Julian Buchanan

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Power, Democracy and Drug Reform: Challenging the ‘War on Drugs’

 

The so called ‘War on Drugs’ never existed. There has never been a campaign against drugs. Society and governments appreciate the benefits and pleasures derived from drugs. Drugs have never been as popular as they are now. The overall availability, promotion and use of pharmaceutical and legal highs such as caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and sugar, has never been greater. These drugs escaped under the radar of the prohibitionist drug discourse that conveniently excludes them.

What we have is a drug war, a war between drugs, or more accurately, a process best understood as a politically driven Drug Apartheid; an arbitrary separation, not of people, but of drugs, where alcohol, tobacco and caffeine enjoy privilege, power and promotion, while ‘controlled’ drugs – portrayed as unpredictable, threatening and dangerous – are subject to propaganda, misinformation and marginalisation. Society has been successfully indoctrinated, at a personal, cultural and institutional level, to believe this unfounded, unscientific and deeply damaging social construction of ‘drugs’.

Nutt, Legalisation, harm reduction, Drug reform, decriminalisation, addict, addiction, regulation, stigma

Anyone seeking to expose or challenge the drug apartheid, risks being ridiculed, and is vulnerable to public humiliation, as experienced by Professor David Nutt. The unwarranted and ill-founded attack on David Nutt was no isolated incident. Further, to deter any association with outlawed drugs, armed forces, customs officials, and police invest massive energy and resources, while magistrates and Judges impose some of the severest sentences available to the courts for drug violations. Such is the power of the drug apartheid, that a criminal conviction for using the ‘wrong drug’ results in life-long consequences for travel, employment, housing, relationship and opportunities. The ever increasing business opportunities and technologies, spawned from the drug apartheid, drug testing (urine, blood, hair, sweat, saliva, and waste water!), has enabled the oppressive regime to extend beyond law enforcement agencies, to the civil arena, so that surveillance, monitoring and sanctions to maintain the drug apartheid are now carried out by employers, benefit agencies, schools, colleges and even in homes by parents on their children.

This untenable and indefensible position, of outlawing some drugs and privileging others, was enshrined in the 1961 UN Single Convention, a law that is rooted in moral and politically ideology from the 1930s, 40s & 50s. The decision to isolate a group of substances was never based upon science, reason or evidence. Yet ironically, since it’s inception, drug reformers have tried to end this drug war by engaging ideologically driven politicians, governments and UN bodies with endless streams of evidence, inquiries, research, reports and debates.

This considerable drug reform effort, has for five decades (1960-2010), resulted in no significant drug law or policy change by any major advanced western capitalist country, – apart from some US state privileging cannabis for entirely different reasons. The vast array of campaigns, reports, research, presentations, inquiries, reviews, and publications have for decades been consigned to a vacuum, while the increasingly wealthy and all powerful multi-national companies with a vested interest in maintaining the drug apartheid, have worked closely alongside politicians and government agencies, to maintain drug policy inertia through propaganda, procrastination, misinformation and distortion. Indeed prohibition benefits many groups and organisations.

marijuana, weed, cannabis, legalisation, harm reduction, reform, drugs

A recent US opinion poll (the General Social Survey), that explores support for cannabis legalisation, indicates that for almost 40 years (1970-2007) public interest in legalising cannabis changed little, fluctuating between 16% and 33% during that period. However,  in the seven year period since 2007, support for legalisation has risen rapidly from 31% to 52%. How do we make sense of this dramatic shift?

One influential contributing factor over this period, has been the global and widespread increased access to the internet, and the mass engagement with social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Scoop.it, LinkenIn and YouTube. Social media provides an alternative source to information, evidence and peer exchange, and has I believe, played a significant part in enabling the wider public to gain access to independent, research based knowledge and reason, necessary to critically consider and question the basis of the Drug Policy Sham. In particular, the widespread dissemination of research evidence, facts and case stories (such as Charlotte Figi), about cannabis to the public, has resulted in long overdue, and much needed calls for decriminalisation and legalisation, to allow people suffering with life limiting illnesses, that fail to respond to medicine, to explore possible benefits from cannabis, and sensibly too, to allow recreational use of cannabis. Personal possession of cannabis should never have been outlawed, but neither should personal possession of any substance. Every person should in principle have totally rights over their own body and what they consume without threat of harassment, punishment or incarceration. The risks associated with personal consumption of any substance is a health and social care issue, not a law enforcement issue (if it’s an issue at all!).

The public acceptance of cannabis is a very significant shift, indeed, it could mark the ’tipping point’ – the start of the process that could see the end of the drug apartheid. But let’s be clear here, cannabis reform in the US is not occurring because fifty years of research, evidence and debate has finally persuaded politicians the drug war was a mistake, and the politicians are seeking legislative change. No, cannabis is being embraced, essentially because public insight and awareness has significantly increased since 2007, and there has been a shift in public opinion, that has resulted in serious electoral pressure upon politicians to enact cannabis law reform. The drive is coming from the grassroots, it’s not being led by politicians,  instead governments are being forced to change by the public and ballot box.

