New legislation should start difficult, necessary conversations

When Ohioans voted in favor of Issue 1 and Issue 2 on Tuesday, it signaled they don’t want politicians controlling their bodies. It should also be the start of a larger conversation.
Ohio Statehouse
Ohio StatehouseCreative Commons

If one thing is clear after Tuesday’s vote, it’s that Ohioans want to make their own choices about their bodies.

Issues 1 and 2 are fundamentally about people being able to make choices about their health and happiness. And while Issue 1 has rightfully dominated headlines in the early aftermath of the election, with Ohioans voting overwhelmingly in favor of a constitutional amendment that ensures access to abortion and other forms of reproductive health care (and Republican politicians immediately pledging to undo it), there are aspects of Issue 2 that haven’t been considered. Namely that the vote to legalize recreational marijuana doesn’t go far enough. And that the legislation should serve as the beginning of a difficult and necessary larger conversation.

This could be an opportunity to discuss the war on people who use drugs and how it ultimately causes more harm. About 5,000 Ohioans die every year because, as a state and a country, we refuse to acknowledge that people use drugs. This refusal has led to policies that foster death and imprisonment.

Last week, Columbia University neuroscientist Carl Hart spoke in front of about 100 harm reduction workers at a conference organized by advocacy organization Harm Reduction Ohio in Granville. 

Hart explained how his own research about drug use developed over time, how he started studying drugs because he wanted to save people from themselves. His perspective shifted as he encountered research that contradicted his beliefs, along with people who challenged him to think differently. "Who gives you the right to tell me I can't handle drugs?" activist Dean Wilson once asked him.

It was a good question, Hart said, “Who do I think I am to interfere with people's bodily autonomy?”

In his book Drug Use for Grown-Ups, Hart argues that taking drugs should be a decision reserved for grown-ups – people he defines as “autonomous, well-functioning, healthy adults. These individuals meet their parental, occupational, and social responsibilities; their drug use is well-planned in order to minimize any disruptions of life activities.” 

At his talk, Hart was more concise. A grown-up is "someone who handles their shit and is a normal, boring-ass person,” he said.

Hart is not suggesting this would work for people suffering from “mental illness or experiencing acute emotional distress.” And he’s not talking about addiction, either, noting that too often “use” and “addiction” are conflated.

“I tried to write about the love, about how I wish we treated each other better,” Hart told the audience. He was clearly frustrated by humanity’s mean-spirited nature, which often takes center stage in our various systems – our law enforcement, our justice system, our legislature. And I’d argue that an inordinate amount of that hate is dropped at the feet of the most marginalized in our culture, including those who use socially unacceptable drugs. (Take HB 230, for example, a bill that would enhance penalties for trafficking and deaths caused by fentanyl, and which is currently racing through the Ohio house.)

Our culture and our laws treat alcohol – and now marijuana – as socially acceptable substances. Both are regulated and taxed. And when people harm others because of their use, they can be held accountable. 

The freedom we have to consume these substances also comes with a degree of comfort. When you drink alcohol, there’s now an expectation that it has not in any way been tainted, and that you won’t die. Similar regulation more broadly applied could safeguard the lives of all drug users, and not just those who choose to ingest the handful of substances that have been signed off on via legislation.

What’s missing from the conversation about the overdose crisis in the United States is the need for a safe supply. As long as we have prohibition, we will not have a safe supply. 

It’s not an easy conversation. But it’s one of many we should have. 

It’s time to have serious conversations about what policing drug use is really about. It’s time to have serious conversations about the continued harms of prohibition, and the people dying because of it, the families disrupted, the friends lost.  

It’s time to have serious conversations among grown-ups. Among normal, boring-ass people.

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