New Zealand Drug Policy 2010-2020: The lost opportunity for drug reform

The New Zealand Cannabis Referendum, made possible by the Green Party Coalition agreement, will be close. It could go either way. If New Zealand loses the cannabis referendum, it was a valiant effort given the massive challenge, because so much ground has been lost over the past decade.

In January 2011 New Zealand was on the cusp of transformational drug reform. Coinciding with my arrival to the country, the comprehensive and bold reform recommendations by the 2011 Law Commission Review of the Misuse of Drugs Act had just been published. It was a major and carefully considered study carried out by a well respected team. The three year independent report carried gravitas and authority.

The document set the scene for re-imagining and refocusing New Zealand drug policy away from abstinence; away from a brain disease model of addiction; and away from ‘drug free’ propaganda, towards an evidence based approach of living with drugs through legal regulation, harm reduction and human rights.

The Law Commission recommended a mandatory cautioning scheme for ALL personal drug possession, legalisation of all drug related utensils, greater leniency for social dealing avoiding the use of prison and rescinding the MDA to be replaced with a new Act administered by Health Department not the Justice Department.

The comprehensive Law Commission report published in 2011, should have kick started a sweeping movement of public debate and education leading to a decade of drug policy reform informed by a mature drug policy debate and ever evolving evidence base.

A key player in shaping and coordinating drug policy is the New Zealand Drug Foundation, the lead drug policy NGO, heavily funded by the government. But during this period the Drug Foundation steered drug agencies and managed (some might say manipulated) thinking around drug policy on behalf of the then, National government,. The National Party have as they do now, remained firmly prohibitionist and anti ‘drugs’. National MPs have a mandate to vote ‘No’ in the Cannabis Referendum.

Arguably, despite their funding base, as the lead NGO the New Zealand Drug Foundation (NZDF) should have seized the opportunities to mobilise support arising from the authoritative Law Commission Review to push, advocate and seek to implement key reform recommendations, to raise public consciousness and awareness about ‘drugs’, and expose the propaganda, futility and harm from prohibitionist drug policies.

However, a combination of fear, ignorance and vested interest appears to have deterred many individuals and drug agencies from engaging in an open and honest evidence based discussion around New Zealand drug laws and policies. Maybe this is no surprise given a pervasive culture of dirty politics.

Instead of harm reduction, by 2012 the Drug Foundation were heralding the roll out in New Zealand of the USA styled Drug Abstinence Courts that involved coercive measures, including frequent random drug testing, alcohol ankle tags and punishments to ‘help’ people they called ‘addicts’ to fight the ‘disease’ and become ‘drug’ free. Following the initial pilot, Drug Abstinence Courts have been extended and expanded to other areas of New Zealand.

By August 2013 the NZDF set up an invite only multi agency gathering to write up new directions in drug policy producing a document that seemed to have given up hope or commitment to goals set out in the Law Commission Report. Instead, the NZDF delivered a forty page dossier entitled The Wellington Declaration that attempted to keep everyone happy. A document that sought the compromise of ‘a broad church’ while side stepping: the key reform recommendations from the Law Commission; overlooking much needed harm reduction measures such as naloxone take home and drug checking; and ignoring the issues of meth-house testing, drug testing beneficiaries and drug presence testing of drivers.

In November that year the Drug Foundation hosted their 2nd Cannabis Conference on Health Risks in which they invited Kevin Sabet from SAM USA to speak about preventing and treating cannabis use. This was a wasted opportunity at best. It should have been a conference to enlighten agencies, the media and the public on alternatives to cannabis prohibition, and start the much needed debate and thinking.

In 2013 we also saw the introduction of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 that the Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne claimed would be the knock out blow to drugs – by ending the cat and mouse game of having to ban each drug separately in the MDA1975, this new Act banned EVERY new psychoactive drug before it’s even discovered. The PSA2013 introduced new possession and supply offences but was mischievously sold to reformers as as world leading reform because if a psychoactive substance could be proved safe it could in theory be eventually be legally regulated. The legislation was unanimously backed by the National Party because it widened the net of prohibition – and not surprisingly not a single NPS was ever deemed safe enough to be regulated due to the hoops and hurdles demanded.

During this period drug testing beneficiaries, drug testing employees and drug testing houses for traces of methamphetamine became rampant , resulting in redundancies, suspension of benefits and evictions. It spawned many new drug testing businesses. There was little protest, virtually no user voice and little or no significant outcry against these injustices from key stakeholders.

In 2017 the tough abstinence and intolerance approach, at the heart of prohibition, was bolstered further by a new law Substance Addiction (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act 2017 to force people to get treatment, despite the lack of evidence based to support compulsory treatment, and despite the human rights concerns. The Act crept in quietly and nothing was said.

So this was the context within which in 2018 the Labour/Green/NZFirst Coalition announced New Zealand would consider legalising recreational cannabis via a Referendum. The public had been spoon fed prohibitionist propaganda for most of the past of a decade – with none of the main agencies or NGOs seriously advocating or arguing for the robust alternatives sown in the 2011 Law Commission Review.

It is interesting that the campaign to legally regulate cannabis has failed to address the real issue – prohibition. Instead, prohibitionist discourse has been accepted and adopted with slogans such as “Regulate cannabis to reduce the harms it can cause“, “Let’s get cannabis under control by regulating it”, and ‘protect our young people’. Implying the drug is out of control or dangerous, when the problem is that prohibition is out of control, prohibition is dangerous and it is prohibition that is ruining lives. Hardly surprising so many discussions have centred on the risks, effects and harms of cannabis rather than the risks, effects and harms of prohibition.

Let us be clear about the additional harms created by prohibition. It means the person has:

1. No idea of the strength of the drug.

2. No guarantee about the purity or indeed content of the drug purchased – it could be contaminated or even mixed with toxic ingredients that could cause serious harm, even death.

3. Have to buy the drug ‘underground’ – exposing the person to the vagaries of a potentially dangerous criminal underworld with no legal recourse for consumer protection.

4. Is placed at risk of acquiring a criminal record for drug possession – which would have lifelong damaging consequences upon employment prospects, education, insurance, travel and housing.

5. Buying, using and/or sharing drugs puts the person at risk of serious criminal sentences such as a Drug Court order with a residential rehabilitation requirement, random drug testing – even imprisonment.

6. The drug has to be used in secret. For some people this may mean using in an isolated location which could be potentially dangerous – such as a condemned building, under a railway bridge, by a river etc.

7. Has to hide their use of the drug making it more difficult to manage and harder to seek help, support or advice if problems arise.

8. If the person has a life-limiting medical condition that’s untreatable and can’t afford and/or can’t access expensive legal medical cannabis – trying to acquire a regular reliable supply underground places further strain and pressure upon the sick person.

9. Enforcement drug laws unfairly target poor people, young people and indigenous people – and once a young person who is already disadvantaged gets a criminal record for drugs – opportunities become severely limited.

10. Using valuable police time to scour the countryside to dig up plants, stop and search people, carry out dawn raids, – time that could be better spent catching criminals and protecting victims from physical/sexual violence, trespass, theft and burglary.

11. Prohibition enforcement fuels an extremely lucrative underground illegal market where disputes and turf wars can’t get resolved by arbitration, consumer rights or the courts – disputes get resolved by violence, knives, baseball bats and guns.

