by Julian Buchanan, Associate Professor, Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.
We need to tackle the folly and futility of drug prohibition, in which we have created an irrational and unscientific bifurcation of drugs. An archaic system that favours, promotes and culturally embeds the use of some drugs, while fiercely policing, prohibiting and punishing the use of other drugs.
The 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the drug laws it has spawned, are deeply flawed, misinformed and misguided, they are an abuse of human rights and civil liberties. The realisation of this historic mistake and the momentum to end this draconian regime has gathered pace in recent years. While the US government has been a driving force defending and upholding drug prohibition, it is ironically the people of the US who are challenging the regime by voting to legalise cannabis. This is seen as a major step change by drug reformers to bring an end to prohibition, however, I question how Inviting cannabis to enjoy the privileges of other favoured drugs (alcohol, caffeine and tobacco) will tackle the wider and fundamental problem of drug prohibition.
Ironically, the legalisation of cannabis might actually bolster prohibition. The global and united drug reform movement could be undermined by an unintended consequence of privileging cannabis to join the elite drugs and subsequently ‘divide and rule’ to maintain the bifurcation process. No doubt, and understandably, after the decades of oppression suffered by cannabis users, legalisation of their drug of choice will be met with a celebration of the new found freedoms and privileges, but possibly also by a lack of interest to fight to end the prohibition of all drugs. Indeed, further, it could give rise to a new momentum against ‘drugs’ or ‘hard drugs’ – as recently liberated cannabis users redefining themselves as herbalists or sensible recreational users of ‘soft’ drugs.
I want to see cannabis legalised and sensibly (rather than strictly) regulated – in a way that avoids the oppression inherent in prohibition, and in a way that avoids the commercial exploitation we’ve seen in tobacco and alcohol. However, this is not something we should do for one or two selected substances, while maintaining and uphold the madness of prohibition again others. I’m an abolitionist, and I want to see all drugs legalised and regulated – there is no place for law enforcement and prohibition, personal drug consumption is not an issue per se, and if it does become a problem it is a social and health issue not a police matter.
Selectively privileging particular drugs based upon their popularity, to join alcohol, caffeine and tobacco as commercial products is not the way forward, it’s simply an extension of the principles of prohibition. Granting pardons for particular drugs is a dangerous and uncertain pathway towards drug reform. Instead, we should challenge the very foundations of prohibition and fight for the decriminalisation of every drug as a first step towards a comprehensive process to abolition, once this is achieved we urgently engage in the difficult and complex process to explore how best to legalise and regulate all drugs.
Julian Buchanan 27th April 2015
by Julian Buchanan, Associate Professor Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand, 2nd April 2015
It is widely assumed that the so called ‘war on drugs’ (the war between drugs), has been a disastrous failure, and faced with mounting evidence and criticism, governments would eventually seek legislative and policy change. The evidence presented is largely based upon an analysis of the inability of drug prohibition to reduce the supply and demand for banned substances, supplemented by a critique outlining the widespread harms caused by prohibition. However, with a different agenda and focus, it might be that this ‘evidence’ in terms of the failure to dent supply and demand, has over time (fifty years), become secondary to other, government and business interests. Seen in a different light, the Drug War has been a major success, providing considerable opportunities and benefits:
- It protects the market share and place, of the privileged and promoted legal drugs; – alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, sugar and pharmaceuticals.
- It provides the police with excellent powers to easily stop, search, arrest and interrogate.
- It successfully attracts much needed funding for police, armed services and security services.
- It provides excellent opportunities for significant additional resources for the police/state through the seizure of assets.
- It provides excellent business opportunities and raw material for the ever burgeoning penal industrial complex.
- It provides considerable opportunities for new technology development and sales, in the invasive and expanding drug testing industry.
- It provides the drug rehabilitation business with an endless supply of illicit users, who must always abstain, and forever be in recovery.
- It provides excellent opportunities for the state to target, monitor, control and punish the poor, indigenous people, Black and minority ethnic groups and people of colour.
