Why I Started Reporting on Drugs Beyond Cannabis
My story on reporting on cannabis amidst the U.S. opioid epidemic and finding harm reduction, inspired by Sheila Vakharia's new book
Last month, I interviewed Dr. Sheila Vakharia about her forthcoming book, The Harm Reduction Gap: Helping Individuals Left Behind by Conventional Drug Prevention and Abstinence-only Addiction Treatment, in a Q&A for Truthout. The book discusses how harm reduction has become a way to fill the gap in the current drug policy—of abstinence-only drug resistance education and treatment programs—of services for those who start or continue using drugs.
"My dad loves to tell the story about the day I stopped him from drinking and driving," Vakharia begins the book. Amidst growing up in Ronald Reagan's "Just Say No" phase of the War on Drugs, she recently watched Drug-Free America PSAs that instilled the message: don't drink and drive. The missing context in those PSAs to her as a five-year-old, though, was don't drink alcohol and drive:
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"And so I thought I was doing the right thing when I chased my dad as he walked to the car one morning. I needed to stop him from drunk driving. I screamed, 'Daddy, please don’t drink and drive!' as I ran after him onto the driveway, barefoot in my pajamas, the screen door slamming shut behind me ... But my father, in his suit and tie, was simply sipping a cup of hot black coffee as he unlocked the car door so he could go to work."
While Vakharia is a harm reductionist with over 15 years of working experience in the field, she insists on telling her firsthand experiences growing up in a drug war to prove she wasn't born a harm reductionist.
I, too, wasn't born a harm reductionist. Reading Vakharia’s anecdotes inspired me to share some of my own.
Although I started smoking weed in high school, I didn't know much about cannabis legalization at the time. During my first year of college, I was drawn to my campus’s chapter of NORML, or the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. My college bestie (who later became the token member who didn’t smoke) and I started attending NORML meetings together.
Meanwhile, during the spring semester of 2012, one of my professors assigned my class a final assignment: write a 10-page research paper on topic we're passionate about. I picked cannabis legalization. To conduct my own journalistic research, I tried interviewing an academic researcher by cold-calling his office line, but he shut down the possibility of legalization and even discouraged me from my own research.1
That fall in 2012, I wrote an op-ed for the student newspaper advocating for legalization. I felt nervous about attaching my name to cannabis legalization because of the stigma. I ultimately felt afraid that by supporting legalization, future employers—including the Office of Residence Life who requires students to follow the strict but standard student drug and alcohol policy—wouldn't offer me the same opportunities as someone who wasn't as vocal.2 I published the op-ed anyway. Advocating for legalization felt larger than whatever hypothetical “professional” opportunity could be taken from me.
That November, Colorado and Washington voters passed state referendums legalizing recreational cannabis. Legalization wasn't just a pipe dream; it was real.
Fast forward to fall 2016. While there was a more topical presidential election, four states—California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts—also approved recreational cannabis ballot measures. The recreational cannabis market was expanding. I wanted in on it, but wasn't sure how. I also happened to be on a two-month backpacking trip in Europe. One night in my Airbnb in Prague, I watched Rolling Papers—a 2015 documentary following Ricardo Baca, the first ever "marijuana editor" appointed by a major newspaper, to lead The Denver Post's coverage of Colorado’s emerging recreational cannabis market—on Netflix.
Barely a month after returning from Europe, in January 2017, I subletted a room in a three-bedroom apartment in West Philadelphia. I had an ambiguous goal of pursuing cannabis journalism. The problem? Pennsylvania didn't have recreational cannabis. It was my first time "living on my own"; moving out of my dad place's was already a big leap even at the ripe age of 23. Having grown up in New Jersey, I knew I wasn't ready to relocate farther away to Denver or Seattle, at least not yet. I figured recreational cannabis would soon come to Pennsylvania, who had an establish medical cannabis program, and I'd have the upper hand getting there early.3
In that modest West Philly bedroom, I began collecting bylines: a cannabis tourism feature for Esquire; a Q&A with a 420-friendly therapist for Vice's now defunct women's vertical, Broadly; and services articles on cannabis and sexual health for a menstrual health blog.
That November 2017, the opportunity I'd been waiting for finally came. Drum roll: I landed a regular contributor role at a cannabis news site run by a cannabis fertilizer company and fortunately, was generously paid. I contributed to the site for the next year-and-a-half while also landing bylines at major cannabis outlets like Leafly and High Times.
The more I centered my journalism around cannabis, though, the more I felt conflicted. While I'm proud of much of my cannabis journalism work, I disliked the climate the cannabis media industry took towards commercial content. I soon found myself being commissioned reviews of CBD products over in-depth political reporting on the ever-changing U.S. cannabis laws. I longed for the potential cannabis reporting had to break social norms, such as challenging stigma against people who used cannabis. Now that cannabis was legal, but other drugs weren't, cannabis exceptionalism had taken over.4
Outside of my career, I tried to stay politically engaged. I met so many incredible community organizers, among many who called themselves harm reductionists. Even if they didn’t explicitly identify as harm reductionists, most of these organizers were concerned about the ongoing U.S. opioid epidemic and its impact on the Kensington neighborhood in North Philadelphia. They invited me to meetings among community organizers, social workers, and other harm reductionists who believed in "meeting people who use drugs where they're at" by providing a designated place where they can safely consume drugs, or overdose prevention sites. I started carrying Narcan. I learned how syringe exchange programs help reduce HIV and hepatitis C in their communities. I listened to my comrades who educated me about safe supply: “a legal and regulated supply of drugs with mind/body altering properties that traditionally have been accessible only through the illicit [illegal] drug market.”5
I knew cannabis exceptionalism was wrong, but it wasn't until I was in community with harm reductionists to articulate why cannabis exceptionalism was wrong. I rebranded as a “drug journalist” instead of just a reporting covering cannabis. Harm reduction felt so urgent to write about, given how deadly the opioid epidemic was and still is.
Vakharia's The Harm Reduction Gap documents much of the harm reduction strategies and tactics I learned by cultural osmosis while in community with harm reductionists, including some I’ve even had the pleasure of reporting on. Even given my organizing and journalism experience, I still learned a lot.
Whether you're new to harm reduction or not, pick up The Harm Reduction Gap.
I used the landline to call him in my dorm room, which felt like ancient technology even back then.
I did eventually become a Resident Assistant. During one of the interviews, the only experience from my resume I was asked about was my involvement in NORML.
Pennsylvania has still yet to legalize recreational cannabis at the time of publishing this essay.
Cannabis exceptionalism is characterized as an attitude that upholds cannabis as superior and categorically different from other drugs, especially stigmatized and illegal drugs like meth and heroin. The same attitude can be applied towards psychedelics as psychedelic exceptionalism.
This piece was written by Billy Ray Boyer.