12. Drugs such as cannabis are used widely, but the entire market from seeds, growing, the equipment, the preparation, marketing, packaging and profit is entirely unregulated, unaccountable, underground and undeclared – this existing lucrative underground business is losing the country millions of dollars in tax revenue and employment opportunities.


The public will decide the New Zealand Cannabis Referendum – but the public have been duped by relentless prohibitionist propaganda that has gone largely unchallenged. Since the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1975 – and apart from some knee jerk reactions to the HIV/AIDS threat in the 1980s that resulted in accomodating needle exchanges and substitute prescribing – a US styled anti-drugs propaganda has dominated NZ drug policies, leaving the public ill-prepared and ill-informed to understand the referendum issues.

Since 2011 numerous influential speakers have been invited over from the USA to perpetuate abstinence and prohibitionist approaches, including Dr Kevin Sabet President of SAM USA (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), Dr Tom McLellan ex USA Deputy Drug Tsar, the late Christopher Kennedy Lawfordthe USA in-recovery champion and the USA Superior Judge Peggy Hora and her team who run drug abstinence courts based on the brain disease model of addiction. The strong connections and support from the USA prohibitionists are firmly established here in New Zealand and continue to shape our drug policies. USA propaganda has been fundamental in supporting the ‘No’ vote.

On the back of a major Law Commission review that recommended in 2011 rescinding the existing drug law, the past decade in New Zealand should have been so different. The groundwork for major reform should have been done. Instead, we have witnessed a tidal wave of unchallenged prohibitionist policies that makes a mature and informed rational discussion on legal regulation extremely difficult.

New Zealand is the first country in the world to ask voters about cannabis legalisation, I wish we were better prepared. I just hope we are not the first country in the world to reject cannabis legalisation. Prohibition is such a monster – but we have only ourselves to blame.

Breaking Free From Prohibition: A Human Rights Approach to Successful Drug Reform

4754231502_940e0fe7f1_zImage courtesy of Connor Tarter

by Julian Buchanan 15th May 2018

We have a global drug policy problem


Global ‘drug’ Prohibition is an archaic system rooted in the 1950s. It has had a devastating impact upon individuals, families, communities and countries. In decades to come, it will be remembered as one of the most arbitrary, barbaric and brutal systems of oppression in recent history.

Offensive prejudices and beliefs prevalent in the 1950s directed towards indigenous people, ‘drug’ users, gay and lesbian people, black people, women, people who are mentally ill and people with learning disabilities resulted in institutionalised oppression of these groups. In this era state sanctioned discrimination was legitimised and normalised, and these groups were oppressed at a structural, cultural and at an inter-personal level. Thankfully, seven decades later these offensive prejudices, nurtured by state sanctioned ignorance, misinformation and lies, have largely been successfully exposed and challenged, and such attitudes are no longer socially acceptable or legally supported. However, while considerable progress has been achieved there remains much work still to be done.

Those oppressive attitudes in the 1950s that were directed towards people who used ‘drugs’ became institutionally enshrined in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs – and quite remarkably, by contrast to all the other groups mentioned above, little has changed towards people who use ‘drugs’. Arguably, discrimination fuelled by ignorance, misinformation and lies, is worse today than it was in the 1950s, as surveillance, enforcement and exclusionary measures have extended beyond the criminal realm into the civil domain, with drug testing people on welfare benefits, students, motorists and employees.

“What we have come to regard as ‘drugs’ is a social and cultural construct lacking any pharmacological evidence base.”


During this period we have been conned and coerced into embracing and promoting state approved drugs (alcohol, caffeine, tobacco & sugar), and to view with disdain all substances banned by the government. This sharp distinction between state approved and state banned drugs has no scientific or pharmacological foundation to support it, it is entirely based on political propaganda. What is commonly referred to as ‘drugs’ is simply a list of substances arbitrarily excluded for political reasons. Despite the lack of evidence to support this distinction between substances, banned drugs have been demonised by attributing blame upon the drug for the devastating damage caused by prohibition, or by a circular government argument that: ‘drugs are dangerous and the evidence that they are dangerous, is that they are illegal’.

What we have come to regard as ‘drugs’ is a social and cultural construct lacking any pharmacological evidence base. Perversely, banned substances (if under the same quality control conditions as state-approved drugs), are generally less physically, socially and psychologically harmful, – and arguably more pleasurable and desirable. Further, there are medical benefits to many banned drugs that have been to denied to patients, leaving some people with epilepsy, PTSD, depression, autism, Alzheimer’s, MS, Parkinson’s and cancer, to needlessly suffer, or alternatively risk criminalisation and punishment.

Prohibition too has distorted and thwarted our thinking on drug prevention, drug education and drug treatment which have instead become preoccupied with avoiding ‘drugs’, lifelong abstinence to become ‘clean’, and stigma towards people that use ‘drugs’. In some instances, this prohibitionist dogma has produced damaging and potentially dangerous ‘treatment’.

Arguably, the greatest harms have been meted out by enforcement measures. On an individual level prohibition means users have little idea of the strength of a substance, nor of the content – it could be ‘cut’ with highly toxic ingredients. If there is a quality control issue the purchaser has no legal process for complaint, and if they get into personal difficulties or become seriously intoxicated, they are much less likely to seek assistance for fear of stigma, arrest and/or punishment.

“Prohibition too, has distorted and thwarted our thinking on drug prevention, drug eduction and drug treatment which have instead become preoccupied with avoiding ‘drugs’”

Indeed, one of the greatest threats to life is posed not by drugs, but by a drug conviction. A criminal record for a drug defined crime may result in insurmountable hurdles when seeking employment, education, accommodation, international travel, insurance and relationships. In some countries, a drug conviction can lead to incarceration – even the death penalty. A growing punitiveness has seen Duterte in the Philippines and Trump in the US, both advocate death for drug dealers, which in the Philippines appears to have been interpreted as legitimating the killing of suspects without trial or due process. This barbaric reaction to suspected drug dealers excludes of course, without any sense of irony or hypocrisy, those who deal in state-approved drugs.

‘Drug’ enforcement has been deeply divisive – targeting the poor, the indigenous, people of colour, and people from black and minority ethnic groups (BME), despite evidence that levels of drug use are similar across most communities. This discriminatory policing has resulted in deeply worrying disparities in terms of over-representation of indigenous people and people of colour in prison, particularly in New Zealand, Australia, UK & USA. So bad is the problem for ‘people of colour’ in the USA, Professor Michelle Alexander has referred to drug law enforcement as the New Jim Crow. Indeed, in most countries Prohibition has seriously damaged relationships between these communities and law enforcement.

The drug policy ratchet under seven decades of prohibition only ever allows for more punitive approaches. However, research indicates that policing to remove dealers from stable supply chains has actually increased violence in communities, while militarised responses to drug cartels have effectively resulted in violent ‘drug wars’ that have destabilised countries such as Mexico. The worrying growth of violent gangs, gangsters and drug cartels are not inevitable by-products of drugs, as we are led to believe. No, they are inevitable outcomes spawned from a brutally enforced system of drug prohibition, as also witnessed in the 1920s with alcohol prohibition. 

