Drug Policy: Human Rights & Harm Reduction

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Are reformers seeking to abolish prohibition or tweak it?


‘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.

Julian Buchanan
August 2016


  1. […] What is drug reform trying to achieve, and what might it deliver? [Julian Buchanan] […]


  2. David Smith says:

    the trouble with extremist idealism like in this blog is that it sounds rousing and right-on, but will achieve nothing in the face of the powerful prohibition system. Using arguments like this is likely to delay the arrival of legal regulation by alienating the people we need to persuade. It matters that prohibition is ended, and this will require political compromises and steady evolution of policies – not idealism from ivory tower academics


  3. julianbuchanan says:

    extremist? no
    idealism? no
    ivory tower academics? no
    compromise? – on a gross system of oppression? no
    Evolution? I wouldn’t evolve a system of slavery, nor racist KKK ideology, I wouldn’t evolve the SA Apartheid, I wouldn’t evolve prohibition either – a system that has criminalised and incarcerated millions, killed thousands, and ruined so many lives.

    And what compromise have prohibitionists yielded since Nixon announced the war on drugs five decades ago? Zillch/Zero!

    Time to raise awareness amongst the masses that this is an atrocity a global breach of human rights, people can be trusted to understand they are not stupid they just been brainwashed with propaganda and lies.

    Your steady evolution is a promise of cake tomorrow that will only further entrench and prop up an obscene and deeply offensive system of oppression for many more decades to come.

    no thanks


    Liked by 1 person

  4. Peter Reynolds says:

    Marvellous words Julian but they leave me torn and conflicted.

    Like you I despise the dissemblers who cry ‘cannabis is dangerous so it must be regulated’. They lie, exaggerate and perpetuate prohibitionist ideas in order to line their own pockets and bolster their careers. Most are failed social workers or lawyers who have chosen a life of endless pontification, talking amongst themselves at international conferences and meetings which do nothing except gyrate in self-reinforcing circles.

    There is more need for caution with every other illicit drug but none is more dangerous than tobacco or alcohol there is no justification for the criminalisation of users.

    My prime concern though is that those who need access to cannabis as medicine need it and cannot wait fro what amounts to a revolution in drugs policy. So for them, I believe, we must be prepared to engage in politicking over regulation. Anything that brings access to their medicine closer is a necessary step to take.

    Liked by 1 person

    • julianbuchanan says:

      Thanks Peter, I have personal and painful experience of a family member being denied Cannabis when it may have helped with a life limiting illness -so I share your concern and I’m acutely aware of the needless injustice endured by people in need being denied the chance to self medicate with Cannabis or purchase regulated Cannabis. However, the pain and sufferings from prohibition are so vast, it easy to overlook and hard to fully appreciate. For example, I worry that the stop searches, arrests, criminalisation and incarceration of indigenous people, Black and minority ethnic groups, and poor people that often ruins lives especially in US, UK, Australia, New Zealand & South Africa should not be placed in competition with those in medical need. Further, I suspect that the regulation movement will favour reforms for what they perceive are ‘deserving’ PWUD that is white privileged and middle class. This would further isolate others and reinforce the nonsense of acceptable and unacceptable drugs and drug users.


  5. Julian seems unable to reconcile his support for a proper regime of control and regulation of the drug trade with his opposition to regulation and control.

    I feel he is trying to shoot down the strongest argument for ending prohibition – which isn’t drug control, whatever else it may be – with his refusal to see past his own rhetoric.

    Julian, a huge number of people want the drug trade to be controlled, we need their support and so we have to speak to them in language they understand. You’re telling these people they are wrong, that is no way to earn support.


    • julianbuchanan says:

      Derek, Drug reform is complex, but my position is consistent and clear – I totally support the availability of a legalised and regulated drug trade, but that is not my priority for reform. My first priority however is decriminalisation to protect the poor, the indigenous, the people of color and minority groups from criminalisation, punishment and incarceration. Also while I seek regulation that must not result in criminalisation of personal possession of unregulated drugs, nor should it lead to criminalisation of cultivation or production of unregulated drug for personal use.
      I worry about people who change their language or arguments ‘to speak to them in a language they understand’.
      Derek I suggest you read http://crj.sagepub.com/content/16/4/452


      • Julian, I work in a college – I’m a technician who does some support teaching. The first lesson anyone who does this sort of job learns is that to engage peoples interest you have to talk to them in ways they can relate to. The same goes for drug law campaigning.

        I do understand and sympathise with your aims, but to be frank you’re not talking to the people who need to be talked to, you’re arguing with those of us who want to bring about the same broad outcome as you desire. That can only be destructive.

        Those who detest drugs, who consider them destructive and – yes – ‘dangerous’ (in the widest sense) have no motivation for considering your points. Indeed your whole case sounds simplistic and ‘wooly’. It simply doesn’t engage with the agenda they have already set.

        As I see it the only way to undermine the present perception of ‘the drug problem’ is to point out that the present strategy isn’t capable of bringing about the results they want to see. So yes, it is essential to argue that IF drugs are as dangerous as they say they are then legalisation, control and regulation is the best way to go.It’s pointless and utterly self defeating to try to argue there is no danger, you won’t get a hearing at best and at worst you will undermine the effective tactic of using their argument against them.


