Drug law and policy has its roots in fear, ignorance, racism and vested interest and sadly, little has changed over the decades. Drug discourse continues to be shaped more by punitive populism, isolated tragic incidents and moral crusades, rather than scientific evidence, reason and rationality.
To encourage mainstream critical debate on these issues, I’ve tried to uncover and highlight the key myths, lies and misconceptions, which underpin, shape and inform dominant drug policy thinking. Unless we expose these flawed notions, fallacies and beliefs that infest our drugs discourse, drug reform risks reproducing further misguided drug policies and practices. Although the points are made in a punchy and accessible in style, each one is carefully considered and can be academically supported – but that’s for another day – or a book!
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 also be classified as a drug.
2. “People who use drugs are suffering from substance use disorder.” Untrue – the vast majority of people using drugs, do so rationally, recreationally and sensibly, but unfortunately we conflate drug use with problematic use.
3. “Drug 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 can be dirty, immoral and dangerous – but that’s 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, tobacco and caffeine.
6. “Taking drugs damages people.” All substances (legal and illegal) can damage people, and the most damaging drug of all is a legal one – alcohol. However, prohibition makes illicit drugs more dangerous and damaging. In addition, acquiring a criminal record for drugs can be more harmful to life than the drug.
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 fuel acquisitive and violent crime.
8. “Legal drugs are safer and less harmful.” This is a particularly misleading statement, because alcohol and tobacco are far more damaging than most illegal drugs. However, prohibition makes it difficult to know the strength, ingredients or quality of illegal drugs, which in itself creates an entirely avoidable risk.
9. “Law enforcement measures affect levels of drug use.” Studies show that in advanced western democracies neither tough, nor liberal law enforcement approaches have much impact upon levels of drug use.
10. “Addiction is an equal opportunity employer.” Drug use is an equal opportunity employer, but chronic addiction isn’t. While anyone can be affected, chronic problematic drug use tends to disproportionately affect those with disadvantaged and damaged lives that had significant difficulties before PDU and these people lack the resources, opportunities and support to recover.
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 addiction was a brain disease MRIs would show diagnostic evidence of addiction.
12. “The government can protect society by banning new drugs”. Banning drugs masquerades as positive action to deal with the ‘problem’ when actually banning drugs has little impact on use and makes production, distribution and consumption more dangerous.
13. “Once listed in the Misuse of Drugs Act, drugs become controlled.” Technically correct – but once a drug is listed as a controlled drug, it is forced underground and thus becomes completely outside government/social control. So ironically a controlled drug, is by nature, an uncontrolled drug.
14. “Cannabis is a gateway drug that leads to addiction to ‘hard’ drugs.” Untrue, most young adults have used cannabis and most have not progressed onto using other drugs, nor have they become ‘addicts’. The last three Presidents of the USA all successfully used cannabis without any gateway effect.
15. “People who use caffeine, tobacco and/or alcohol are not drug users”. Untrue – they certainly are drug users and many are ‘addicts’. These three substances are all drugs, and ironically unlike some illegal drugs – in high dosages caffeine, tobacco and alcohol are toxic and result in death.
16. “If we lock up dealers we can reduce the drug related violence.” The opposite is true, disrupting supply and removing dealers creates more violence by fuelling market uncertainty, presenting new business opportunities and creating ‘business’ conflict.
17. “Drug use isn’t a crime issue it’s a health issue.” This may sound like a step in the right direction, but taking a substance isn’t inherently a health issue, anymore than enjoying a coffee or glass of wine is a ‘health issue’. Even problematic drug use isn’t best described as a health issue, it’s more accurately a social, psychological, health and/or legal issue.
18. “There are ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ drugs.” There is no scientific evidence underpinning the misleading categorisation of hard and soft drugs. 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 offers no evidence and is used to defend prohibition, but the substances we have called ‘drugs’ are not inherently more dangerous than other substances such as alcohol, sugar, tobacco, fat, caffeine and peanuts. However, prohibition increases the risk, danger and uncertainty considerably.