“‘Drug’ enforcement has been deeply divisive – targeting the poor, the indigenous, people of colour, and people from black and minority ethnic groups”

Efforts to eradicate supply over many decades have largely been futile, they have barely had any impact whatsoever, on reducing illegal drug supplies. But in countries such as Afghanistan and Colombia crop eradication and carcinogenic crop spraying have devastated some of the poorest farmers in the country, a desperately poor community with few viable alternatives available to them.

Prohibition has fuelled misinformation, division, harm, violence and death – locally, nationally and internationally. It has undermined public health, facilitated the spread of dangerous diseases such as HIV & Hepatitis, caused deforestation and pollution, weakened human rights, encouraged hostility, stigma and discrimination towards the ‘Other’, undermined international development and security, increased crime, facilitated lucrative illegal markets, negatively redefined police-community relations, led to overcrowded prisons, and wasted billions of dollars in a relentless attempt to enforce a system that can’t be, and shouldn’t be enforced. So impossible is the task of prohibiting drug possession, that even high-security prisons are rife with prohibited drugs. The full extent of the damage caused by prohibition has been comprehensively detailed by the excellent work of  “Count the Costs”

What needs to be done?

There are two main risks for people who use prohibited substances: the damage caused by law enforcement, criminalisation and punishment; and the other is the damage caused by not knowing what you are using because there is no framework for quality control. Both issues must be resolved, – but the greatest extent of damage is caused by former not the latter.

“…people who are both white and privileged are rarely captured in the ever extending enforcement net of prohibition.”

It is important to remember, that brutal enforcement measures meted out for drug defined crimes disproportionately target and impact the poor, BME and indigenous people.  Whereas, by contrast, people who are both white and privileged are rarely captured in the ever-extending enforcement net of prohibition. For this privileged group the greatest threat is not a heavy-handed criminal justice system that threatens to target and ruin life opportunities with a drug conviction, no, the more likely threat they face is posed by ingesting an adulterated drug with has not been quality controlled.

Hardly surprising then, two strategies gaining the most traction in the drug reform movement, (led by the privileged class), are ‘drug checking’  at festivals (not at needle exchanges or drug consumption rooms) and cannabis legalisation. Bottom line, the drive for Legal Regulation is a commitment to secure a clean legal supply is available for those who can afford to buy legally regulated drugs from the new government approved drug business entrepreneurs. This removes the brunt of prohibition as experienced by the privileged (the lack of quality control) and additionally facilitates new business opportunities.

It should really come as no surprise, given that prohibition has always been about power, profit and privilege, that in areas of North America where cannabis has been legalised, ex-drug law enforcement officers who so vehemently rallied against ‘drugs’, are switching sides to seize the lucrative business opportunities.

“Legal Regulation is a somewhat vague ‘rally call’ from drug law reformers a little like a rallying call asking the government to take control of drugs.”

If in seeking to end Prohibition, we rally behind Legal Regulation, we are supporting a vague concept. For example, alcohol is a legally regulated drug (poorly regulated in my opinion), but opioids too, are a legally regulated drug (far too strictly in my opinion). So when we call for Legal Regulation what are we actually rallying behind, and what would it look like in policy and practice?

Regulation simply means managed by the state and legally available in certain circumstances. In most countries, it is possible for an adult to purchase beer (alcohol) in a supermarket and codeine (opioids) at a pharmacy – without much difficulty. Under the regulation of other opioids such as morphine, diamorphine or fentanyl are legal to use, in particular circumstances – such as when prescribed for acute pain relief. However, while opioids are legally regulated, possession of certain opioids are in most circumstances strictly prohibited, and unapproved possession and/or supply can result to some of the harshest punishments available to the criminal courts – including life imprisonment. By contrast restrictions and punishments concerning possession and supply of another regulated drug, alcohol, are more liberal and generally lenient, as are regulations concerning alcohol sale outlets, sponsorship, media coverage and advertising.

So supporting Legal Regulation is a somewhat vague ‘rally call’ from drug law reformers a little like a rallying call asking the government to take control of drugs. Legal Regulation is a response to a symptom of Prohibition, but it fails to address the cause of our drug policy problem – Prohibition!

Yes, we do need a legally regulated supply of all drugs, (and not just cannabis), but whether that addresses the problem of an illegal market depends greatly on how the ‘regulation’ model operates. A Legal Regulation model that incorporates the prohibition and punishment of unapproved adult personal possession and social dealing, is I’d argue,  simply perpetuating the problems in a repackaged Prohibition 2.0.

Under a regulation model, the state may approve and legally regulate a wider range of drugs, while still prohibiting so-called ‘dangerous drugs’. We see this happening now where cannabis is invited to the top table to join the other privileged state approved drugs. Some may see this as a slow but incremental dismantling of prohibition, I think paradoxically, it is more likely to extend prohibition. Even if the state made all drugs available under a Legal Regulation model, the model still allows the government to insist that those substances remain prohibited, unless purchased from state-licensed companies. We would then have a model in which it is an offence to be in possession of any drug from an unregulated source – for example, homegrown cannabis. Prohibition 2.0 would then continue to fuel an underground illegal drug market, and drug law enforcement desperately needing a cultural change of focus, would continue as before, once again targeting the poor, the indigenous, black and minority ethnic (BME) groups.

“Regulation that perpetuates a two tier system of state approved drugs that can only be purchased; and unapproved drugs which are banned; simply replicates the existing oppressive model.”

Those who suffered most under Prohibition must be the first to be protected in any new regime.

Let’s be clear and tell it as it is: the problem is Prohibition (not drugs per se); the protagonists are the UN & government law enforcement (not gangsters); the damage is largely caused by the military, criminal and community justice system (not criminals); and the victims we must protect are not so much the privileged class (who are relatively by comparison, unaffected), but the poor, indigenous and BME communities who have for decades suffered unfairly under prohibition.

To the privileged class prohibition is a flawed public policy worthy of discussion and in need of better regulation, but rarely are the privileged class subject to drug law enforcement measures. Whereas the poor, indigenous communities and BAME groups face considerable enforcement threats from prohibition: being stopped, searched; arrested; charged; found guilty; imprisoned; excluded; marginalised; denied employed, housing, insurance, healthcare, travel and participation.

Regulation that perpetuates a two-tier system of state-approved drugs that can only be purchased; and unapproved drugs which are banned; simply replicates the existing oppressive prohibition bifurcation model. Less privileged members of society unable to afford the prices charged by state-licensed suppliers would turn to the underground illegal market, and find themselves once again subject to drug law enforcement measures. Legal Regulation could be to Prohibition, what Jim Crow was to Slavery.

Legal Regulation fails to properly address the core problems of prohibition – the breach of human rights over your body and what you choose to ingest and the deeply discriminatory law enforcement measures imposed. It deals with harshest aspects of prohibition as experienced by the privileged class, by enabling them new opportunities to purchase a clean legal supply.

Before any regulation model should be considered, we must first and foremost decriminalise ALL possession, cultivation and production of drugs for personal use. This is a simple step that could be enacted quickly and with little cost. Importantly, it sets the human rights framework to then explore the complex process of legal regulation, and that new framework must ultimately ensure we move beyond the initial stage of decriminalisation, and establish a legal right for adults to possess, cultivate and/or produce any drug for personal use. 