- It provides politicians with a societal scapegoat, and the chance to rally support and votes by getting ‘tough’ on this constructed enemies within: the ‘addict’; and the ‘demon drugs’.
- It provides the news media with easy, cheap dirty stories and pictures of the apparent horrors associated with illicit drug use, and this sells ‘news’.
- It provides a much needed distraction from the serious problems caused by the more harmful, addictive and culturally embedded legal drugs – alcohol, tobacco, sugar and pharmaceuticals.
- It rallies otherwise disparate nations together by finding common ground to fight a shared war against a global enemy – ‘drugs’.
- It provides the Banks with massive investments from money laundering.
- It provides researchers and academics will a constant and reliable stream of research funding to search for negative evidence to uphold prohibition, uncover evidence that may support moral panics (reefer madness, gateway theory, crack babies, krokodil etc), and provide endless monitoring studies of drug prevalence.
- It allows governments to detract attention away from the key structural drivers behind most addiction (inequality, stigma, exclusion, poverty and blocked opportunities) and instead, misleadingly shift attention onto the supposed demonising and devastating power of the illicit drug.
- It provides an excellent career for drug enforcement and drug policy entrepreneurs, facilitating superb opportunities for travel and international get-together events, particularly through the UN. The demand for these networking opportunities is unlikely to cease, as the inertia of drug prohibition-drug reform nexus is consolidated through endless meetings, statements, interviews, events, conferences, working parties, inquiries, reviews and committees.
If these are key drivers that sustain the ‘war between drugs’, then endless research reports and campaigns appealing to the beneficiaries of this drug war, (by highlighting the limited impact prohibition has upon supply and demand, or the negative unintended outcomes from criminalisation), may have limited political impact or sway in the face of at least sixteen significant benefits.
The Strict Regulation Approach
- Gangsters shouldn’t be in charge of drug distribution we must end prohibition.
- Drugs are dangerous and need to be strictly regulated.
- Only approved companies should produce them.
- Only approved outlets should sell them.
- Only approved regulated drugs should be sold.
- Individuals should not be allowed to manufacture or cultivate drugs.
- Possession of an unregulated or non-approved drug should be an offence.
- Individuals should only consume ‘approved’ regulated drugs.
- Police should be able to enter without a warrant if unregulated drug production/cultivation is suspected.
- Strict enforcement should apply to possession and supply of all unregulated unapproved drugs.
- Strict Regulation has produced: state approved legal regulated drugs and outlawed underground unregulated drugs.
- A full circle, welcome to New Prohibition.
This model of regulation has been adopted in New Zealand to control New Psychoactive Substances.
Human Rights Reform
Because prohibition of drugs has proven to be a damaging breach of human rights that has done more harm than the drugs ever could…
- Gangsters can’t be in charge of drug distribution we must end prohibition.
- Commercially sold drugs should be regulated.
- Only approved companies should produce them for commercial distribution.
- Only approved outlets should sell them.
- Only approved regulated drugs should be commercially sold.
- Strict regulatory controls are placed on all business practices (advertising, packaging, distribution, sale etc).
- Individuals can manufacture and/or cultivate ANY substance – for personal use only.
- Individuals can possess and consume ANY substance – for personal use.
- Registered societies and clubs can meet exchange information, knowledge and equipment.
- The fundamental human right for a person to consume in their body, what they choose, without threat, controls or punishment from the state remain paramount and must always be protected.
- All drug prohibition has been abolished.
The freedom, liberty and human rights of the individual must be protected from the controlling and paternalistic state, and against exploitation from multi-national corporations and businesses. It’s business activities that need regulating not people. Julian Buchanan
The NZ Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 (PSA2013) was never world leading drug reform as frequently claimed by some drug reformers and recently re-asserted in an article by one of the Act’s key flag bearers. It was however, world leading drug legislation, that succeeded in gaining almost unanimous support across New Zealand Parliament (apart from one MP), because this new drug law extended prohibition to include EVERY new psychoactive substance not currently incorporated within the Misuse of Drugs Act. If the concept of the PSA2013 to make drugs illegal (unapproved NPS), punish personal possession and supply, while privileging other selected drugs (approved NPS), may sound strangely familiar, it is, it’s called prohibition. It mirrors what has been happening for decades with approved legal drugs (alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and pharmaceuticals) and unapproved outlawed drugs listed under the Misuse of Drugs Act, except it provides a blanket ban unless specifically approved, rather than a blanket acceptance unless specifically banned.
