version of Prop 64 mandated local control, high taxation, heavy regulation, and packaging requirements that rival the pharmaceutical industry. All of this (and more) led to huge barriers to entry that prevented a majority of traditional cannabis operators from participating in the newly legal market.

While the goals of psychedelic advocates should be different than those of the cannabis movement, the system within which change must happen remains largely the same.

This anecdote should serve as a cautionary tale. While the goals of psychedelic advocates should be different than those of the cannabis movement, the system within which change must happen remains largely the same. Compromise is an inevitable reality of policy work, but we must understand which compromises are acceptable and which threaten harm. My time in cannabis has taught me many lessons about the role of advocacy in modern politics; advocating for psychedelic liberty will require you learn them, too.

Money and Politics

The cost of moving Prop 64 through the ballot initiative process was over $25 million. Finding the money necessary to enact change is never easy, especially with the countdown clocks embedded within election cycles, so there is a temptation to make compromises in order to accomplish goals. But, in our current system where money is power, that power must be deserving of trust. It is important that those with the ability to finance important policy shifts are prevented from disempowering stakeholders when it suits their interests. The trust between stakeholders and those with the financial means to support them is sacred; this trust should only be shared with those who understand the gravity of the work.

The Model for Psychedelics Should Not Follow the Model for Cannabis

Models of psychedelic liberty that benefit from encouraging users to do more of a substance in the name of profit will ultimately cause harm. 

Psychedelics should not be regulated like cannabis, nor should a for-profit model be applied to their distribution and use. Models of psychedelic liberty that benefit from encouraging users to do more of a substance in the name of profit will ultimately cause harm. While this may seem self-evident, there is often a temptation among those supporting policy initiatives financially to “get something for their money”—this is an instinct that psychedelic advocates must push back against with both investors looking to start entrepreneurial projects and government officials looking for tax revenue. Profit motives are not necessary for expanding human freedom and, in the case of psychedelics, threaten real harm.

Get to Know Your Local Cannabis Activists

Activists who have fought tirelessly for years to change cannabis laws understand the nuance of the barriers that one should expect to encounter.

Anybody interested in changing psychedelic policy should familiarize themselves with those who have been on the front lines of cannabis policy in their region, as well as the history of the cannabis movement. While models of psychedelic liberty should not follow models of cannabis legalization, working with those who have experience with local process is essential. Activists who have fought tirelessly for years to change cannabis laws understand the nuance of the barriers that one should expect to encounter. Because so much drug policy reform happens at the local level, there is no single approach that fits everywhere. Importantly, not all cannabis professionals are advocates, and knowing the difference between advocates and opportunists is essential. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) has active chapters in most regions and can be a good starting point for finding advocates in your area. For coverage of day-to-day shifts in US drug policy, follow Marijuana Moment. For an overview of policies across the globe, Prohibition Partners has put out a series of reports offering a good starting point; although, be aware, these reports are geared towards investors, not advocates.

Get Involved in Local Politics

Civics is bizarre, frustrating, and slow; if you’re new to it, it will be much harder to be successful in your advocacy. Make a point of participating in local city council meetings and following specific issues through the process. By educating yourself about the process when the stakes are lower, you’ll know what to expect when they are high. Once you’ve developed a general understanding of local politics, repeat this process with state and national issues.

As an advocate, your enthusiasm won’t be put into law, but the language you support will.

Learn to read policy. You don’t need to be a legal scholar, but you should be able to read through and understand the language that you’re advocating for. If something doesn’t make sense, find somebody who can answer your questions, and then question those answers. As an advocate, your enthusiasm won’t be put into law, but the language you support will. Watch out for language that stigmatizes drug users and sellers, or puts too much control in the hands of government regulators, who tend to be uninformed and ill-equipped to address the psychedelic medicines.