The way forward

 We should not support any Legal Regulation model that includes punishing adults for personal possession or consumption of ‘unapproved’ substances. This is a fundamental human right abuse enshrined in Prohibition that under no circumstances should be accommodated in reform. It’s your body and your choice what you ingest.  Most advocates for Legal Regulation are silent on such issues, or regard trading those rights as a necessary compromise to broker ‘reform’.  For example, New Zealand received global acclaim for its highly publicised ‘World Leading Drug Reform’ when they introduced the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 to legally regulate New Psychoactive Substances.

“We should not support any Legal Regulation model that includes punishing adults for personal possession or consumption of ‘unapproved’ substances. This is a fundamental human right abuse”

However, what the model did was widened the net of prohibition by making the possession of previously legal drugs (legal highs or NPS) illegal, and it also offered an approval system for NPS via a regulation process. The fact that it worryingly punished personal adult possession of unapproved substances, leaving the door open to the heart of the problem (Prohibition) seemed to be overlooked by drug reformers.

Given the enforcement abuses under drug prohibition, one clear non-negotiable principle in any reform must be to ensure that we reclaim the Human Right over our bodies to be able to choose what we ingest without the threat of criminalisation, punishment, hospitalisation, imprisonment or the death penalty by the state.  

Decriminalisation – the low hanging fruit

Portugal did the right thing in 2001 when they decriminalising all personal possession of drugs and built in additional support for the small percentage of drug users who develop problems with addiction. It’s a drug reform no-brainer! It is a decision that makes great sense and it has had positive outcomes in reducing: addiction rates; the burden on the criminal justice system; and fatal overdoses.

Decriminalisation of all personal possession is easy picking ‘low-hanging fruit’ that should be the first step of reform for every country. But so much more needs to be done. Decriminalising cultivation and production for personal use only would be a second easy step that would help users reduce the need for engagement in the criminal underworld, especially when the most popular drug used by far (cannabis) is easily homegrown. After that government should rescind drug laws and ensure they are replaced with a sensible evidence-based model of Legal Regulation rooted firmly in human rights and harm reduction.  People with drug defined conviction should have their convictions removed, be issued with an apology and compensation.

“…the key reform priority is to end all law enforcement for adult drug possession, cultivation and production for personal use.”

An open invitation to state (the perpetrators of prohibition), who have consistently and deliberately ignored science and evidence and continued to enforce a brutal and draconian system of prohibition for decades, to devise a new regulation model, is likely to result in continued disproportionate law enforcement measures imposed on the poor, the indigenous and BME groups for possession of ‘unapproved’ drugs. Before the state even begins to think about the difficult and complex process of legally regulating drugs, we must first and foremost, ensure we abolish Prohibition once and for all and restore human rights.

To most reformers (myself included) the key reform priority is to end all law enforcement for adult drug possession, cultivation and production for personal use. This is a matter of principle that cannot be compromised and should not be diluted by attempting to roll out human rights incrementally. The Human Right over your body must be instantly restored, while the devastating law enforcement abuses in policing drug possession must end, and this will require cultural reform as well as legal reform. Once those human rights are secured and bolted down, then the important work to establish an appropriately regulated drug market can begin.


I would make all drugs available to adults under a legally regulated market, with strict regulation over the businesses (rather than consumers). Governments have a poor record of regulating the pharmaceutical (for example Fentanyl), sugar, alcohol and tobacco industry, so if the state is going to sensibly regulate all ‘drugs’ in a manner that protects human rights and promotes harm reduction they will need careful oversight, advice and political pressure. The risk of oppression from the state can be minimised by ensuring that the new regulatory frameworks sit on a foundation of well established human rights concerning personal use, cultivation and production.

“…hopefully we have learned lessons from alcohol and tobacco regulation, so forewarned and forearmed – we can do a much better job living with all drugs.”


In terms of adult accessing drugs initially, the main outlets could be pharmacies, soon followed by off licenses and gradually a cultural change with the most commonly preferred social and recreational drugs being available in cafe’s, bars, restaurants and major events. This may sound like unknown territory, but it isn’t really. Regrettably,  we have already regulated, culturally accommodated, privileged and promoted arguably the most harmful drug of all – alcohol – and we’ve regulated it badly. However, despite pushing a particularly poisonous harmful drug and managing it poorly, we have lived to tell the tale, and while reading this folk might be enjoying a glass of Pinot Noir, rightly without any sense of panic or fear. We know from the folly of alcohol prohibition we need to live with drugs, but hopefully, we have learned lessons from alcohol and tobacco regulation, so forewarned and forearmed – we can do a much better job living with all drugs. While there will be a concern for an increased range of drug-related issues, the wider availability and choice is likely to lead to some wiser and better-informed choices – some already being witnessed in areas that have legalised cannabis.


Alongside this new legal freedom must be easy access to sensible and truthful balanced information about the risks posed by all drugs. Drug education, addiction prevention and addiction treatment should be informed not by ideological belief or moral crusade but by evidence-based research. These services must promote harm reduction and human rights. We should not be in the business of preventing drug use, in the same way, that we shouldn’t seek to prevent people from having a cup of coffee, glass of wine, or cigar – instead we must be in the business of preventing drug policy harms caused by prohibition policies, and preventing and treating drug addiction.

 

Dr Julian Buchanan is a retired Associate Professor from the Institute of Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand.

Oral Presentation on New Zealand Medicinal Cannabis Bill

 

Address to Health Select Committee:
Urging human rights amendments 
to the Medicinal Cannabis Bill

Last week the 2018 London Marathon was started a 71-year-old American Katherine Switzer.

50yrs ago she became the first woman to run a marathon.

Male runners pushed and barracked her.

A race official chased after her yelling:

 “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!”

The official tried to pull the race number off her vest.

Afterwards a committee, like this one, met to decide whether it was appropriate for a woman to run the marathon.

The committee disqualified Katherine Switzer from the race, and from the US Athletics Federation because:

a) she had run with men

b) ran without a chaperone

c) ran more than 1.5miles

and they accused of fraudulently entering the race.

In the 1950/60s Anglophile countries adopted some shameful and oppressive laws – policies that infringed human rights and individual liberties.

Not only directing what woman can and cant do – Anglophile countries also had laws against:

– Gay and lesbian people who were criminalised and sent to prison

– Indigenous people whose children were rounded up and taken into care

– Black and Minority Ethnic communities who were forcibly segregated & excluded.

Laws that made drugs, homosexuality, suicide and abortion serious criminal offences.

By 2018 in most Anglophile countries these laws have been exposed, challenged & repealed.

But shockingly laws concerning drug policies have hardly changed at all.

The 1950s fear of the ‘Other’ (the Chinese, the Mexican, the Jamaican and people from BME communities ) and the different drug they used – led to an arbitrary list called ‘drugs’.

That list became the backbone of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

This list of ‘controlled’ substances was then incorporated in our NZ MDA 1975.

The MDA rooted in 1950s fallacy and misinformation was comprehensively reviewed by the NZ Law Commission in 2011

The first recommendation of the Law Commission was that the 40yr old MDA should be repealed:

“The Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 should be repealed and replaced by a new Act, which should be administered by the Ministry of Health” (R1 p.23)

But here we are 30th April 2018 and the MDA remains unaltered.

In respect of drugs we continue to be conned and coerced by the same 1950s policy propaganda that protects & promotes state approved drugs (alcohol, caffeine, tobacco and sugar) and encourages us to look with fear and disdain towards drugs on the 1961 UN list.