The key problem with the PSA2013 is it’s like an illusion. The Act can be whatever you want it to be, it depends upon how you tell it, what you tell, and what you omit. To prohibitionists, it was sold as offering an end to the legal high ‘cat n mouse’ game, by introducing a once-and-for-all blanket ban on all substances currently legal. The Act removed legal highs from circulation and prevented them being sold in corner shops. By extending prohibition to every New Psychoactive Substance, the PSA2013 makes all NPS in New Zealand illegal unless subsequently approved by the state. Worryingly, the PSA makes personal possession of any new psychoactive drugs a punishable offence (s.71), it introduced new police powers to enter premises without a warrant (s.77), and a two year prison sentence for anyone supplying an ‘unapproved’ psychoactive drugs (s.70). Issues I highlighted in writing and in an oral presentation to the Health Select Committee.
To drug reformers these disconcerting aspects of the PSA are frequently airbrushed out of the story. Instead, to the drug reforming community, the PSA was sold as offering ‘world-leading’ drug reform, an exciting framework to regulate new psychoactive substances (that the same law made illegal), – provided these new substances could be demonstrated to be low risk. But it was always unclear what exactly is a ‘psychoactive’ substance, what would be considered ‘low risk’, and would there ever be a political willingness to approve any new drug? What the PSA has effectively done is to outlaw those drugs that were legal, impose punishments for possession of these drugs, and offer the possibility that, if proved low risk, some of these drugs might possibly, one day, be approved for circulation.
The PSA 2013 is prohibition under the guise of reform. Instead of the tedious and expensive process of the government having to use the Misuse of Drugs Act, to ban each individual drug that comes on the market, the PSA has simply banned the lot, albeit with a slim backdoor possibility that some ‘low risk’ drugs might, one day, be accommodated. The Act delivered what the Health Minister Peter Dunne always promised it would when in July 2012 he declared : “We are winning the battle [against drugs] and we are about to deliver the knockout blow with this legislation“.
We know from difficult experience with the 40 year old Misuse of Drugs Act, that bad laws are hard to change. The problem with our New Zealand PSA 2013 is, it was from the outset, a compromised pig in a poke. Unfortunately, proponents had little time or interest for considering the risks in blending prohibitionist agendas with drug reform aspirations. It seemed the intoxication of promoting world leading reform was too great to be worrying over the detail. Maybe drug reform proponents thought the most important goal was to send out a global message that countries are rolling out world leading drug reform, in an attempt to create a momentum? Whatever the misguided motivation, we are sadly left with an Act that has ultimately extended prohibition and widened the scope of the drug wars. I’m sure reformers didn’t intend this.
So the real lessons from here in New Zealand are: don’t get high on drug reform; think critically about what is being proposed; be willing to ask the tough questions; and don’t be tempted to form an alliance with prohibitionists on some shared pseudo agenda, simply to get drug reform legislation passed. If we have learned nothing else from the drug wars, it is that a non-negotiable principle in any reform, must be that personal possession of any substance must never be an offence, but our ‘world leading’ kiwi drug ‘reform’ has succeeded in outlawing personal possession of all new psychoactive drugs – even those not yet invented. Bad drug laws are hard to change, and here in New Zealand, we now have two bad drug laws, the MDA and the PSA.
Julian Buchanan is Associate Professor of Criminology at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, Kelburn Campus, Wellington, 6140 Aotearoa New Zealand
by Julian Buchanan 7th October 2014
Regulation – the promised land?
