Decriminalizing Addiction

Catharine Dockery
Jun 13 · 3 min read

It’s rare to find any silver lining in the opioid crisis. Addiction and overdoses related to opioids have been a problem for years, and this crisis has been long-developing without much acknowledgment or effort from government officials. Just a few days ago, I found this ad on the 4/5 train:

While the opioid crisis is tragic, this advertisement gave me hope. It’s rare to be able to observe societal change as it happens. Such an advertisement would have been impossible without a new attitude towards the use of drugs: addiction is first and foremost a medical problem and not a criminal one.

Treating addiction as a health issue is essential, and frankly requires a measure of sympathy for those struggling with the use of substances. Sadly, drug policy in the United States has often been used as a blunt tool of mass incarceration and criminalization.

The changing tones of this crisis lay bare the endemic biases in our national drug policies. I still remember my shock at the starkness of an activist’s response at a Q&A session when she was asked why the opioid crisis was being treated as a health issue while cannabis enforcement had for years (and in many places continues to be) treated as a criminal issue: the color of the faces we associated with each problem is different.

Without diving too deep into the history of drug policy in the US, I find it informative to examine the current system of drug scheduling. In Schedule I we find products like cannabis, psilocybin, MDMA, and peyote — drugs which supposedly have no potential for medical purposes. Schedule II contains many opioids, including the deadly fentanyl which is to blame for many of the fatalities in the current crisis. While I don’t disagree that fentanyl could have medical uses, it’s hard to comprehend what just system would place fewer restrictions on scientific research for fentanyl than cannabis or psilocybin.

The drug scheduling system, for all its faults, is an incredibly static categorization requiring intense legislative effort to adjust. For example, hemp products (including hemp CBD), were considered part of Schedule I until the passage of the Farm Bill in 2018. It’s bizarre to think that hemp, a plant that can produce both fiber and CBD, was considered to have a higher potential for abuse and fewer applications for medicine than fentanyl. While the hemp example has since been corrected, much more work remains to be done.

We’ve been encouraged to see progress towards reorganizing the system around medical science, including an effort by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to eliminate language banning spending on “any activity that promotes the legalization of any drug or other substance in Schedule I.” We need to better understand these substances, and that requires a mature medical and scientific approach above fear-mongering and xenophobia.

I’m hopeful for progress on national drug policy and social opinions on drug use and addiction, driven by activists like the Drug Policy Alliance. I’ve had people ask me how I can in good conscience invest in companies in verticals like gambling, cannabis, or nicotine. Some older members of my family think I’m a drug dealer rather than an investor. These questions are generated from binary viewpoints, often the same ones which led us down a path of illogical drug scheduling, mass incarceration, and the criminalization of addiction.

At Vice Ventures, we believe strongly in the power of scientific research on substances, the importance of treating addiction as a medical condition, and in the responsibility of investors and founders to ask themselves serious questions about how products will impact consumers. Along with that comes a serious focus on harm reduction, which again should be built upon a scientific and medical approach. The other cornerstones of this approach are informed consumers, availability of addiction treatment and resources, and product quality and safety which correspond to a mature regulatory environment.

Vice Ventures enthusiastically adds our voices to the activists pushing for national reform on drug policy, incarceration, and criminalization. If you’re interested in contributing to the cause of drug policy reform in the United States, please consider donating to the Drug Policy Alliance.

Catharine Dockery

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Founding Partner of Vice Ventures. A believer in budding industries, with growth as resilient as weeds.