51 Common Myths, Lies and Misconceptions informing Drug Policy
Drug law and policy has its roots in fear, ignorance, racism and self interest. Sadly, this has changed little over the years. It continues to be shaped more by punitive populism and moral crusades rather than scientific evidence, reason and rationality.
To expose and encourage a critical debate I’ve tried to uncover some of the main myths, lies and misconceptions that underpin and shape and inform drug policy development. Unless we acknowledge our philosophical position and identify the principles that inform our thinking, we risk replicating further misguided drug policies. Although punchy and accessible in style, each point below is carefully considered and can be academically supported – but that’s for another day!
1. “There is a clear pharmacological definition for drugs.” There isn’t – what we classify as illegal ‘drugs’ is a 1950s & 60s social and cultural construct with no coherent pharmacological rationale. We fail to recognise alcohol, tobacco or caffeine as drugs – and maybe sugar should be classified as a drug.
2. “People who use drugs are drug misusers.” Untrue – the vast majority are recreational users who generally use drugs sensibly, unfortunately we conflate use with problematic use.
3. “Users are dirty, immoral and dangerous losers.” An unjustified and hostile stereotype – illicit drug users are a diverse group of people from every walk of life. The drug business is dirty, immoral and dangerous – because it’s illegal, extremely lucrative and subject to fierce law enforcement.
4. “People take drugs because they have problems.” Untrue – most people take drugs because they enjoy the effect, just like alcohol and caffeine.
6. “Taking drugs damages people.” All substances (legal and illegal) can damage people, but it’s largely prohibition that makes illicit drugs dangerous and damaging. In addition, acquiring a criminal record for drugs is more harmful than the drug. The most damaging drug of all is a legal one – alcohol.
7. “Drug use fuels crime.” The presence of a drug and the commission of a crime does not equate to a causal connection. The relationship is ‘associated’ rather than ‘causal’. However, there is evidence that prohibition and tough law enforcement of drugs causes crime.
8. “Legal drugs are safer and less harmful.” Alcohol and tobacco are more damaging than most illegal drugs – but due to prohibition it’s more difficult to obtain any illegal drugs in a clean and unadulterated form.
9. “Law enforcement measures affect levels of drug use.” Neither tough nor liberal law enforcement have much impact upon levels of drug use.
10. “Addiction is an equal opportunity employer.” Drug use is an equal opportunity employer but addiction isn’t. While anyone can be affected, problematic drug use tends to disproportionately affect those with disadvantaged and damaged lives that had difficulties before PDU and these people lack the resources, opportunities and support to change their lives.
11. “Addiction is a brain disease”. Untrue, yes the brain will be affected but loss of control of drugs (similar to internet addiction, gambling, over eating) has much more to do with social, psychological and behavioural fact than neurological defects. If it were a brain disease MRIs would be used as clear evidence of addiction.
12. “The government can protect society by banning new drugs”. Banning drugs masquerades as positive action to deal with the ‘problem’ -but actually banning drugs doesn’t protect society it actually makes production, distribution and consumption more dangerous.
13. “Once listed in the Misuse of Drugs Act, drugs become controlled.” Technically correct – but ironically once a drug is listed as a controlled drug it actually goes underground and becomes an uncontrolled drug.
14. “Cannabis is a gateway drug that leads to addiction to ‘hard’ drugs.” Untrue, the majority of young adults have used cannabis have not progress further to use so called hard drugs, and have not become addicted.
15. “People who use caffeine, tobacco and/or alcohol are not drug users”. Untrue – they certainly are. These three substances are drugs, and ironically unlike some illegal drugs – in high dosages – caffeine, tobacco and alcohol kill.
16. “If we lock up dealers we can reduce the drug related violence.” Actually disrupting the supply distribution and removing dealers actually has the opposite impact and creates more violence by presenting new opportunities and creating ‘business’ conflict.
17. “Drug use isn’t a crime issue it’s a health issue.” Taking a substance isn’t a health issue anymore than a coffee or glass of wine is a ‘health issue’. Even problematic drug use isn’t best described as a health issue – PDU may be a social, psychological, health and/or legal issue.
