How to change drug policy

There's a growing 'psychedelic community' working for acknowledgement of the potential positive effects of certain hallucinogens and a policy change to reflect them. While they have increasingly solid research to back up their arguments, it continues to be a tough sell. In this extract from his recent book the author discusses how to go about changing drug policy.

Neal Goldsmith
25 February 2014

Simply put, the body of psychedelic research represents one of the most egregious examples extant of a failure to translate research findings into policy and practice. As such, a conscious effort to understand and influence the dynamics of the policy-making process should improve the utilization of the results of psychedelic research. What follow, then, are some guidelines for putting our money where our mouths are—that is, for translating our insights on policy and practice into effective action and concrete change.

The Policy-Change Process
Policy change is a process, running from initial awareness through interest, evaluation, and trial to ultimate adoption of a proposed policy innovation. To change policy it is important to apply different levers at different points in this process.

As a human process, policy change is strongly influenced by communication about the quality of the data, about the costs and benefits and value of the new policy to the people involved, and about larger strategic and market forces. The process of policy change isn’t quite predictable, but it is malleable and therefore leveragable. As such, we can enter into a policy change initiative with the recognition that the regulatory climate can be influenced through communication and that the success rate of policy change proposals can be improved.  

Something new is happening in the policy research community. An interwoven set of tools for policy change, including advanced management and planning methodologies and technologies, as well as practical experience gained over the past fifty years of drug policy research and analysis, are coming to critical mass. These techniques, in turn, can enable new, technically oriented proponents of psychedelic research and practice to influence public policy as never before.

Today, these powerful new tools—as local as your laptop, as global as the Internet—are enabling activists to lobby regulatory agencies more effectively. Moreover, the same technology that enables significant participation by local interest groups can also enable the decentralization of the public policymaking process as a whole. In effect, decentralized technologies in hardware (PCs), software (e.g., social networking, groupware), Internet sites (MAPS.org, MoveOn.org, even YouTube.com), and wireless networking have a reciprocal, decentralizing effect on the policy-making apparatus and process, ultimately fostering modularization and decentralization in the structure of bureaucratic power. When we decentralize the technology that enables the bureaucracy, the bureaucracy decentralizes to fit the new infrastructure. Then the bureaucracy fits better to the fundamentally decentralized nature of society, facilitating further alignment of the policy-making process with the community it is meant to serve.

Strategic Alignment
Strategic alignment means “tailoring policy change strategies for key government priorities.” The psychedelic community cannot have an agenda entirely its own and expect to have an impact on public policy. Even if it is a “good” agenda, such as implementing the results of state-of-the-art drug policy research, if it’s not aligned with the power vector of the policy community, it will likely fail. To be effective in this new, fast, distributed environment, we must align our drug strategy with the current momentum of government. For example, psychedelic therapy research targeted toward treating drug addiction or alcoholism will have a better chance of gaining support than a protocol targeted toward the benefits of recreational use. (As is the case with the Chinese martial art form known as tai chi, once we are aligned with the opposition, we can then use its own momentum to change its trajectory.)

Alignment ultimately becomes a question of which leads to greater success in changing policy: competition or partnership? It is basic social Darwinism—over time, partnership brings success to the most people and provides the most positive net outcome for the country. Therefore, before we can change policy, we have to have policy-change objectives that are aligned with the key priorities of senior government officials and commercial stakeholders.

Even so, it is not the alignment that will provide an opening for effective policy change as much as the presence and advocacy of influential key actors involved in the policy-making process. You must be where policy is being formed when it is happening; it is very difficult to implement change when strategizing from an armchair.

A note of caution, however, is in order: an uncritical emphasis on alignment with the priorities of the powerful can lead to co-optation and is less helpful than no alignment at all. In developing strategies for policy change, advocates find success by building relationships with government agencies and professional groups. As relationships of trust develop, friendships and interdependencies emerge. This is natural, but potentially leads to bias, and so again, care must be taken not to be co-opted by the opposition.

What is the most effective role of the psychedelic community in changing the drug-policy bureaucracy? Partnership. Given the skills required and power matrix involved, the only way for drug-policy change advocates to be effective and the only way for a government-policy change effort to succeed is through partnerships. How are we doing on this goal? Results have been mixed. While psychedelic professionals recognize political compromise as crucial to bureaucratic change, many are less than thrilled with the idea of aligning with a set of monolithic government agencies in the process. Nonetheless, while policy-change projects generally are run by regulatory agencies and executive or legislative committees, the public interest is so fundamental a consideration in changing drug policy that change agents and advocacy groups inevitably also play a large role.

Psychedelic advocacy groups would seem a natural choice as partners— with psychedelic research and practice supporters among staff in regulatory agencies and legislatures—in a policy change effort. Over the years, effective advocacy groups have honed the skills required for successful policy-change efforts: collaborative focus, process analysis and system design skills, change management savvy, and teamwork. (The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and the Council on Spiritual Practices are case studies in partnership with sometimes opposing or recalcitrant institutional “partners.”) Interestingly, role models for psychedelic advocacy groups include conservative religious groups, which have become enormously influential in recent years in large part due to their leveraging of marketing and media tools.

Levers of Change
When the advocacy group or change agent has the skill set, what resources should they access? Central among these resources are the changemanagement levers: research, people, and context. Each one is necessary, but none is sufficient on its own to ensure change. The research data must be valid and reliable, but must also be relevant to the needs of key actors in various constituency groups. In addition, the larger political, economic, and cultural forces that make up the strategic context in which the government bureaucracy operates must all be addressed. Paying attention to these three interdependent variables—research, people, and context—can improve the odds of a successful bureaucratic or policy-change effort.

The Research Data: The quality of the research design and resultant data gathered is the necessary foundation of success in the dissemination and application of policy research, including efforts at data-based organizational change. If the research data are not valid and reliable, no subsequent efforts at implementation and change will, or should, succeed. Good research data come in many varieties, however, including biochemical analysis of blood and medical imaging of psychedelic subjects under varying conditions, clinical observations by experimenters, content analysis of subject accounts or of creative output such as artwork, questionnaires and surveys assessing attitudes and opinions of subjects and the public, and demographic analysis of population data. There is a preferred method of analysis for each of these types of data, from the statistical to the qualitative, as well as criteria for significance. While quantitative data enable precise analysis, qualitative forms of data provide breadth and context that can substantially improve the validity of our inferences, our logic, and our generalizations from the data.

The People in the Organization: Even though a relevant, data-based proposal for change in a policy or bureaucracy is the necessary starting point, facts are by no means sufficient to ensure change. Due to human anxiety over change or loss of power and esteem, resistance is to be expected. Without organizational support, even a policy proposal based on valid and reliable research data is unlikely to be implemented.

There are two sets of people levers, because in most organizational settings there are two influential interest groups. One group comprises the decision makers—the agency heads, key legislators, influential lobbyists, and top pharmaceutical industry executives, for example—who, after study, advice, and arm-twisting, will be the ones to develop the consensus on whether to introduce a new drug policy to the nation, or even to revamp the drug- policymaking apparatus. Yet decisions made by fiat from on high in a bureaucracy have a very poor track record of successful implementation. This is due to the second interest group—the implementers—who actually craft and implement the new policies. While the president can always say, “We’re going to do it!” the policy wonks and bureaucratic rank and file of each interest group can still dramatically alter or even kill a project if they’re not on board. To improve the likelihood of change in bureaucracies and policies, the needs of both key interest groups must be addressed.

Decision makers and implementers tend to be motivated by different issues. In large corporations, such as pharmaceutical firms, decision makers tend to be motivated by quantifiable proof that the product will perform safely and effectively and garner a large market share, thus contributing to the organization’s bottom line and so to their annual bonus (and job security). Staff implementers, on the other hand, tend to be motivated more by the effect of any resultant changes in procedure on their span of control and quality of worklife. Both groups want assurance that a decision to support psychedelic research and practice won’t blow up in their face politically, compromising their careers.

In order to avoid irrelevance in the eyes of decision makers and the “notinvented- here” syndrome among staff, change agents must address each interest group’s unique priorities. In fostering policy change among top decision makers, we must manage decision-maker concerns about safety, efficacy, and economic viability. In fostering policy change among staff, we must safeguard a sense of ownership by sharing decision-making authority and building trust relationships. We must provide political air cover for both groups through the liberal application of hard data and a flexible, strategic perspective on real politics (which I will discuss next).

The Strategic Context: Even with valid and reliable policy research data in hand, attending to interest group issues is a necessary but still insufficient condition to effect databased policy innovation and bureaucratic change. The third and final lever of policy change is the strategic context—the political, cultural, and economic big-picture issues that constrain or facilitate change. These are issues of market trends for products based on psychedelics, the political climate, the economy, and community and public-relations concerns, all of which can derail an innovative policy if not addressed.

One particularly determinant—and particularly thorny—issue is that of the way we finance our political campaigns. It is clear that politics follows the golden rule of business: “Whoever makes the gold makes the rules.” In other words, our politicians serve those who finance their campaigns, and so, their career continuity. If we are to sway public policy, we must follow the admonition of Watergate’s Deep Throat and “follow the money.” We must either reform campaign finance rules, or use them full out to the advantage of our cause.

It is only when all three levers of change—research, people, and context—have been considered that we have both the necessary and the sufficient conditions to facilitate data-based change in policy and bureaucracy. Understanding the change process, aligning with policy priorities, and skillfully using all available levers of change are all essential if we are to influence policies and bureaucracies. Even so, without changing our worldview—and our personal values and priorities—we will be unsuccessful in effecting change in the outside world.

Extract from "Psychedelic Healing" by Neal M. Goldsmith, Ph.D.© 2010 Healing Arts Press. Reprinted with permission by the publisher Inner Traditions / Bear & Co. 

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