What street drugs looking for legalization can learn from marijuana

What street drugs looking for legalization can learn from marijuana

VicesOctober 27, 2017 By Reilly Capps

The world changes fast. What's illegal today may soon be legal tomorrow.

In the world of drugs, society is looking to liberalize now more than ever. People are pushing to keep kratom and kava legal — both are mild, safer replacements of alcohol or opioids, and both are sometimes in the crosshairs of the government. And plenty of people want to legalize mushrooms and LSD — both safe if done right, both good for depression and intensely painful headaches, and both totally and unquestionably illegal.

For some, fighting the government about the curative potential of these drugs might seem like stepping up to Goliath, but there have been real victories. When the DEA tried to ban kratom, for example, the kratom world rose up and beat them back.

Yet while trying to create a new industry around illicit drugs might seem like a pipe dream, there's a clear blueprint for advocates to look to: the legalization of cannabis.

Cannabis was completely illegal 20 years ago. And although it’s only legal for recreational use in a handful of states, marijuana already is the fastest-growing industry on the planet, according to Arcview Market Research’s 2017 report on the marijuana market. Sales hit $6.7 billion in 2016 — a 34 percent jump from the previous year. Arcview expects the legal marijuana market in North America to be nearly $23 billion by 2021 — all without federal legalization.

How did that happen? We spoke with cannabis advocates about what lessons can be learned from the legalization of cannabis, and what could be applied to new drugs seeking widespread approval.

Chris Kantrowitz, a venture capitalist looking to invest in psychedelics, says, "It's not like we have to reinvent the wheel. Cannabis already did it."

Focus on the medicine. In the past, pot lovers have loved to talk about how cannabis makes food yummier or sex sexier or music crisper. But when they stopped focusing on how groovy it is and started focusing on its medicinal properties — on how weed, for example, quelled the nausea of chemotherapy, or eased the pain of AIDS patients — it "created a new perception of cannabis as medicine, and shifted mass perception around this plant," says Liana Sananda Gillooly, outreach manager for Arcview, one of the largest cannabis investor networks.

Expand your user class. Drugs you buy on the darknet or out of the back of someone's car tend to be used by a certain kind of person: adventurous young adults. But when trying to convince grandma and your high school principal that a drug is useful and should therefore be legal, diversity helps. "The dramatic shift in acceptance of marijuana as medicine came when children started to be effectively treated for intractable epilepsy with it, and the media widely covered it," Gillooly says. "Who can argue with helping an innocent child? It put a new face on marijuana."

When the psychedelic research organization MAPS works with veterans, firefighters and police officers to show that MDMA helps PTSD, it opens ears that might have been closed before. Vets respect vets, cops respect cops. Not everyone respects adventurous young adults.

Donate to political causes. Arcview hardly ever holds an event that doesn't also raise money for marijuana legalization. "We don't have a (cannabis) industry without changing laws," Gillooly says.

Be prepared to be too early. To be on Team Kratom or Team Psychedelics in 2017 is like being on Team Internet in 1985. "For psychedelics, it's probably way too early," says Troy Dayton, CEO of Arcview. But, in the long run, being too early might be better than being too late. For Dayton, trying to make money as an investment and research firm in cannabis in 2010 left him hitting walls and having doors closed in his face and sleeping on couches. But in 2012, when legalization hit, Dayton was in exactly the right spot. Suffice to say, he doesn't sleep on couches anymore.

Believe that grand change can happen. "If the last few decades have shown us anything, it's that major shifts can happen on things that are boldly misunderstood," Dayton says, pointing to gay marriage, cryptocurrencies, solar power, Airbnb and Lyft. "When all those first started, people thought they were fricking nuts."

The riches to be drawn from the cannabis legalization fight goes beyond ideas. From the campaign was born great leaders. And so cannabis titans seem likely to play leading roles in the next legalization fight — whether that be kratom, mushrooms, or LSD.

There's "no reason," Dayton says, that the cannabis industry's vast connections, experience and, yes, its vast wealth, "couldn't be used to find ways for other medicines that are misunderstood to become better understood."

You've seen it. Cannabis has built up, over the decades, connections to legislators, donor networks, regular rituals — 4/20, the Cannabis Cups, lobbying days, high-class cannabis tasting parties and concerts — an invisible web that could be used to launch the next medicine into public acceptance.

The question is: when will it happen? And which medicine is next?