At a time when it is now widely accepted we need to manage drugs differently, because the prohibition of particular drugs has caused more damage than the drugs the state was purported to be protecting us from, there is a risk drug reformers seize any offers of apparent positive change – without thinking more critically about what is on offer. After decades of frustration from the archaic criminalisation of possession of particular drugs, while other more dangerous legal drugs went under the radar, some level of drug reform now appears likely, and there is a rally call to unite under the the very broad umbrella of drug ‘regulation’ as the way ahead.
The main thrust of prioritising regulation appears to be we need to get the drug market out of the hands of the criminal underworld. I wouldn’t disagree with taking drugs out of the hands of gangsters, however, let’s be clear here, most damage suffered by people who use illicit drugs isn’t caused by the criminal underworld, most damage results from criminalisation and policing. In the absence of strict state regulation the daily activity of growing, making, buying, selling and exchanging goods and services doesn’t inevitably drift into the hands of dangerous criminals who manage business with guns, knives and baseball bats, but extreme law enforcement measures and severe penalties, have created a hostile and violent environment within which a lucrative underground drug business must operates.
The notion that decriminalisation, rather than regulation, as an initial first step would result in the illegal drug market entirely managed by gangsters is somewhat exaggerated. If we prioritised decriminalisation rather than strict state control (regulation) then cannabis, which is the drug most frequently used illicit drug and the one that occupies most police time, would largely be home grown, shared and exchanged by friends, local growers and societies. Other illicit drugs that are not easily ‘home grown’ could, in a more relaxed transitionary period of drug policy development, be more easily purchased via websites such as Silk Road that operate a consumer rating system, not dissimilar to TradeMe or Ebay. Not perfect, not properly regulated, but this can hardly be described as a threatening market ruled by violence, exploitation and gangsters. The present criminal sub-culture that surrounds the illicit drug market has much more to do with the environment created by fierce law enforcement and prohibition than any preferred pattern of operation by producers, buyers and sellers of drugs, and little to do with the product on sale.
Decriminalisation as a first step towards living with drugs would importantly protect users (particularly the poor, indigenous people and people of colour who are targeted by law enforcement agencies) from police stop and searches, drug related arrests, penalties and incarceration. Drug users would be free from the serious and life long damage of a drug conviction. This would provide more time to look critically and carefully at drug market regulation. The history of regulation involving legal substances alcohol and tobacco has not exactly inspired confidence. The recent significant increase in drug overdose deaths in the USA due largely to regulated painkilling drugs featured in the article below is a reminder of the serious problems that can arise – despite regulation.
The Carrot of Tackling Stigma
If multi-national corporations, and in the example above BigPharma, have unbridled control and extensive freedom to promote and distribute their commercial drug products, major problems can arise from the culture and patterns of drug use. In addition to highlighting the problem of fatal overdoses in the USA the article promotes the need to tackle the stigma of addiction. So after years of trying to combat stigma, discrimination and hostility towards people who use illicit drugs, drug reformers now have the support of the all-powerful USA to unite and push to remove stigma from addiction. An attractive proposition – how could we disagree with removing stigma, surely it’s a campaign worth joining? In and of itself, it certainly would be, but If we look closely, the momentum in the USA to remove stigma is strongly tied with a commitment to promote and embrace the abstinence based disease model of addiction – and the burgeoning rehab and drug testing industry associated with it.
This commitment to the disease and abstinence model has been reinforced by recent high profile appointments in the US drugs field of ‘recovering addicts’ such as Mr. Botticelli the Drug Czar, who will lead the campaign to end the stigma of addiction by pushing for a global adoption of the twelve steps disease model of addiction where the ‘sick’ will forever be in recovery and will be required to live a life of sobriety. No thanks. Like the US campaign to end stigma that has a worrying sting in the tail (promoting abstinence and the adoption of a disease model of addiction), the drive towards drug regulation may also contain some nasty surprises. Strict state regulation per se is a dangerous path to follow, much depends upon what state controls and punishments are imposed. The devil is in the detail and it seems somewhat strange to immediately place trust in the perpetrator to become the new arbitrator and designer of drug control regulations. Under the guise of protecting the individual from the potential harm of illicit drugs the paternalistic state has been trusted with powers over the sovereignty of what a person can consume in their own body. This trust has been misplaced, and these law enforcement powers have been woefully abused. The war on illicit drugs will be remembered with great shame and incredulity in history, and lessons should be learned from this breach of human rights.