This distinction between government approved drugs and drugs banned by the state is based on political agendas and fallacy.

It’s not based upon science, pharmacology or evidence.

Today we have the opportunity to make a small, but significant, contribution to remove some of the harms caused by our archaic and draconian drug policies.

We can make minor amendments to allow people with chronic debilitating conditions to self medicate with a herbal plant that’s only been outlawed because in 1961 it was arbitrarily listed as a so called ‘dangerous narcotic drugs’.

This committee has an opportunity to be on the right side of history, as Aotearoa NZ has on so many other matters of human rights.

As a parent, for years I watched helplessly as my son had repeated life threatening grand-mal seizures. Seizures that were rarely controlled by anti-epileptic drugs – we tried everything.

But we were denied the chance of seeing if cannabis might control his epilepsy.

I was working as a probation officer at the time. I felt it was too risky for me to break law.

Maybe I made the wrong decision.

But I felt I couldn’t risk a drug conviction, I might have lost my job, it might have ruined my career, I could have been denied entry to the USA (where my sister and nephew live), and my application for employment and emigration to New Zealand may have been declined.

So I urge you, for people like my son, to extend the present remit beyond terminal illness and ensure anyone diagnosed with a chronic or debilitating conditions such as Epilepsy, PSTD, MS, Alzheimers, Parkinson’s etc are allowed access to pharmaceutical cannabis AND allowed to self medicate with home grown cannabis.

These patients should not be convicted or punished for trying to make their untreatable condition more bearable by self medicating with cannabis.

Most patients cannot afford expensive pharmaceutical cannabis products – even if they are subsequently made legally available.

They must be allowed to self medicate and grow their own cannabis – removing their need to engage in criminal networks.

Allowing these patients statutory defence, offers compassion,  but it also adds stress and uncertainty.  It risks dragging chronically sick people through the criminal justice system on drug charges with the possibility of reprieve.

A CJS which is more likely to disproportionately target poor people and the Māori population.

So we must, if we can, find a way to make it completely legal for these patients with chronic debilitating conditions to possess, grow and consume cannabis for medicinal use.

Thank you for reading my written submission, listening today and considering these important issues.

Julian Buchanan
30th April 201

Harm Reduction: More than just clean needles

Screen Shot 2018-04-21 at 9.49.52 PM

Harm reduction is a realistic, pragmatic and non-judgmental approach based upon openness, understanding and respect. It was initially adopted as an ‘alternative’ approach to try to engage people using banned drugs in the 1980s, partly because the dominant abstinence approach was failing, but largely because agencies were worried about the spread of HIV/AIDS to the wider community. To encourage safer sex and safer drug use governments reluctantly adopted harm reduction drug policies as a means to reach and engage the cooperation injecting drug users.

The global threat posed by AIDS in the 1990s has now subsided, by no coincidence so has the government commitment to harm reduction. However, harm reduction has proven to be effective in engaging people with drug problems into treatment, reducing the spread of infectious diseases, reducing fatal overdose, and reducing addiction. But in some countries harm reduction has stalled and failed to move much further than needle exchange schemes.

Having proved so effective harm reduction has evolved, and now harm reduction is no longer confined to reducing harms from disease, but more significantly it’s more broadly about reducing the harm caused by prohibitionist drug policies.

Has your country moved on from a 1980s model of harm reduction which was largely confined to running needle exchanges? To check out just how far your country has progressed and evolved with it’s harm reduction philosophy here are thirty-one harm reduction policies:

    1. Naloxone take home kits for users and friends
    2. Naloxone available without prescription at pharmacies
    3. Naloxone in public areas alongside AEDs
    4. Good Samaritan laws
    5. Legalisation of all injecting equipment
    6. Drug Consumption Rooms/Injecting Facilities
    7. Drug Consumption Rooms for those who don’t inject
    8. Drug checking at Drug Consumption Rooms
    9. Prescribing the drug the person is addicted to
    10. Oral, inhale-able and injectable prescribing
    11. Injectable heroin prescribing
    12. Injectable methadone prescribing
    13. Client led maintenance prescribing
    14. Free Needle/syringe distribution* in cities
    15. Free Needle/syringe distribution* outreach mobile units
    16. Drug checking at Needle/syringe distribution centres
    17. Condom distribution at all drug agencies
    18. Sharps boxes in public toilets
    19. Sharps boxes in all public agencies
    20. Decriminalise all drug possession for personal use
    21. Decriminalise all cultivation/production for personal use
    22. Drug checking at public events/festivals
    23. Social media early warning system for rogue drugs
    24. Substitute prescribing in prisons
    25. Needle/syringe exchange in prisons
    26. Wet houses for people with drink problems
    27. Rehabs that support oral & ampoule maintenance prescribing
    28. Injecting technique advice at DCRs
    29. Injecting technique advice at Needle Exchanges
    30. Basic health care (showers, laundry room & nurse) at DCRs
    31. Showing people better injecting technique and alternative injecting sites
    32. Providing foil, bongs and pipes.

*Facilitating collection – not exchange only

Julian Buchanan

April 2018

Treating drugs as the problem when prohibition is the problem.

W

When promoting drug reform we should reject the deeply entrenched anti-drug narratives that have dominated drug discourse, these narratives are often rooted in fallacy, distortion and sweeping generalisations. Instead, drug reform should maintain integrity and ensure arguments are firmly rooted in reason, rationale, science and evidence. We need to be clear, there is no global drug problem – we are struggling with a global drug policy problem, and the cause of the problem isn’t gangsters – it’s governments. Drugs can pose risks but it’s prohibition that makes drugs dangerous not drugs per se.

Screen Shot 2017-09-23 at 2.25.44 pm

A tweet posted by the Transform Drug Policy Foundation to 27.5k followers


Transform do some great work building solid reliable evidence and they have campaigned tirelessly for drug reform, but the underlying assumptions and messages in this particular tweet/poster are disappointing, they encapsulate some worrying aspects within the drug reform movement. There are three significant flawed premises in the tweet/poster. Let me unpack them separately:

Claim #1. ‘Drugs are not safe they are potentially dangerous’.

The key message that ‘drugs’ are not safe and potentially dangerous is misleading and inaccurate. It perpetuates prohibition propaganda that fuels the fear and hype that demonises ‘drugs’. By comparison, while cannabis has never killed anyone, water, salt and peanuts can all be lethal for consumption in certain situations and quantities, but I’d feel uncomfortable if an organisation starts asserting that water, salt and peanuts are not safe, potentially dangerous and need to be controlled. So what about ‘drugs’– is the reform movement seriously suggesting having an unregulated coffee, or an unregulated glass of wine, chewing khat or coca leaves or smoking unregulated homegrown cannabis is somehow unsafe and potentially dangerous?

Screen Shot 2017-09-25 at 10.54.29 am.png

There are circumstances where almost any activity (eating habits, riding a bike, watching TV, hillwalking etc.) can be potentially risky, but to generalise and assert these activities are inherently dangerous and unsafe per se is misleading and wrong. Let us be clear people can be harmed by some drugs, but we must also acknowledge most harm is exacerbated by prohibitive and intolerant drug policies, and the level of risk posed by different drugs varies enormously according to the interplay between the substance, the person (set) and the environment (setting).