Include Traditional Practitioners and Marginalized Groups in Your Advocacy

Changes to policy that do not include traditional and underground psychedelic practitioners will separate those who are allowed to practice from those who face criminal penalties for their work. This is the struggle traditional cannabis farmers have faced in the fight to remain legal. It’s not enough to build a movement that recognizes and learns from traditional, indigenous, and marginalized cultures. We must demand that these groups have a seat at the table as stakeholders advocating for their own future.

Don’t expect marginalized groups to come to you if you’re not going to them first.

Bringing people to the table requires a concerted effort, especially because there are so many reasons for distrust. Don’t expect marginalized groups to come to you if you’re not going to them first.

Find Other Advocates, and Work Together

The advocates you work with today will be with you for decades.  Be kind to one another and don’t create unnecessary divisions. You won’t always agree on everything, but your ability to work together to find a unified voice when speaking to lawmakers will be essential.
Learn to understand the opposition of naysayers. Address fears with calm compassion and curiosity. You may find those you expect to disagree with actually share many similar views. Cognitive liberty is a largely bipartisan issue, so don’t invent barriers where they don’t exist.

Don’t forget that advocacy exists beyond government. Speaking honestly about your connection to plant medicine and psychedelics can normalize historically-taboo practices. The #ThankYouPlantMedicine campaign is an example of this lesson in action.

Government is a Poor Executor of Ethical Justice

The tools of government are blunt instruments, vulnerable to loopholes and ill-equipped to handle the nuance of advocating for psychedelic ethics. Ethics is the duty of advocacy. Non-binding ethical and moral guidelines from groups outside of government—such as the North Star Ethics Pledge—aim to set clear principles that define what reform should look like. While these principles lack the enforcement capabilities of government, they are key in helping advocates identify when it’s necessary to call out bad actors, and signaling when it may be best to delay political gains because somebody’s self-interest endangers the greater good.

Understand the Drug War

We are in the midst of a devastating drug war that has led to unfathomable levels of mass-incarceration and harm. Similar to how one wouldn’t run onto a battlefield in the midst of war without situational context, psychedelic advocates should engage themselves in understanding the context of the drug war before participating in advocacy.  Avoid making statements that might stigmatize drug users, sellers, and practitioners. If this is new territory for you, follow organizations such as Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC), Students For Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), Chacruna’s Council for the Protection of Sacred Plants, and Transform Drug Policy Foundation for educational resources.

Accordingly, psychedelic advocates should be aware of how local fights might disrupt important advocacy happening at the state and national level. Lawyers and lobbyists working on drug policy reform have expressed concern that psychedelic policy at the state level might scare federal lawmakers considering national reform agendas such as descheduling cannabis. This isn’t to say that psychedelic advocates should put their efforts on hold but, rather, that they should take responsibility for considering accidental harms that may result from their work.

No Easy Answers

If you’re signing up to advocate for psychedelic liberty, expect a long road ahead. Educate yourself on the systems you hope to change, and find others who are interested in doing the same. Expect this work to be challenging and often unappreciated but do it knowing that things will look much worse if you don’t.  Advocacy demands more than enthusiasm, and democracy only works if we’re prepared to engage in it.

Best of luck; I look forward to fighting by your side.

Art by Marialba Quesada.

Further Reading:

A number of articles that have been written about applying lessons of cannabis to psychedelics. Here are some that are worth your time:

Stone, K. (2018, October 3). It’s too late for cannabis, but what about the future of the psychedelic industry? Chacruna. https://chacruna.net/too-late-cannabis-what-about-future-psychedelic-industry/

Senter, A. E. (2020). Psychedelic legalization: An opportunity to change our perspective on equity. MAPS Bulletin, 30, (1). https://maps.org/news/bulletin/articles/439-bulletin-spring-2020/8136-psychedelic-legalization-an-opportunity-to-change-our-perspective-on-equity

Aldworth, B. (2020) Gender equity in cannabis and psychedelics. MAPS Bulletin, 29(1). https://maps.org/news/bulletin/articles/436-maps-bulletin-spring-2019-vol-29,-no-1/7721-gender-equity-in-cannabis-and-psychedelics-spring-2019




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