    • Peter Reynolds says:

      Derek, it isn’t “opposition to regulation and control” to call out those who advance false arguments to support the idea of regulation and control.

      The ‘Transformisation’ of drug policy reform into false arguments that exaggerate danger is a dead end. It’s just as unscientific and evidence-free as prohibition.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. derek23 says:

    I totally and utterly disagree with that as you know Peter (we know each other through cannabis campaigning).

    There exists a debate around drugs which is based on a set of claims – assumptions if you like – which, correct or not, are pretty much universally held and understood to be true. The object of drugs policy is to protect people and society from the ‘danger’ of drugs.

    Now, you can try standing outside of this debate trying to convince everyone else that they are wrong with their basic agenda, or you can take part in the ongoing debate and demonstrate why what they are doing is the wrong approach, given what they believe.

    The latter is an effective approach, the former is pointless because no-one will listen.

    The law reform campaign has been crippled by this debate for years – decades in fact. The only people you will be arguing this issue with are other law reform campaigners, it’s a total waste of time and undermines the effective moves toward change that are happening now.

    Anyway, why would you need regulation and control over things that aren’t dangerous in some way?


  7. Mary says:

    I agree with you. Drugs aren’t a crime as far as I’m concerned, even told in the fifth grade by D.A.R.E cops that they were bad I just didn’t understand why they were so worked up. Drugs are used for enjoyment, medicine, and ceremonial purposes, and all illegal drugs can be used safely. There isn’t any evil intention. No one has gone into a car and decided, “I really want to murder someone, so I think I’ll get into a car impaired.” Prohibition is evil, like concentration camps, internment camps, witch hunts, or missionaries who use force. The internment camps took peaceful citizens of maybe Japanese heritage (they probably get mixed up once they’re in America) and put them in jail. America was no better than the Germans.

    Prison labor is free that’s what I think. Slavery was abolished unless duly convicted. All these people in prison, what are they doing? Slave labor. Laws should protect people from murderers and thieves. I mean that’s the point of laws, is to uphold justice, and punishing a peaceful harmless act that can do some good is an injustice.

    Being apologetic about it is frustrating. You’re apologizing for the discrimination of billions of people around the world. What started as a racist and religious discriminatory tirade has grown more and more evil. It just needs to be stopped, not tweaked.

    Putting cannabis in the lime light I think works because cannabis is so popular. It’s mild and easy to use regularly. The moralistic outlook that regular drug use is bad is just a way to justify the human rights abuses and has no foundation in reality or in the philosophy of ethics.

    It is the politicians and police who did something morally wrong by declaring that something as violent as jail and labor was the solution to an activity that doesn’t harm anyone else and isn’t looked at as bad by most people.

    I thought that things were changing but it seems like they’re just putting cannabis in this spot and trying to make excuses for their evil deeds and acting like people agree with them.

    At a patient appreciation day at the medical cannabis dispensary, I have epilepsy, one lady said “Public perception needs to be changed” that’s unbelievably not true. Public perception of drugs isn’t what made the drug laws. People are fine with drugs. A little wary at times, I don’t like drinking because I don’t like to puke, but to each their own.

    I tried to write a 1984 like book called “Mary Jane Adventures” I was so mad, about a marijuana plant that comes to life. They’re completely ruining me here, illegal drugs medicinally is asking me to take it twice a day and I don’t have the guarantee of not being thrown out of work or school, in fact, I was thrown out of art school. And I did basically nothing wrong. They said for comments and didn’t tell me what comments I made. It’s on toomuch89.deviantart.com if you want to check out my stories by the way.

    Then there’s the Native American aspect–peyote is sacred. And Illegal. Pipes are sacred. And acting like the racist history doesn’t matter is irritating. Acting like these are unintended consequences of a just goal is stupid. They said cocaine makes black men impervious to bullets. It’s impossible to be bulletproof. That is what it started as, saying drugs could cause inter-race rape. And who knows how much the whole Native American religion thing has to do with it.

    I want them to say that prohibition is immoral and evil, only then will I feel that justice has been done.


  8. Mary says:

    One of the things that makes me most mad is when they talk about the human rights abuses that have happened as “unintended consequences of trying towards a worthy goal”. I don’t consider a drug free world a worthy goal. I don’t consider drugs dangerous or harmful, or at least not harmful as described by the government where they describe drugs actually causing violence and rape.

    They made something completely innocuous illegal and then said that racism, even though quotes of claims that drugs cause inter-race rape date back to Anslinger who started the whole thing, was an unintended consequence. Like I’m supposed to believe it’s a coincidence peyote is sacred to a non-Christian Native American thing and also illegal. That’s an unintended consequence because eating a cactus can kill. But it’s legal for Natives. They actually prosecuted it violently with police and prisons and the DEA is practically an army, and they dare call their inhumane actions an unintended consequence of a worthy goal. No, staying up till five while trying to defeat a video game is an unintended consequence of a worthy goal. Spreading racist propaganda and starting a violent police state is exactly what they wanted.

    They just give the government the excuse to lock people up, make them do prison labor, and abuse their civil liberties.

    And drug using citizens are a portion of your society whether you like it or not. These people aren’t going to disappear and chasing them with police enforcement is a brutality.

    I’m sorry I wrote too much.

    Liked by 1 person

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