20. “Drug testing will tell you if a person is on drugs.” The result is unreliable due to human error, machine error, deliberate and accidental false positives and false negatives. Someone eating a poppy seed bagel could test positive for opiates. Someone who tests positive for cannabis may not have used the drug that day, however, because of the metabolites of the drug the positive result may be detecting cannabis used days, weeks or even months ago. Drug presence does not indicate drug impairment or intoxication.
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 to some such as tobacco, alcohol, peanuts are legal and promoted, whereas a drug such as cannabis that has medicinal benefits and has never killed anyone is considered dangerous and remains illegal.
22. “People who use drugs are not criminals they need help.” An apparently benign and supportive statement, however, while taking a drug should not be a law enforcement concern, 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 people who have been dependent on drugs regaining control of their 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 legal prescribed substitutes such as methadone or heroin and successfully lead productive and stable lives.
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 evidence-based approach that should sit alongside human rights to 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 working with people to reduce risks. However, in some cases abstinence 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 this sentiment is enshrined in the much out-dated 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotics it couldn’t be further from the truth. Opiates are essential in severe pain management, while 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 extremely difficult.
27. “People who use drugs need treatment not prison.” Another apparently positive statement however, 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. Under the umbrella of ‘it’s better than prison’ all sorts of questionable practices can appear palatable.
28. “To prevent stigma we need to understand addiction as a disease.” Yes we want to prevent stigma but addiction is not a disease. The most effective way to prevent stigma is to end the drug apartheid and challenge the hypocritical and flawed social construction of ‘drugs’.
29. “Drug laws affect everyone the same.” This is not true. The chances of being stopped, searched, arrested and prosecuted for drug possession depends 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. They can’t even keep drugs out of high 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 claim. Longitudinal studies, indicate severe and enduring poverty appears to be the most significant factor that thwarts child progress and development, not parental crack cocaine use during pregnancy. So instead of emotively and inaccurately, focusing upon ‘crack babies’, it would be more appropriate to direct attention towards the plight of ‘poverty babies’.
33. “Drug testing will help identify people who have a drug problem.” Besides its unreliability – at best drug testing only indicates drug presence, it provides no indication of the pattern, time, place, reason or context of drug use. A positive result indicates drug use not problematic use.
34. “Law enforcement targets the most dangerous drugs.” Untrue, arrests and drug seizures for cannabis outnumber all the other drugs arrests combined. The war between drugs is largely a war on the relatively benign cannabis while the significantly more dangerous drug alcohol is enjoyed and promoted amongst law enforcement officials.
35. “People caught with cannabis don’t end up in prison.” Untrue, many certainly do.
36. “Drug law enforcement targets people who use drugs.” Levels of drug use across the white and black population are similar. However it depends upon the colour of your skin and your social status as to whether you will be targeted. If you are poor and have a minority ethnic heritage you are much more likely to be targeted – stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted and subsequently sentenced – for drug defined crime.
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 babies will have no permanent harm. However, 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 pain relief, treating sickness, for relaxation and social reasons. Alcohol, caffeine, tobacco are drugs and arguably cocoa, sugar and fat too. A world without drugs is unthinkable, undesirable 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 that makes taking drugs uncertain and more dangerous and getting help risky. 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. Drug policy is rooted in ideological beliefs and an attempt to seize the moral high ground, rather than science and evidence.
41. “It’s a war on drugs.” Untrue – drugs have never been more accommodated, integrated or promoted. There is no war on alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, sugar, fat 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). It’s a ‘War Between Drugs’ enforced by an uncompromisingly tough Drug Apartheid.
42. “Strict Regulation is the way forward.” Ideally, but it depends upon what regulation looks like. Not if that regulation (as illustrated in the New Zealand Psychoactive Substance Act 2013) means: you are now prohibited and punished for possession of substances not approved by the state (s.71 $500 fine); supply carries a 2 year prison sentence (s.70); all new psychoactive substances not listed in the Misuse of Drugs Act are automatically prohibited and the only way of acquiring ‘approved’ substances is through BigPharma or BigBusiness.
