‘Like the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, the ending of the South African Apartheid, or the collapse of the Berlin Wall – Prohibition must also fall, it cannot be adapted or amended.’
Drug reform should not, as some seem to think, be about improving or tweaking existing government drug policy, it should instead seek to end and dismantle an iniquitous & destructive system of prohibition that wreaks havoc on individuals, families, communities & countries. Prohibition is rooted in lies, misinformation and racism, to protect power, privilege and vested interest. It’s a regime that is fiercely upheld and brutally enforced by the state; a system that encourages and promotes legal substances while vilifying all banned substances, substances which the state insists we refer to as ‘drugs’.
While I am keen to see an end to this draconian system, I am uneasy with some of the dominant approaches in the drug reform movement, and I’m worried and dubious about what they might achieve. I suspect these approaches are driven largely by people who have enjoyed privilege, well intentioned good people, but people with limited experience or understanding of the devastating disproportionate impact drug prohibition has upon the poor, the indigenous, ethnic minority groups, people of colour, and those forced by the sheer poverty of their life circumstances to grow, manufacture and/or sell ’drugs’.
‘Let us be clear, people can be harmed by drugs, but most harm is caused by prohibitive and intolerant drug policies.’
Too many drug reformers embrace drug policy fallacy when seeking policy change, for example they claim: ‘It is because drugs are dangerous we need regulation’; or ‘drugs are dangerous but criminalisation is worse’; or ‘cannabis maybe harmful but…’ or ‘harm reduction is needed because drugs are dangerous’. What these reformers are inadvertently doing is supporting and consolidating the ideological misinformation and propaganda of prohibition to gain support for step change policy improvement. While it probably arises from a genuine and pragmatic attempt to lever change and gain credibility with prohibitionists, I think it is an irresponsible and dangerous position to take, it’d be like the Women’s Movement saying: ‘Women might not be good bricklayers – but sexism is wrong’. It appears to support change, but it’s not only inaccurate, it is subliminally reinforcing the very discrimination and misinformation it claims to be challenging.
Let us be clear, people can be harmed by drugs, but most harm is caused by prohibitive and intolerant drug policies. Because of prohibition, there are no quality controls of ‘drugs’, so people have little or no idea of the strength of the drug or of what substances it might be mixed with. Because of the life long consequences of a drug conviction, users are driven to using in private or sometimes isolated places where they are less likely to be seen, placing them more at risk. If, as a result of not knowing the strength of the drug, or of unwittingly consuming a toxic substance users get into difficulties, they are less likely to seek help, or delay seeking help for fear of criminal charges, stigma and shame.
‘we need reform not because the state failed to take control of drugs, but BECAUSE the state tried to control our drug use.’
It is drug policy rooted in prohibitionist propaganda that causes most drug related dangers, not drugs per se. Prohibitionist drug policies are lethal, they are killing people. The misplaced risks ascribed to ‘drugs’ rather than drug policy, has made many governments afraid to deliver harm reduction services such as Needle Exchanges, Heroin Assisted Treatment, Drug Consumption Rooms, Event Drug Checking and Naloxone distribution, because they fear they might be colluding with the use of inherently dangerous substances.
Tackling prohibition by reinforcing the false premise “Drugs are Dangerous” is at best weak and apologetic, but worse will lead to reform policies that reflect that misplaced and exaggerated sense of danger. It’s not that drug are inherently dangerous, it’s a drug policy built on prohibition, abstinence and intolerance that is dangerous. Drugs, like driving cars, eating peanuts, horse rising, cycling, drinking fizzy drinks and playing the lottery all have risks but only a small minority get into serious difficulties. Indeed, the term drugs describes a socially constructed category of substances included on a United Nations list for political and economic reasons, there is no science, evidence based rationale or pharmacology support the decision. The substances listed are diverse and extremely different from each other so any sweeping statement of risk applied to them all is rendered meaningless.
Although there is an urgent and long overdue need for serious drug policy change, I don’t ‘buy into’ diluting the truth, engaging in spin or using slight of hand to achieve reform – this has been a pathway well-trodden by ideologically driven abstentionists and prohibitionists. I am also opposed to the dodgy pragmatism that suggests we need to appease, engage or win over prohibitionists by using their language. Tony Blair, when in opposition and ostensibly seeking to deliver criminal justice reform, used the slogan ‘Tough on Crime, Tough on the Causes of Crime’ – but the message that stuck was ‘tough on crime’ – the focus on the underlying causes got lost in translation, and the Criminal Justice System became more punitive. Drug reform is desperately needed, but it must not be compromised or poisoned by incorporating prohibitionist language, thinking or propaganda. Reform can, and needs to be, successfully built upon evidence, science and rationale to lead a transformative change in drug laws and policies. To end prohibition and build new drug policies we need an open, frank, informed and mature conversation, not a coy, shadily negotiation to broker a deal.
‘rallying behind ‘Regulation’ is like rallying behind a call for ‘Laws and Policies’ for drugs. It is vague and unspecific.’
Like the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, the ending of the South African Apartheid, the collapse of the Berlin Wall – prohibition must also fall, it cannot be adapted or amended. The present Drug Apartheid system will be remembered as one of the great atrocities in human history – it needs exposing and abolishing – not tweaking to result in some deeply flawed Jim Crow styled reform.
Some of these reformers call for ‘Regulation’, of course, I want to see a clean legal supply of regulated drugs available for sale – but rallying behind ‘Regulation’ is like rallying behind a call for ‘Laws and Policies’ for drugs. It is vague and unspecific. For example, opiates are already a ‘regulated’ drug, they are available to buy as paracodeine/paracodol in some pharmacists, opiates are strictly regulated and used widely in medicine, but otherwise opiates are illegal to possess and supply, and anyone caught in possession faces serious charges – so regulation can take many forms and can continue to result in disproportionate law enforcement imposed on the poor and minority groups for possession of unapproved drugs.
Strict regulation is needed for businesses not people, but even then, governments have a particularly poor record of regulating the pharmaceutical, alcohol or tobacco industry, so placing hope in state to appropriately regulate ‘drugs’ is probably optimistic. The risk is that the state will seek to regulate people by punishing possession of unapproved drugs. People do not need to be regulated over what they choose to ingest in their body, law enforcement has no right to impose penalties for what they consume, they need respect, advice, guidance and reliable information to help them make an informed choice, and this can be supported by strict regulation of the drug industry including advertising, sponsorships, number of outlets, location of outlets, labelling, quality controls, strength etc.
Remember too, we need reform not because the state failed to take control of drugs, but BECAUSE the state tried to control our drug use. For five decades drug prohibition has claimed to be protecting society from the threat posed by ‘dangerous drugs’, and as a result governments have escalated the ‘war on drugs’ effort, including; crop spraying, military action, stop and searches, arrests, incarceration, sniffer dogs in schools, ever more intrusive drug testing and they have imposed severe sanctions for those caught in possession of ‘drugs’ (exclusion from housing, education, travel, insurance, employment, benefits etc). Yes, regulation could positively deliver a clean legal supply of state approved drugs, but it could also be used to uphold an enforcement regime that outlaws possession of ‘unapproved unregulated’ drugs, thereby delivering Prohibition 2.0.
Paramount in any drug reform must be the restoration of the human right over our body to ingest what we choose, without threat or punishment from the state, this must be central and non-negotiable to any reform strategy, however, I don’t think the vague notion of seeking ‘Regulation’ will deliver this.