18. “There are ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ drugs.” There is no clear definition to support this misleading distinction. While some drugs can generally pose greater problems than other drugs to some people – these generalisations are misleading because the impact of a drug varies from person to person depending upon the set (the person) and the setting (the environment)- it’s not just the substance.
19. “Drugs are illegal because they are dangerous, and the proof they are dangerous is that they are illegal!” This circular Double-Speak is used to defend prohibition, but the substances we have called ‘drugs’ are not particularly more dangerous than other substances such as alcohol, sugar, tobacco, fat, caffeine and peanuts. However, prohibition increases the risk, danger and uncertainty considerable.
20. “Drug testing will tell you if a person is on drugs.” The result is unreliable due human error, machine error, deliberate and accidental false positives and false negatives. Some who tests positive for cannabis could have been cannabis free for 4weeks.
21. “Like everything else on the market drugs must be proven safe before they can ever be legalised.” Not true. The safety for other products does not have to be established before approval (for example mobile phones or GM foods). Substances that are damaging or even lethal such as tobacco, alcohol, peanuts are legal and promoted, whereas a drug such as cannabis that has never killed anyone is considered dangerous and remains illegal.
22. “People who use drugs are not criminals they need help.” Taking a drug should not be a law enforcement concern, but neither should we problematize or pathologize drug use as a health issue. There is no reason why we should assume a person using drugs needs help.
23. “Recovery is about becoming drug free.” Recovery is about regaining control of your life, but becoming drug free isn’t always necessary to achieve that. Some people sort their life out and continue to use in a non-problematic way, and some take clean prescribed substitutes.
24. “Harm reduction is about reducing the spread of diseases.” Harm reduction is not just about health – it’s also about reducing social, cultural and psychological harms. Harm reduction is an evidenced based approach that should underpin all drug policy. It’s pragmatic, humane and non judgemental it engages people where they are at with a view to reducing risk and harm.
25. “Harm reduction doesn’t support abstinence.” Harm reduction isn’t about getting people off drugs – it’s about reducing risks. Abstinence for some might be a good way to reduce risks – so harm reduction incorporates abstinence – but only if the person is ready, able, interested and wanting to become abstinent.
26. “Illegal drugs have little or no use in medicine.” Although enshrined in the much out-dated 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotics this statement couldn’t be further from the truth. Opiates are essential in severe pain management and other drugs, such as cannabis and MDMA, have medicinal benefits in the treatment of a growing number of conditions (e.g. MS, PTSD, Epilepsy). Illegality has made medical trials and acceptance difficult.
27. “People who use drugs need treatment not prison.” People who use drugs don’t need treatment or prison anymore than someone who has a double espresso each morning, or the person who enjoys a glass of whisky before bedtime needs treatment or prison.
28. “To prevent stigma we need to understand addiction as a disease.” To prevent stigma we need to end the war on drugs and challenge the hypocritical and flawed social construction of ‘drugs’. Addiction is not a disease.
29. “Drug laws affect everyone the same.” This is not true. The chances of being stopped, searched, arrested and prosecuted for drug possession depends a greatly on the colour of your skin, your social class, age, location and your social background.
30. “If we try hard enough we can eradicate drugs.” A fallacy. Forty years of extremely tough prohibition involving masses of time and money for police, armed forces and customs has had no impact upon supply, price or use. It’s even impossible to keep drugs out of top security prisons!
31. “Heroin is a dangerous drug that damages your body.” Any street drug could be very damaging because illegality means the user hasn’t got a clue what’s in it. But clean pharmaceutical heroin (unlike alcohol) doesn’t cause any permanent damage to the body.
32. “Crack cocaine in pregnancy leads to permanently damaged ‘crack’ babies.” There is no consistent evidence to support this – severe and enduring poverty appears to be the consistent factor that thwarts child progress and development. They are ‘poverty’ babies.
33. “Drug testing will help identify people who have a drug problem.” Besides it’s unreliability – at best it’ll only indicate drug use it wont show pattern, time, place, nature or context of drug use. Drug use, like alcohol use, should not be the focus – instead our energy and resources should be directed to problematic drug use.