New Zealand Psychoactive Substances Regulation
A worrying example of a regulatory model widely promoted by some drug reformers, is the New Zealand Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 which ‘regulated’ legal highs. Under this model, instead of all substances being legal to possess (unless specified and banned under the NZ Misuse of Drugs Act 1975), all psychoactive substances in New Zealand are now illegal to possess unless approved by the state and purchased from an approved commercial seller. In this model of regulation personal possession of any ‘unregulated’ psychoactive substance is an offence that carries a $500 fine, while supply of any unregulated substance is an offence that can lead to two years in prison. Doesn’t this sound a little like repackaged prohibition? The degree of perceived threat posed by unregulated psychoactive substances is such that in order to prevent unregulated supplies New Zealand police have been issued with new intrusive warrantless powers for substances that were previously legal:
What this regulatory model has effectively done is widen the net of prohibition, state control and punishment in New Zealand to include every new psychoactive substance. This raises further important questions regarding how we define what is a psychoactive substance.
After thirty years of working in the drugs field and seeing the terrible damage caused by the war on people who use illicit drugs, it is clear that more harm has been caused by drug policy than from drug use, and whatever regulatory model is eventually rolled out, the non-negotiable priority is that we must ensure personal possession is not an offence, civil or criminal. The individual must have the sovereign right over their own body to consume what they wish – without fear, threat or punishment from the state – the human right to choose. Regulations instead should be confined to market related issues such as production, distribution, sale and advertising and seek to protect the rights and freedom of the individual.
Out of the Frying Pan and into the Fire
A united drug reform campaign to end prohibition and stigma sounds like a dream ticket – but not if drug regulation provides the state with new powers to punish personal possession of unregulated substances, and not if combating stigma means enforcing abstinence and rolling out a the 12 step disease model of addiction – that’s akin to jumping out of the ‘frying pan into the fire’.
Hard fought campaigns for drug law change should not be squandered. For forty years the UK Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and in New Zealand Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 have been impervious to any positive reform and this illustrates just how difficult it might be to make positive amendments to any new drug legislation. Whereas, punitive orientated amendments to drug laws have been much easier to achieve. Considerable caution should therefore be exercised before supporting any new drug laws.
This war between drugs (legal vs illegal) maintained by a relentless, oppressive and robust global drug apartheid, must collapse, like slavery, like the Berlin wall and the South African racial apartheid. The global human and environmental damage caused by the war on illegal drugs is comparable to these terrible historic injustices, and similarly the insidious legacy of propaganda, lies and prejudice will take many decades to dispel.
The legal drug industry profiteers realise support from the law enforcement regime of the drug apartheid is in its final chapter, and we observe a strategic shift and reconfiguration taking place to secure new civil controls through abstinence, drug testing and a disease model. As drug reformers we need to push for revolutionary reform at this critical moment in time, and demand a rational, evidenced based approach to drug policy with human rights and harm reduction at the centre. The campaign to end drug prohibition should not be dissipated by an invitation to cannabis to join the elite substances on the privileged and powerful side of the drug apartheid, nor by the offer to replace prohibition with strict state regulation that incorporates punishment for unapproved possession. No, tweaking or transforming the present corrupt model rooted in racism, self-interest and misinformation is not an option.
The Way Ahead?
The first and foremost change to reduce harm and restore human rights is to prioritise the decriminalisation of personal possession of all substances. Once the human right to possess and consume what an individual chooses with their own body is restored, without fear, threat or punishment from the state, then the complex and tricky road of developing appropriate drug market regulations can begin, but there are a number of potential threats to derail this much needed drug policy change as illustrated in the graphic above. Drug policy change is now possible and indeed likely, but we need to make sure the opportunity is not squandered or hijacked by drug reform entrepreneurs because it could be another four decades before the next opportunity arises.