43. “Every day drug free is a another day of being clean.” This is misleading, is anyone ever (and should they be?) drug free because we take caffeine, sugar, cocoa, aspirin, alcohol? More importantly this statement wrongly insinuates taking a drug is wrong and dirty and without them we become ‘clean’.
44. “Alcohol occupies so much police time – imagine how bad it’d be if we legalise cannabis.” There is no comparison these are two different substances that impact behaviour very differently. It is rare for anyone on cannabis to be argumentative, aggressive and violent, unfortunately the same cannot be said for alcohol. It’s like saying we’ve seen the damaged caused from sports like rugby, so we have no intention of allowing tennis.
45. “Legalising drugs is dangerous because more people will use drugs.” In countries where drugs have been legalised or decriminalised there has not been any overall increase in drug consumption. However, it is not drug use per se that should concern us, it is problematic use that we should be concerned about. Only a small proportion of people who use drugs develop addiction issues. However, while drugs remain illegal it creates uncertainty regarding purity, toxicity, content, strength and people are further at risk of acquiring a criminal record that could damage them for life.
46. “Cannabis use by drivers is leading to more deaths on the road.” Unfounded. There is evidence that cannabis is increasingly found in blood samples in road traffic accidents (RTAs) but this presence of cannabis in the blood stream could arise from use of cannabis days, weeks, even months earlier. Drug presence doesn’t mean drug impairment. Association is not causation, like suggesting the increased presence of a mobile phone in fatal RTAs was leading to more deaths on the road.
47. “Every drug death is further evidence of the dangers of drugs.” Most drug deaths are a by-product of draconian drug policy that could be avoided by a combination of decriminalisation, legalisation, naloxone distribution, safer drug use education, heroin assisted treatments, drug checking kits, drug consumption rooms and less intolerance and stigma.
48. “The underground criminal business in drugs is enormous so we need tougher law enforcement.” Unfortunately, it is prohibition that has created these conditions in the first instance, more enforcement can only be expected to further increase the power and wealth of the criminal cartels and increase violence. However, decriminalisation and regulation could significantly reduce illegal drug business, and also reduce harms for users.
49. “Better that someone gets treatment in Drug Court than go to prison.” Anything can appear palatable and justified if presented as an alternative to prison. For the overwhelming majority of non-problematic drug users, coercive treatment is pointless, expensive, and unethical. For the small minority of problematic users, better that people who need help can access that help in the community, following a thorough assessment, and a best-fit treatment plan that has access to a full range of services, rather than having to access an enforced abstinence 12 step programme through the criminal justice system.
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, although other (currently illegal) drugs might be safer and better suited.
51. “People grow out of taking drugs.” While there is evidence that people grow out of criminal activity, the use of prohibited drugs involves criminal risks, so if there is a shift away from illegal drugs at a later age it’s not necessarily the case that people are ‘growing out of drugs’, but perhaps, over time, they learn to avoid the associated criminal associations. There is no evidence people grow out of using the drugs alcohol, tobacco and caffeine.
52. “If we provide robust evidence drug laws will change” Strong reliable evidence is crucial to develop effective drug laws, but most advanced capitalist countries show little sign of being influenced by science and evidence. Instead they seem committed to an ideologically driven position to maintain the privilege of legal drugs by demonising all illicit drugs regardless of the harms caused.
53. “Society needs to learn to accept drug use” With the massive range of alcohol, tobacco and caffeine products available, combined with the ever increasing range of pharmaceutical drugs, there is no doubt society already accepts, embraces and engages in drug use – on a daily basis! So this statement is misleading and feeds into the faulty thinking that fails to acknowledge legal substances as ‘ drug’ use. Society needs to learn to understand we are operating within a drug apartheid.
54. “There is no cure for addiction” Addiction is essentially a social and psychological condition, rooted in patterns of thinking, behaviour and lifestyle that’s got out of control. It’s not an incurable disease from which people never recover and are forced to live in ‘recovery’. The vast majority of people who become dependent successfully regain control, most of them without professional help. The large numbers who have quit smoking are a good example.