The broad-brush notion that drugs per se are unsafe and potentially dangerous is an exaggerated, misleading and inappropriate blanket assertion that belongs to the language of prohibition, it’s the sort of propaganda that has clouded rational debate and informed discussion on ‘drugs’ for many decades, and in my opinion these stereotypical misrepresentations (even if said to gain support for policy change), should have no place in reform discourse. The term drugs refer to a diverse range of substances, so applying any sweeping statement to describe their potential risk is meaningless, and particularly misleading when most dangers are created by prohibitionist driven drug policies. It could be argued that at every appropriate opportunity drug reformers should be challenging the prohibitionist misinformation, including the notion of ‘drugs’, not adopting it. ‘Drugs’ is a convenient socially constructed concept consolidated in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs to falsely separate state approved psychoactive substance (alcohol, caffeine, tobacco and pharmaceuticals), from state unapproved psychoactive substances (drugs), it is simply a list of substances that have no science or evidence base to support it.

“…notion that drugs per se are unsafe and potentially dangerous is an exaggerated and misleading assertion

…propaganda that has clouded rational debate and discussion on ‘drugs’ for decades”

Bad drug policies rooted in prohibition, propaganda and punishment have made these unapproved drugs potentially dangerous to consume, people could be arrested and get convicted which could seriously damage life opportunities for employment, housing, insurance, relationships and travel. Tough law enforcement creates necessarily secretive environments so it becomes more difficult to seek assistance and to check the quality, content and purity of what you are taking, but these risks are the product of ill-conceived drug policy, they are not an inherent consequence of ‘drugs’.


Screen Shot 2017-09-25 at 10.58.17 am.png

Claim #2. ‘No drug is safe when unregulated and sold by gangsters’.

When drug use and drug markets have become particularly unsafe and potentially dangerous, it is not because the state hasn’t intervened, but it’s because of state intervention; by imposing severe law enforcement and military measures to prevent the use of some drugs, while promoting other drugs such as pharmaceuticals, alcohol, caffeine, tobacco and sugar. The idea that without strict government regulation the daily activities of growing, producing, buying, selling and exchanging goods and services is unsafe and will inevitably drift into the hands of gangsters, who’ll manage the business with guns, knives and baseball bats is ludicrous and insulting. It is not a lack of regulation, but it is the extreme and fiercely imposed law enforcement measures that have created a hostile and violent environment within which a lucrative prohibited drug business operates.

“…arguably the only thing that connects drugs and gangsters is prohibition.”

The suggestion that unregulated substances and gangsters are inextricably linked to drugs is wrong. Indeed, arguably the only thing that connects drugs and gangsters is prohibition. Prohibition, like it did with alcohol in the 1930s, has spawned gangsters, drugs have not spawned gangsters. The present criminal sub-culture that surrounds the illicit drug market has everything to do with fierce law enforcement and prohibition, and little to do with the product on sale. Unregulated drug markets such as the Silk Road website are not dissimilar in principle to Amazon, TradeMe or eBay, not ideal and certainly not perfect, but with user reviews, feedback and ratings, it can hardly be described as a market dominated by violence, threat and gangsters.


Screen Shot 2017-09-25 at 11.06.27 am.png

Claim #3. ‘The answer is to regulate drugs’

Of course, I want to see a clean legal supply of regulated drugs available for sale, that is desirable in any drug reform – but rallying behind the state to deliver ‘regulation’ is a vague concept to support. It’s simply a call for government control to regulate drugs so they are available in certain circumstances, which is actually what is already in place. For example, opiates are already a ‘regulated’ drug, they are available to buy as panadeine, paracodol or codeine in pharmacists in most countries, opiates are also strictly regulated and used widely in medicine. Under the regulations, most opiate products are illegal to possess and supply, and anyone caught in possession faces serious charges.

 “…’regulation’ is a vague concept to support.” 

While regulation could mean the state may approve and legally regulate a much wider range of drugs, while still prohibiting a small group of so-called dangerous drugs, the state may also continue to prohibit possession of unregulated drugs. Under a Regulation model that prioritises quality control, the state may insist that Big Pharma is the only state-approved dealers and therefore it would be an offence to be in possession of any drug from an unregulated source – and that could include home-grown cannabis for example. Regulation can so easily result in Prohibition 2.0.

Strict regulation is needed for businesses, not people, but even then, government has a poor record of regulating the pharmaceutical (Fentanyl the source of many fatal overdoses is a regulated drug), alcohol and tobacco industry, so placing hope in the State to sensibly regulate ‘drugs’ in a manner that protects human rights and promotes harm reduction is at best optimistic. The risk is that the state who have resolutely maintained a draconian and austere system of drug prohibition for five decades will pursue a model of regulation that will punish possession, production and/or cultivation of unapproved drugs for personal use.


Conclusion

In my view, an open invitation for state regulation is likely to continue to result in disproportionate law enforcement measures imposed on the poor, the indigenous and minority groups for possession of ‘unapproved’ drugs.  Before we even begin the tricky process of asking the state to regulate drugs we must first and foremost, rally reform to abolish Prohibition and restore the human right to possess, produce and/or cultivate any drug for personal use without threat, punishment, or incarceration by the state. Once this is secured then we have a strong foundation to begin to secure a suitable model of regulation, although at present the detail of the desired model for regulation is worryingly vague.

“…abolish Prohibition and restore the human right to possess, produce and/or cultivate any drug for personal use without threat, punishment, or incarceration by the state.”

If, in an attempt to win support for drug policy change, we collude with these myths: that drugs per se are inherently unsafe; that drugs per se are potentially dangerous; that drugs are sold by gangsters; and that state regulation and control is the solution to the problems caused by state prohibition; then we sabotage human rights based reform by perpetuating myth, misunderstanding and misinformation, and we embark on a journey that is more likely to lead to Prohibition 2.0. Regulation could be to Prohibition what Jim Crow was to Slavery.


Discussion

(Between Steve Rolles Transform & Julian Buchanan)

Hi julian

– Sorry to say I dont agree with some of your analysis.

you say ‘The key message that ‘drugs’ are not safe and potentially dangerous is misleading and inaccurate’ – but then go on to explain why its actually true.

We are very clear that the level of regulation needed and state intervention justified is determined by the risk of a particular substance – as clearly stated in the infographic this is excerpted from. http://www.tdpf.org.uk/case-for-reform

Almost all the examples you give are heavily regulated

– penauts: foods standards, quality control, sell by dates, allergy warnings on packaging, banned in schools etc

– drinking water is similarly heavily regulated for bacterial and toxic contaminants

– salt – again trades decription, quality control, salt content and health risk info on food packaging etc.

So yes – they are and should be appropriately regulated because they present some risks.

Some low risk drugs – coca and coffee to use your examples – dont need much more than these products (as we say in the infographic!). Alcohol is much more risky and does need more – we advocate age controls, heavier marketing restrictions and minimum pricing for example. Cannabis – which has *some* risks (even if not of death) – sits somewhere in between (for retail sales). This is all spelt out very clearly in the infographic and in exhaustive detail in our various books and reports.

You seem to miunderstand the concepts of risk – which is about about a probability of harm, and regulation, which is about management and minimisation of risk. The fact that many people particpate in an activity and arent harmed entirely misses the point and function of regulation – which targets risky products and behaviours, and at-risk populations (like kids). Claiming there is no risk is not accurate or in the policy context – helpful. Indeed Cannabis campaigning based on this premise has achieved little and is often counterproductive.

