In my view drug reform isn’t, as some seem to think, about improving or tweaking existing government drug policy, it is about ending an iniquitous and destructive system of prohibition that damages lives, communities & countries.
It is a system rooted in lies, misinformation and racism to protect power, privilege and vested interest. A regime upheld and fiercely enforced by the state, a system that privileges and promotes legally approved and culturally promoted substances while vilifying and banning other substances – which the state refers to as ‘drugs’.
While I am keen to see an end to this draconian system, I am quite uneasy with some of the dominant approaches by leading drug reform agencies and individuals and I am worried about what they might achieve. I suspect these approaches are driven largely by people who have enjoyed privilege, well intentioned people, but people with limited experience or understanding of the devastating disproportionate impact drug prohibition has particularly upon the poor, the indigenous.
These reformers frequently adopt the language of the present oppressive regime by asserting: ‘It is because drugs are dangerous we need regulation’; or ‘Drugs are dangerous but criminalisation is worse’; or ‘Cannabis maybe harmful but…’; what they are inadvertently doing is supporting and consolidating the ideological misinformation of prohibition. It probably arises from a genuine and pragmatic attempt to lever change, but I think it is an irresponsible and dodgy position to take, it’d be like the Women’s Movement saying: ‘Women might not be good bricklayers – but sexism is wrong’. This is inaccurate and subliminally it feeds into the very discrimination it claims to be challenging.
Because of prohibition there are no quality controls, people have little or no idea of the strength of the drug or of what the drug of choice might be mixed with. Because of the life long consequences of a drug conviction, users are driven to using in isolated or hidden places where they are less likely to be seen, placing them more at risk. If, as a result of not knowing the strength of the drug, or of unwittingly consuming a toxic substance users get into difficulties, they are less likely to seek help, for fear of criminal charges, stigma and shame.
It is a drug policy rooted in prohibitionist propaganda that causes most drug related dangers, not the drugs themselves per se. Prohibitionist drug policies are lethal, they are killing people. The over-exaggerated risk ascribed to ‘drugs’ (rather than drug policy), has made many countries afraid to deliver harm reduction services such as Needle Exchanges, Heroin Assisted Treatment, Drug Consumption Rooms, Event Drug Checking and Naloxone distribution, which they perceive colludes with the use of substances they misguidedly consider to be dangerous. Tackling prohibition by reinforcing the false premise “Drugs are Dangerous” is at best weak and apologetic, but worse will lead to reform policies that reflect that misplaced and exaggerated sense of danger.
Although there is an urgent and long overdue need for serious drug policy change, I don’t ‘buy into’ diluting the truth, engaging in spin or using slight of hand to achieve reform – this has been a pathway well-trodden by ideologically driven abstentionists and prohibitionists. I am also opposed to the dodgy pragmatism that suggests we need to appease, engage or win over prohibitionists by using their language. Tony Blair, when in opposition and ostensibly seeking to deliver criminal justice reform, used the slogan ‘Tough on Crime, Tough on the Causes of Crime’ – but the message that stuck was ‘tough on crime’ – the focus on the underlying causes got lost in translation, and the Criminal Justice System became more punitive. Drug reform is desperately needed, but it must not be compromised or poisoned by incorporating prohibitionist language, thinking or propaganda. Reform can, and needs to be, successfully built upon evidence, science and rationale to lead a transformative change in drug laws and policies. To achieve this we need an open, frank, informed and mature conversation, not a coy, shadily negotiation to broker a deal.
Like the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, the ending of the South African Apartheid, the collapse of the Berlin Wall – prohibition must also fall, it cannot be adapted or amended. The present Drug Apartheid system will be remembered as one of the great atrocities in human history – it needs exposing and abolishing – not tweaking to result in some deeply flawed Jim Crow styled reform.
Some of these reformers call for ‘Regulation’, of course, I want to see a clean legal supply of regulated drugs available for sale – but rallying behind regulation is like rallying behind a call for ‘Laws and Policies’ for drugs. It is quite unspecific. For example, opiates are ‘regulated’, they are available to buy as paracodeine/paracodol in some pharmacists, opiates are strictly regulated and used widely in medicine, but otherwise opiates are illegal to possess and supply, and anyone caught in possession faces serious charges – so regulation can take many forms and continue to result in disproportionate law enforcement for possession of unregulated drugs. Strict regulation is needed for businesses not people, but even then, governments don’t have a good track record of regulating the pharmaceuticals, alcohol or tobacco industry. People do not need to be regulated over what they choose to ingest, they don’t need law enforcement, they need respect, advice, guidance and reliable information to help them make an informed choice.
Remember too, we need reform not because the state failed to take control of drugs, but because the state tried to control our drug use. For five decades drug prohibition has claimed to be protecting society from the threat posed by ‘dangerous drugs’, and as a result governments have escalated the ‘war on drugs’ effort, including; crop spraying, military action, stop and searches, arrests, incarceration, sniffer dogs in schools, ever more intrusive drug testing and they have imposed severe sanctions for those caught in possession of ‘drugs’ (exclusion from housing, education, travel, insurance, employment, benefits etc). Yes, regulation could positively deliver a clean legal supply of state approved drugs, but, it could also uphold the present enforcement regime by continuing to outlaw possession ‘unapproved unregulated’ drugs, thereby delivering Prohibition 2.0.
Paramount in any drug reform must be the restoration of the human right over our own bodies to ingest what we choose, without threat or punishment from the state. This must be central and non-negotiable to any reform strategy and I don’t think the broad notion of seeking ‘Regulation’ delivers that.
Julian Buchanan is a recently retired Associate Professor of Criminology at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand