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Stop looking for ways to expand the failed 'war on drugs'

Michael Schaus
Michael Schaus

With bipartisan efforts to legalize cannabis, renewed discussions about decriminalizing “magic mushrooms” and a growing discontent with drug-war policing practices, there are certainly signs that the American attitude on drug criminalization is starting to change.  

Rochelle Nguyen (D-Las Vegas), for example, has introduced SB242, which would decriminalize psilocybin — the active psychedelic ingredient in “magic mushrooms.” The bill actually does far more than making “shrooms'' less felonious to possess. It would also represent a major shift toward acknowledging the legitimate uses of an otherwise illicit substance by legalizing research into potential medical or therapeutic applications. 

As Michael Pollan wrote in his book How to Change Your Mind, psilocybin’s potential to generate substantial value in psychiatric and therapeutic settings is well worth exploring — and SB242 would make such exploration possible under certain circumstances in the state of Nevada. 

Of course, like our withdrawal from other war zones, withdrawing from the war on certain drugs hasn’t been an entirely smooth process. 

Thanks to stifling regulatory and tax burdens placed on the cannabis industry, for example, the black market for marijuana cultivation and distribution continues to thrive. To combat the continued existence of illicit cannabis operations in Nevada, Assemblyman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas) has even called for regulators to be given greater law enforcement powers

Indeed, policing the illegal markets of an otherwise legal substance is not a problem unique to Nevada. Nonetheless, the very fact that we’re discussing how best to regulate a substance that was outright illegal just a couple decades ago shows tangible progress toward recognizing the failure of zero-tolerance drug policies. 

For all the progress that’s been made, however, prohibitionists remain a prominent component of modern political parties — even if the products they want to prohibit might have changed over the years. 

Assemblyman David Orentlicher (D-Las Vegas), for example, has proposed Assembly Bill 294, which would eventually impose a complete ban on the sale of cigarettes in the state of Nevada by 2030. 

As unlikely as it is that Orentlicher’s proposal will make any progress this session, it’s worth noting that the state of California is considering a similar proposal. Lawmakers in our neighboring state are seriously weighing the possibility of banning all tobacco sales to anyone born after January 1, 2007 with the eventual goal of banning sales entirely. And a city in Massachusetts has already passed its own local version of the law, banning sales to anyone born after January 1, 2000.  

Less aggressive bans, such as outlawing flavored vape products and menthol cigarettes, have already been adopted in California and elsewhere. Even the FDA recently targeted menthol cigarettes and flavored vape products — and Massachusetts is enforcing its own ban on such products by cracking down on illegal distributors.

Apparently, to tobacco prohibitionists, the last half-century of American drug policy offers no lessons about the futility of policing populations into healthier lifestyles. 

As Jacob Grier wrote for Reason Magazine last year, “there is a real risk that American tobacco policy will open a regressive new front in the war on drugs, just as the previous crackdown on psychoactive substances begins to wind down.”

Allowing tobacco policy to devolve into an extension of the drug-war would, indeed, be regressive. Such an approach would likely result in the same aggressive policing tactics used to outlaw America’s addiction to other illicit substances over the course of the last half century.  

Undoubtedly, tobacco abolitionists believe their proposals will result in a healthier, cleaner and more well-functioning society moving forward — but so too did many of the drug warriors of the 20th century. Proposing that we fill our jails with cigarette dealers (and users?) hardly seems like an improvement from the days when we were pouring barrels of whiskey into storm drains or locking up college students for smoking weed in their dorms. 

And given how little drug criminalization has done to curb substance abuse, it’s not even clear that tobacco use would  actually decline much beyond what it already has, even if it was made illegal. A less authoritarian approach to reducing cigarette consumption would be to simply increase educational efforts among smokers, persuading them to voluntarily kick the habit. In fact, education has already proven highly effective in this regard, with smoking rates showing a steady decline since the Mad Men days of the 1960s. 

The mere fact that some adults continue to engage in such an unhealthy habit doesn’t justify opening a new front in the nation’s failed drug war. As we make progress on cannabis legalization and the decriminalization of substances such as psilocybin, we should be discussing ways to move even further away from the Nixon-era’s prohibitionist tendencies — not crafting new policies that replicate them. 

Michael Schaus is a communications and branding expert based in Las Vegas, Nevada, and founder of Schaus Creative LLC — an agency dedicated to helping organizations, businesses and activists tell their story and motivate change. He has more than a decade of experience in public affairs commentary, having worked as a news director, columnist, political humorist, and most recently as the director of communications for a public policy think tank. Follow him at or on Twitter at @schausmichael.


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