Consider the idea that, maybe, turning the prohibitionist thinking on its head and saying we need to to legalise drugs because they are risky, not because they are safe, may actually be a clever and useful way of engaging key audiences – those not of a libertarian persuasion (who dont need persuading anyway).

for 2 – you misquote the graphic then have a circular argument with yourself. LOOK at the whole info-graphic: it could hardly be clearer. We arent disagreeing with you.

on 3 – weve mapped out a pretty clear blueprint of how we think differeent drugs should be regulated. No sweeping generalisations in the infographic and certainly not in our books.

We obviously dont support criminalisation of posession or use of any drug and have *always* campaigned on that basis.

Your conclusion suggests only an all or nothing approach will do – legalise *everything* or its prohibition 2.0. But you support harm reduction, correct? – what is that if not pragmatic compromise that stops short of full (indeed any) legalisation? And where would the boundaries lie for you? sales to children? crack in sweetshops? you dont say – you just endlessly criticise us.

We do say – in detail – in our entrely non-vague 270-page 70k-word downloaded-a-million-times Blueprint (and elsewhere), and Im happy to discuss it. But please stop misrepresenting our work – even if you disagree on strategy or some detail.


Hi Steve,

Prohibition with its fierce military, legal and civil enforcement arsenal to impose it, is one of the greatest global human rights abuses in living memory. These draconian UN led and government enforced drug policies have ruined lives, families, communities and indeed countries.

For the most part the pain, harms and risks are not caused by drugs they are caused by the regime of prohibition, and the the main casualties under this regime are not the privileged class, but the poor, the indigenous and Black and minority ethnic communities. A key pathway to targeted law enforcement abuse under the guise of drug law enforcement, is the offence of personal possession of substances prohibited by the state. So paramount and unambiguous in any reform is the restoration of the human right for adults to possess any substance for personal use without threat, punishment or sanction from the state. There must be no compromise on this position and any call for regulation must make that clear and non-negotiable.

When the New Zealand government extended prohibition by introducing a new drug law (the Psychoactive Substance Act 2013), it rolled out a blanket ban on the possession of all legal highs (s.71), unless they have been approved under a new Regulation model. As far as I am concerned extending sanctions for adult personal possession is untenable in any Regulation model, it perpetuates prohibition, but on twitter you argued these new offences for unregulated possession and supply in our NZ PSA were: ‘perhaps necessary compromises at this pioneering moment to effect key change’. In Addiction (109,10, pp1589–159) you further assert (along with co-author Danny Kushlick), that ‘The New Zealand regulated model — for all its potential flaws — remains preferable to either an unregulated online ‘free-for-all’ or a blanket prohibition’.

I cannot support the state punishing adults for possessing or consuming substances the state doesn’t approve of, and I do not think these human rights should be compromised, not only are they misguided but they open the door to the abuse of power. Given the enforcement abuses under drug prohibition, one clear non-negotiable principle in any reform must be to ensure that adult possession of any substance for personal use is free from all criminal and civil sanctions. While the NZ PSA2013 offered approval of NPS via a regulation process it worryingly punished personal adult possession of unapproved substances, leaving the door open to the heart of the problem – prohibition, unreasonable law enforcement and discrimination.

More recently Transform tweeted praise (26th September 2017) for a regulation model it described as ‘impressive and measured’ – a model that proposed new Drug Regulation laws that would ensure: “severe criminal and civil sanctions will be meted out on those that consume, manufacture or deal drugs inappropriately”. It went on to insist that harsh responses are critical to the success of this new Regulation model. I have no doubt who will be the victims of these harsh responses and severe criminal sanctions, it wont be the privileged classes.

Your [Transform’s] strategic approach of: “turning the prohibitionist thinking on its head and saying we need to to legalise drugs because they are risky, not because they are safe, may actually be a clever and useful way of engaging key audiences” is worrying. I appreciate it’s a genuine and pragmatic attempt to lever change and gain acceptance with prohibitionists, but I think it is an irresponsible and potentially dangerous position to take, it’s like the Women’s Movement strategically adopting the argument: ‘Women might not be good bricklayers – but sexism is wrong’ to tackle misogyny. It appears to support change by challenging oppression, but it’s not only inaccurate, it is subliminally reinforcing the very discrimination and misinformation it claims to be challenging.

Tackling prohibition (a discriminatory and prejudicial system of oppression) by adopting false premises peddled by prohibition is dubious and apologetic. It’s not the way disablism, sexism, classism, homophobia or racism should be tackled, nor is it in my view, the way the divisive Drug Apartheid should be tackled. The pragmatism to appease, engage or win over prohibitionists by using their language is well meaning but misguided, and I am concerned it will lead to reform policies that reflect that misplaced and exaggerated sense of risk and danger and ultimately result in delivering Prohibition 2.0.

Let’s be clear and tell it as it is: the problem is Prohibition (not drugs per se); the protagonists are the UN & Government law enforcement (not gangsters); the damage is being imposed largely by the military and criminal & community justice system (not criminals); and the victims that we must prioritise in any reform we support, are the poor, indigenous and BME communities who have for decades been the target of prohibition (not the privileged class).

To the privileged class prohibition is a flawed policy worthy of discussion and reform but the privileged class are rarely directly affected by the fierce drug law enforcement measures that are so often meted out on the poor, indigenous and Black and Minority Ethnic Groups. For the privileged class the greatest risks arise from the lack of a clean regulated supply: fatal overdose; no access to medicinal cannabis; no naloxone etc.

While poor people, indigenous communities and Black and minority ethnic groups face the same issues as a result of no access to clean regulated drugs, they face greater threats; being stopped, searched, arrested, charged, found guilty, imprisoned, excluded, marginalised, unemployed and made homeless because of drug prohibition, indeed, managing to avoid law enforcement of drug prohibition can be a matter of life or death.

Back in 1942 C.S. Lewis realised where the real threat was posed:

“The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.”


Steve replies:

Drug use *is* risky – it’s not a false premise or prohibitionist propaganda to assert that (obvious and undeniable) fact as a basis for a discussion on regulation options that might reduce risk. And in no way does it preclude a critique of prohibition which, as we state endlessly, including in the infographic youve taken issue with.

We have exhaustively chronicled the harms of prohibition in the 192-page Alternative World Drug Repor. who has done more? I utterly reject the suggestion that it is something we ignore – it is analysis at the heart of literally everything we do.

But drug problems do not disappear after prohibition – prohibition problems do. Drug misuse problems just become much lessened, and I would suggest it is inaccurate and politically unhelpful to suggest otherwise – as you seem to (but Im not quite sure)

You’ve picked up on two quotes – one is from a tweet I didn’t write, about an article by someone else. I don’t think its a brilliantly worded sentence, but the piece itself was pretty good. As I think danny explained on twitter he took the sanctions re inappropriate consumption to be for things like drug-impaired driving – which yes, we believe sanctions should remain for. Regulation means establishing parameters around a legal market – beyond which some activities, drug driving, sales to kids etc – remain prohibited. Fine to argue over where the line should be drawn – of course, but don’t confuse absolute prohibition with regulation where some things remain prohibited – they are NOT the same.