55. “The only place for taking drugs is in medicine” It is a position you could hold for yourself, but it’s an extreme position that would mean no tea, coffee, chocolate, alcohol, fizzy drinks, sweets or cakes, most breakfast cereals etc (avoiding the drugs; alcohol, caffeine and sugar). It’s akin to saying the only acceptable reason for consuming food is to keep us healthy. Pleasure, relaxing, getting more energy, feeling sleepy or enhancing our senses are not unreasonable motivations for taking food or substances.
56. “Drugs like cannabis are illegal” As a result of the 1961 UN Single Convention signature countries have made possession and cultivation of certain substances listed in the Convention a criminal offence. However, the substances themselves are not illegal, which raises the question why plants like cannabis, coca and the opium poppy are not illegal, on what basis can or should the police and armed forces search the countryside to dig up or destroy uncultivated plants.
57. “The Drugs War has failed” That depends upon what you think the purpose is. If the drug war is understood through a neoliberal lens it has been a great success. It has preserved the privileged position granted to legal drug industry (caffeine, alcohol and tobacco); it has provided the state with considerable powers to control the poor, people of colour, indigenous people and the ‘other’; it has provided great numbers for the burgeoning and profitable penal industrial complex; and it has spawned extensive new testing and surveillance business opportunities in times of recession.
58. “People choose to buy alcohol, caffeine and tobacco, but illegal drugs are pushed on people” This notion is deeply flawed. Most people are exposed to illicit drugs through friendship networks, whereas, legal drugs such as alcohol are actually pushed on people via advertising and sponsorship, and they are further pressured to use alcohol by powerful cultural norms to ‘celebrate’, ‘have fun’ and ‘join in’. So, if anything people are more likely to be ‘pushed’ into legal drugs.
59. “Drugs are dangerous, that’s why we need regulation” Adopting prohibition arguments to draw people towards decriminalisation or regulation, only serves to perpetuate myths and misinformation. Drugs are not dangerous per se, and regulation can be so strict, it looks more like new prohibition.
60. “Maybe we were wrong about cannabis” Don’t just isolate cannabis, drug prohibition is wrong for all illicit drugs. Yes, it’s right that cannabis should be legalised and free for individuals to cultivate for personal use, but isolating cannabis and inviting this particular drug to enjoy power and privilege in a corrupt system not only perpetuates the drug apartheid, but it potentially weakens the opposition to it. So while cannabis should be legalised, the commitment needs to be focused upon exposing and dismantling the entire corrupt drug control system that lacks scientific evidence to support it, so that all drugs are decriminalised and sensibly regulated, rather than select particular drugs to enjoy privilege and promotion alongside alcohol, caffeine and tobacco.
61. “Drug laws are outdated and need changing” Untrue. It’s not that drug laws have become outdated, they have never been fit for purpose at any time. They are rooted in propaganda, myths and lies and we need to understand this in order to develop new drug laws rooted in scientific evidence with policies that promote harm reduction and protects human rights.
62. “Drug users need compassion and support not stigma and hatred” Certainly stigma and hatred towards drug users is wrong but people who use banned substances don’t need patronising, they are not inherently in need of support or compassion. They need to be free from criminalisation and they need their human rights restored.
63. “Nations need to work together tackle the global drug problem” There is no global drug problem, what we have is a global drug policy problem. Drug policy harm that has been created, sustained and exacerbated by the nations working together under the UN mandate to prohibit so called drugs.
64. “We need to get the UN to change their approach to drugs” The UN system to control ‘drugs’ has created the problem. The UN the bastion of needless prohibition that has created the World Drug Policy Problem, should not be commissioned to lead reform, their role and involvement in controlling ‘drugs’ needs to be decommissioned. Instead, we need countries to invest their energy to tackle the drug policy problem in their own country and roll out reform nationally, rather than divest and waste energy seeking and waiting for international reforms.
Special thanks to Jerry Dorey for proof reading and helpful suggestions and to so many other critical thinkers willing to challenge the status quo.
by Julian Buchanan, former Associate Professor, Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand,
© Copyright 2016 Julian Buchanan
– but feel free to use any of my work for educational purposes, all I ask is you acknowledge and reference me as the author 🙂