Drug Policy: Human Rights & Harm Reduction

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Will Legalising Cannabis Help End or Extend Prohibition?

legalisation, cannabis, weed, marijuana, decriminalisation, drugs, addict, addiction, regulation


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


Julian Buchanan, Associate Professor, Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand



  1. A very good question and in principal I agree with your every word on the subject, with the exception of the reality of the world we currently live in. Getting politicians in positions of power to support such a change, I feel, is dependant on getting enough public support to motivate them and after 70+ years of propaganda, lies and fear, I just can’t see this happening any time soon and just perhaps, if cannabis were legalised (or removed from the “illicit” list and the public can see that the world does not actually fall apart as a result then it would be an initial first step towards shifting public opinion towards supporting an inclusive, sensible, rational, evidence based, harm-reduction focussed drug policy.


    • julianbuchanan says:

      Thanks for the comment. Just perhaps… and I hope you are right Jonathon.

      I’m sure cannabis legalisation will go some way to enlighten the public about the lies concerning drug policy.

      Like you I have no faith in the politicians as I’ve expressed elsewhere

      So the challenge is whether as a result of cannabis reform public opinion can be harnessed towards ending the drug wars rather than simply swapping tobacco for cannabis. I’m not hopeful.


    • dwpandme says:

      It’s very difficult, impossible perhaps, to accurately gauge the true significance of the configuration of the world of the present moment, to see the time were living through now from the perspective of history. As we are now, with an ignorant and misled public, many states around the world prepared to punish with death, trafficking in a substance that is not known to have ever directly led to a single fatality along with the glacial pace of international negotiations and the post abolition world is, I agree, almost unimaginable. However, where there is a clear inconsistency in the law, an egregious abuse of basic human rights, a blatant disregard of science and a great poverty of moral philosophy all being played out like some absurd pantomime, society can undergo a rapid transformation to normalization.

      When I tell my kids that less than 50 years ago in the UK you could have your property invaded by police and be thrown into a prison cell simply because someone had alerted the authorities that you had sexual relations with someone of the same gender, I find it difficult to explain in a way that doesn’t involve creating a picture of a different world with a different political and legal history from the modern western world. Homosexuals number around 5 – 10% of the population and yet they were able to mobilize and throw off the oppression by making it understood that they acted as a community and the police would have to arrest and imprison a large percentage of the population. Users of illicit drugs number around 30% or more I believe in Europe; if everyone who uses drugs started to do so openly, then it would force the change in legislation required.

      In order to stand against the unacceptable treatment of homosexuals, gay people had to eliminate their feelings of shame that society had imposed on them. Drug users must do the same for abolition to take place. They must stop accepting the image of themselves as degenerate people with a health / mental health problem or taking the petty criminal label. I believe it will happen one day and it could happen very quickly but ultimately its up to drug users to come out proudly and as a community.


      • julianbuchanan says:

        Good point you make – and I agree that people who choose substances not approved by the state should not internalise that oppression, nor should they settle for a half way deal. The Drug Apartheid should be exposed and seen for what it is.


  2. James E. Gierach says:

    I agree entirely but have a hard time stopping at the decriminalization window for than a minute on the way to what’s really required to displace drug prohibition harms permanently and that’s drug legalization.


    • Agreed
      However, the process of dismantling of Prohibition may have to be done in stages – which I can live with so long as we are actually dismantling it.

      Decriminalisation is so easy – it could be implemented overnight – but legalisation needs time to decide, labelling, distribution, advertising, sponsorship, taxation, storage, sale outlet. licenses, social clubs, sanctions for breaches etc., but yes I want all drugs legalised.

      But I’m also afraid of a a legalisation that results in a monopoly for business and criminalisation for anyone growing, producing or selling, and for anyone possessing unapproved ‘drugs’ – that would be swapping Prohibition for Prohibition 2.0.

      Thanks for commenting



  3. […] This is discussed by Dr Julian Buchanan here, and as this excerpt outlines: […]


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