34. “Law enforcement targets the most dangerous drugs.” Untrue, arrests and drug seizures for cannabis outnumber all the other drugs combined. The war on drugs is largely a war on cannabis. One of the most dangerous drugs is alcohol.
35. “People caught with cannabis don’t end up in prison.” Wrong, many certainly do.
36. “Drug law enforcement targets people who use drugs.” In the USA and the UK it depends more upon the colour of your skin. If you are Black you are much more likely to be targeted – stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted and subsequently sentenced – for drug defined crime -even though levels of drug use amongst the white population are the same.
37. “Heroin during pregnancy will cause permanent harm to the unborn child.” Street heroin is a problem because you don’t know what’s in it. But clean pharmaceutical heroin causes no known permanent damage to a baby. Once recovered from withdrawal symptoms they’ll be fine. Alcohol taken during pregnancy can cause Foetal Alcohol Syndrome – a permanent condition.
38. “A drug free world is desirable.” Drugs have been used since records began for treating sickness and for pleasure and why should that stop? Alcohol, caffeine, tobacco are drugs and arguably cocoa, sugar and fat too. A world without drugs is unthinkable and untenable.
39. “Illegal drugs kill people.” This is misleading because the majority of drug deaths are consequences of prohibition and a draconian drug policy. A lot of deaths could have otherwise been avoided.
40. “Drug policy is based upon the best available evidence.” For decades research reports, reviews, inquiries, expert groups have provided mountain loads of evidence – but drug policy has repeatedly ignored the best available evidence and instead continued to uphold the principles of prohibition enshrined in the 1961 UN Single Convention.
41. “It’s a war on drugs.” Untrue. There is no war on alcohol, tobacco, caffeine or BigPharma drugs. It is a war on particular drugs that have been outlawed for political, social and economic reasons (not pharmacological or scientific reasons). So what we have is a ‘War Between Drugs’ taking place during an era of Drug Apartheid.
42. “Regulation is the way forward.” Probably, but not if that regulation (as illustrated in the New Zealand NPS model) means that you are still prohibited and punished for possession of substances not approved by the state, and the only way of acquiring substances is through BigPharma or BigBusiness.
43. “Every day drug free is a another day of being clean.” This is inaccurate. Nobody is ever off drugs because we take caffeine, sugar, cocoa, aspirin, alcohol indeed what exactly is a drug? More importantly taking a drug is in itself neither wrong nor dirty.
44. “Alcohol occupies so much police time – imagine how bad it’d be if we legalise cannabis.” There is no comparison – these are two very different substances. The impact of any drug depends more upon set and setting. Better regulation will create controls – but prohibition means no control whatsoever.
45. “Legalising drugs is dangerous because more people will use drugs.” Using clean legal drugs will be much less dangerous than using unknown street gear and getting a criminal record, and drug use is very different to drug misuse.
46. “Cannabis use by drivers is leading to more deaths on the road.” Unfounded. There is evidence that cannabis is increasing found in blood samples but it could be from use days, weeks even months ago. Presence doesn’t mean impairment.
47. “Every drug death is further evidence of the dangers of drugs.” Most drug deaths are a by-product of draconian drug policy and most could be avoided by a combination of naloxone distribution, safer drug use education, drug testing kits, drug consumption rooms and less intolerance and stigma.
48. “The underground criminal business in drugs is enormous so we need tough law enforcement.” Unfortunately it is prohibition that has created the perfect conditions for this to arise, more enforcement will have little positive impact however, regulation and decriminalisation would make a real positive difference.
49. “Better that someone goes to Drug Court than prison.” Better that people who need help can access that help voluntarily in the community following a thorough assessment and a best fit treatment plan, rather than having to access services through the criminal justice system. Would they have gone to prison for that offence anyway?
50. “The world would be a better place without drugs.” Drugs are vital in medicine and pain relief, they are also important for relaxing, sleeping, socialising, providing energy, thinking laterally, creatively and artistically. Legal drugs alcohol, caffeine and tobacco are used for these purposes every day.
51. “People grow out of taking drugs.” There is evidence that people grow out of criminal activity and to use prohibited drugs involves criminal risks, but people aren’t growing out of drugs – alcohol use amongst older population is considered a serious issue.
© Copyright 2014 Julian Buchanan