Restoring Fairness and Balance Post-Prohibition

Photo by: FlickrThis Is Boss

Photo by: FlickrThis Is Boss

by Tamika Spellman

The shift away from marijuana criminalization has been generally swift, supported, and successful. Legalizing marijuana promotes consumer safety by allowing consumers to purchase and consume marijuana in a regulated and decriminalized environment. This is an example of harm reduction in action. According to the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition harm reduction expands choices, increases access, and promotes opportunities to assist people be safer (particularly when engaging in culturally stigmatized behaviors, which cannabis has been until the recent decade.) .

Although the concept of harm reduction is making its way into the cannabis consumption sphere, the same harm reduction principles have yet to be applied more broadly when it comes to other drugs or sex work.

Just as with the criminalization of marijuana, the criminalization of sex work hits marginalized communities such as people of color, trans and gender nonconforming people, and people experiencing homelessness the hardest. Arrest for anything from cannabis possession to sex work causes harms to the individual, often harming one's family, causing loss of income, and loss of housing assistance. Additionally, threat of criminalization and stigma makes it more difficult to negotiate and employ harm reduction strategies.


These similarities can be used to help guide our advocacy. The grassroots efforts that got marijuana legalized is the very same effort being utilized by sex worker advocates nationwide, including here in DC through the Sex Worker Advocate Coalition (SWAC) and the DECRIMNOW campaign. From canvassing in public spaces, door to door canvassing, conversations with friends and elected officials,  town halls, and op-eds written for and by impacted sex workers: we are building support and being loud about it.

Although cannabis is being legalized across the U.S., the communities most harmed by criminalization are still not getting the resources they need to succeed. For example, black and brown folks make up a very small portion of the new legalized industry and continue to be disproportionately arrested for marijuana-related offenses. All this means that those communities most impacted are benefitting little from the new, legalized system while still suffering the brunt of harm from the “second tier” criminalized system.

To avoid this two tiered system created by legalization, Sex Worker Rights Organizations worldwide advocate for decriminalization of adult consensual sex work. The decriminalization of Adult Consensual Sex Work will increase public health (lowering further HIV and other STIs) and safety as well as ease the burden on the court dealing with non violent crime. These are the same impacts that we see with many harm reduction efforts, like syringe exchange programs. Just having possession of marijuana out of the court is a huge savings to the court and eases the burden on the people most impacted by it prohibition.

Decriminalization lets people survive without being criminalized for their survival. It frees police to concentrate on violent crimes, and other more urgent issue of law and order. It affirms individual autonomy and increases access to services and stability.

Although tactics may differ, there are key similarities between the Sex Worker Rights Movement and the Marijuana Legalization Movement: reducing targeted over-criminalization, increasing safety, and affirming autonomy. We invite you to join the conversation, participate with our canvassing efforts with advocates, educate yourself, educate yourself some more, and talk to your friends about the need to decriminalize Sex Work and invest in resources, like access to housing and healthcare. We implore you to think outside of the traditional box and try to understand why we see decriminalization as not only beneficial to Sex Workers, but also to the rest of the community in the District.

Caroline Phillips