Julian Buchanan is Associate Professor at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.
by Julian Buchanan Wednesday 27th August 2014
This is a thought provoking animation. It Illustrates well that prohibition, incarceration and fierce law enforcement have failed to deter illegal drugs (depicted by DRUGO the Dragon). Indeed prohibition has caused more collateral damage than the illicit drugs would ever posed [see]. But while the analogy in this animation is thought provoking and challenges the folly of prohibition, it is also somewhat misleading and rooted in some of the myths that have helped sustain the War on illegal Drugs.
While DRUGO, the outlawed and persecuted dragon in the animation is demonised, the many unspoken relatives of DRUGO (who we are led to believe are not part of the dragon family), better known as LEGALO (alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, pharmaceutical drugs, food drugs etc) – have been living like royalty in the kingdom, fully accommodated, promoted, integrated and supported by Kings and Queens across the nations, and enjoyed by the masses. But the LEGALO dragons have been airbrushed out of the animation as if they were not brothers and sisters of DRUGO.
The animation suggests a life without DRUGO might be a desirable utopia (really?) but concludes pragmatically it might be better to learn to live with DRUGO. As if somehow a world without those drugs that have been criminalised (cannabis, opiates, LSD, cocaine etc) might in some way be desirable? This is a seriously misleading inference. Illegal drugs have never been the main problem – it’s drug policies and cultures that have resulted in the main problems.
In contrast to his relatives LEGALO, DRUGO is presented as dangerous beast that might cause less harm if we manage him better yet the animation is ominously silent about the legal and cultural accommodation and privilege enjoyed by the LEGALO dragons and in doing so, this video feeds into the distorted dominant discourses on what we have come to see and understand as ‘drugs’. It perpetuates the bifurcation between illicit and legal drugs and misleading concerning the relative inherent harms between these substances.
The Global Commission of Drug Policy have made a remarkable and helpful contribution to promoting drug reform and I applaud them. however, while this animation is made with good intentions and will no doubt encourage many positive outcomes in terms of beginning a debate – if genuine and lasting drug policy reform is to occur we need to acknowledge and indeed address, the propaganda, misinformation and lies at the heart of the problem.
There has never been a war on the drugs, society loves drugs and uses them liberally. What we have is a war against a particular drug dragon (DRUGO). Not only have the other drug dragons (LEGALO) more powerful and dangerous, they have been privileged and are not even recognised as drug dragons. The video suggests there is only one threat and one dragon.
So this animation sidesteps the crux of the problem – the fiercely imposed drug apartheid upheld by myths, misinformation and at times barbaric treatment of illicit drugs and indeed illicit drug users. If we are to tackle the drug apartheid we need to acknowledge and address the institutionalised inequalities, the abuse of power and the false assumption that have created this untenable bifurcation of substances.
It’s ironic too because the animation suggests society is hostile to drugs and needs to learn to be more tolerant and accommodating of drugs. When in reality society is probably more pro-drugs and using more substances now than it’s ever done with BigPharma and BigLegalDrugsBusiness sitting very nicely with us wherever we go and whatever we do readily supplying and encouraging (legal) drug use. But then people using LEGALO like those in this video aren’t taking dangerous drugs – are they?
There is a need for a more honest, mature and informed discussion on what we call ‘drugs’. A debate that acknowledges the oppressive, discriminatory and hypocritical position of current laws, policies and attitudes towards those substances (and their users) that have been outlawed. A debate that stops ignoring legal substances which are often more dangerous than illicit drugs and wrongly excluded from any drugs discourse.
Let the debate begin soon.Julian Buchanan
Julian Buchanan is Associate Professor at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.
A new study finds drunk driving 9 times likelier to kill than drugged driving.
We need an evidence based approach to drug driving and don’t want to repeat the punitive populist ignorance that has been driving drug policy
See on www.psychologytoday.com