In an era where the interests and activities of multi-national companies and politicians are becoming increasingly enmeshed. An era where democracy seems unresponsive to the needs of the vulnerable, and shows little interest in the protection of the common good, another four decades of inquiries, reports, reviews towards incremental change, would be a grave strategic mistake. The leverage for drug reform will be found, not in trying to persuade politicians or the INCB, UNODC, UNGASS, CND to lead the way on incremental changes which fail to address the underlying fallacies, but rather, by winning over mass public support, by utilising social media to distribute evidence, developing well-informed community movements, regularly disseminating accurate information, sharing influential case studies and rallying a huge social movement and public outcry that demands political change and transformation. The Drug War fallacies spawned by UN, have created a global system of propaganda and prohibition. This system needs exposing and ending, it is misguided to imagine it can provide foundations that can be adjusted  and reformed incrementally to deliver drug legalisation.

drug reform, legalisation, decriminalisation, harm reduction, human rights

Human Rights and Harm Reduction must be central in all reform.

Despite this encouraging drug law reform development, in respect of cannabis, the attempts towards genuine global drug reform could easily be thwarted. If, as drug reformers, we are not clear in our arguments and strategies for reform, which should be firmly rooted in protecting human rights and promoting harm reduction, cannabis will simply be invited to join the other privileged legal drugs in the drug apartheid. This could be a positive outcome for: big business, who can extend their repertoire and profit from the commercial sale of cannabis; for the state, who can profit from taxes, as well as continue to utilise drug laws as a key control mechanism for stopping, searching, arresting and punishing the poor, indigenous and minority ethnic groups; and the business enterprises spawned from the drug wars, (the industrial penal complex, the drug testing industry and the drug treatment industries). In this pivotal period for drug reform, simply privileging cannabis and failing to address the fundamentally flawed system of drug control would amount to colluding with a corrupt system.

Some drug reform entrepreneurs may attempt to hail privileging cannabis as an incremental step in the right direction, but the widespread and growing public support for decriminalisation, (and ultimately the regulation of all drugs), could be dissipated by this tokenistic gesture to invite cannabis to sit around the table of the powerful. While alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and maybe cannabis enjoy privileged status, the scourge, oppression and madness of a drug apartheid, remains an affront to human rights, a system of punishment and control that will continue to haunt this generation and future generations to come, one that will be remembered shamefully in history. The international system of drug control is deeply flawed and damaging to individuals, communities and countries. There is no ‘World Drugs Problem’ what we have is a UN led World Drug Policy Problem. It needs naming, exposing and dismantling. There can be no minor adjustments, or so-called incremental steps to accommodate the status quo, abolition is what is required not compromise.

This period of history will be recalled for the needless self-inflicted harm, imposed across the globe by a drug apartheid, in which drug laws and drug policy have caused considerably more harm than the drugs ever could.

by Julian Buchanan, Associate Professor, Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand, 7th March 2015 (updated 26th April 2016)
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8 Comments

  1. julianbuchanan says:

    Reblogged this on Julian Buchanan.

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  2. Dr Alex Wodak AM says:

    There are now so many reasons to oppose drug prohibition. It clearly doesn’t work. Even more important, it’s unfair and unjust. Who would support a policy that was effective if they thought that policy was unfair and unjust. Also, as you point out here, it’s based on a categorisation of drugs which cannot be defended on public health or pharmacological grounds. This goes back to the 1925 Geneva meeting under the League of Nations to ban drugs derived from three plants – opium, coca and cannabis. This agrrement was the basis for the UN 1961 Single Convention, later supported by the 1971 and 1988 treaties. This week as a major UN drug policy meeting is about to start in Vienna, the Deputy Secretary General no less called for drug decriminalisation.
    The critical first step is accepting the failure and futility of a War on Drugs.

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    • julianbuchanan says:

      Hopefully it won’t be 100yrs after the Geneva mtg before the drug apartheid collapses – and all drugs are assessed by the same criteria.

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  3. The Drug Mug says:

    Excellent piece. In particular, the concept of singling out cannabis for reform while continuing to vilify “drugs” in general. I would go further and suggest that cannabis legalisation might be considered not only counter-productive but a definite step in the wrong direction and downright dangerous.

    Those involved at the top end of the cannabis supply chain aren’t going to simply give up and go home. If you believe (as I do from UK and some NZ experience) that most illegal weed dealers sell only this drug and most/many of their customers use only this drug, the potential is there for marketing other, more dangerous substances via this now redundant chain – exposing those at the bottom to more hazardous substances and pitting those at the top against the already established players, with predictable consequences. That is why – counter-intuitive as it may seem – the only way to stop those at the top is to remove the entire market from their grasp.

    As an aside, interesting to note from your WP graphic that support for legalisation has increased most years since 1990. Hopefully it won’t take 25 years to achieve full drug regulation.

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  4. […] 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 […]

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