The other quote in Addiction – I absolutely stand by. I think some progress is better than none; I support decrim as a step to legalisation. I support the legalisation of some drugs as a step towards the legalisation of others. I support legalisation in one jurisdiction as a step to legalisation in others. Prohibtion is not going to be dismantled in one go – it will be an incremental process, and that sequencing means some harmful laws will sometimes stay in place for a time whilst others change. This is a sequencing compromise that is an inevitable reality. Our job is to accelerate the incremental reform process as best we can. Suggesting that ANY compromise of this sort means our principles are also compromised or that we are prohibtionists makes no sense in the context of our extensive body of work (that you dont quote), and is just a bit offensive. It feels like you are trying to find a disagreement where genuinely i don’t think there is one. In my response i make a point about your support for harm reduction interventions which you haven’t responded to – But it was that harm reduction (NPS, OST etc) is precisely the sort of compromise that you criticise us of. Harm reduction isn’t legalisation and its often not decriminalisation either. I still support it because its better that no harm reduction – and until we can dismantle the wider prohitbionist drivers that create many of the harms in the first place.

I honestly dont see where we disagree on anything – so i dont know why you keep trying to find some moral high ground for yourself by misrepresenting us. Were all on the same high ground. Go and find someone doing something bad and pick a fight with them.


Hi Steve

As I said in my blog I respect and appreciate much of the work done by Transform:

Transform do some great work building solid reliable evidence and they have campaigned tirelessly for drug reform

including the 192pp Alternative Drug Report which I have promoted and circulated widely. Yes we agree on much, and I value Transform’s contribution to drug reform. However, it’s clear there are some important issues we disagree on:

a) Transform campaign strategies such as “saying we need to to legalise drugs because they are risky, not because they are safe, may actually be a clever and useful way of engaging key audiences” risk colluding with discrimination and misinformation by strategically adopting a distorted over-emphasis that ‘drugs’ (caffeine, tobacco, khat, coca leaves, LSD, alcohol, ecstatcy, mushrooms etc) are all dangerous and out of control. Yes having worked for six years as a drugs worker on Merseyside, and subsequently conducted years of research fieldwork with people struggling with addiction, I know that some illegal drugs can be dangerous to some people in somecircumstances, but far more dangerous and damaging to the people I saw was the impact of prohibitionist drug policies and law enforcement upon their lives.

b) Transform’s approach seems too naive regarding the risks of the state continuing to abuse power in any new Regulation model, risks that would leave the poor, indigenous and minority ethnic groups at risk. Illustrate by the praise for a Regulation model that pledged “severe criminal and civil sanctions will be meted out on those that consume, manufacture or deal drugs inappropriately”. When I read this alarm bells rang loudly, I’m imagining (not unreasonably) how Theresa May or any neoliberal political leader might interpret this new drug regulation approach that promised ‘severe criminal sanctions for inappropriate drug consumption’.

c) In respect of unregulated but legal NPS, while I am keen to provide a reliable regulated supply, I am strongly opposed to replacing any unregulated ‘legal high’ market with a New Zealand styled Psychoactive Substances Act that makes personal possession an offence (unless the NPS has been approved and regulated by the state), this is simply widening the net of Prohibition, law enforcement and punishment. Whereas in respect of your support for the NZ PSA 2013 you say” “I absolutely stand by. I think some progress is better than none“, seeing it as a worthwhile compromise towards drug Regulation reform.

To most reformers (myself included) the key priority of reform is to end all law enforcement for adult drug possession for personal use. This is not something that should be compromised, nor is it something that needs to be done incrementally. Ending the prohibition of all personal possession should be the first blanket decision in reform. The Human Right over your body to ingest what you choose without threat or punishment from the state must be restored, while the devastating law enforcement abuses in policing drug possession must end. Once that is secured and bolted down, then the important work toward ensuring a clean and appropriately regulated drug market can be implemented. Interestingly too, since the New Zealand Psychoactive Substances Act was introduced legal highs have been removed from shops and driven underground, not a single NPS has been approved by the state and more people are dying from NPS in New Zealand than ever before, but the PSA has delivered what the Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne promised it would, when in July 2012 he declared his desire to extend prohibition: “We are winning the battle [against drugs] and we are about to deliver the knockout blow with this legislation“. In New Zealand our Drug War struggle now is not just the damage from the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975, but we must now also contend with a punitive Psychoactive Substances Act 2013. History and experience tells is the policy ratchet tends to make drugs laws more punitive.

Yes, you know my commitment to harm reduction having pioneered it across Sefton and the Merseyside Probation Service in the mid 1980, it’s pragmatic, realistic and humanistic. In attempting to apply it to the strategic approach to end prohibition I have no doubt that the priority to reduce most harm to the greatest number would be to end all sanctions on personal possession. However, I’d be cautious about applying it too far as a strategy for ending prohibition, prohibition is I believe, a violent oppression of human rights, so like say sexism or racism, the notion of pragmatically adopting the language or discourse of the oppressor, or making Human Rights compromises on the basis some harms have been reduced can become offensive, problematic and inappropriate. For example, if adopting a harm reduction approach to a Human Rights abuse under the South African Apartheid it could argue that allowing equality for the Asian heritage South Africans is an important first step towards dismantling Apartheid. A deeply flawed strategy on principle and an untenable position to adopt in my opinion.

Finally, it is important not to personalise this discussion. The blog and these comments are critical contributions for a wider global reform audience to help us all as we seek the very important and challenging task of negotiating pathways to end Prohibition and establish Reform. It is vital we get it as right as we possibly can. This critical analytical debate is not directed to you personally, and I assumed you were contributing on behalf of Transform hence my inclusion in my response of a tweet by Transform. Interpreting my perspective and contribution in this debate as simply seeking some moral high ground to ‘pick a fight‘ is disappointing and demeaning, I would have hoped the issues explored may have been more apparent and more seriously considered, so I think it’s best to end the discussion here.

Best regards

Julian

Seventeen Disconcerting Facts About Drug Testing

 

serveimage
What does a drug test actually tell us?


  1. A positive drug test indicates drug presence, but not necessarily drug impairment, so campaigns such as drug testing drivers, tend to conflate drug presence with drug impairment by ascribing much more to a positive drug test result than it is telling us. Association does not mean causation, while presence doesn’t necessarily mean under the influence or impairment.

  2. A positive drug test may be incorrect due to a small percentage of ‘false positives’ caused by equipment failure or human error, and conversely ‘false negative’ can occur.

  3. An accurate positive drug test still maybe misleading. It is assumed that the person has taken illicit drugs when those drugs may have been ingested legally. For example, consuming poppy seeds in bread can lead to a positive drug test for opiates, or if the person took a paracodeine tablet for a headache they’d show positive for opiates.

  4. Drug testing identifies substance ‘use’ rather than any substance disorder/problem. This misguidedly widens the net of concern, which should be directed towards the person with a drug problem not towards the recreational user.

  5. Most people with a chronic drug problem have endured damaging personal and social circumstances before drugs became an issue and need considerable help and support in life, more generally. Drug testing can lead to a pre-occupation on drug presence, and this narrow focus risks overlooking the real underlying issues, which if not addressed, will almost certainly lead to drug problem relapse.

  6. Women drug users with child care responsibilities are often forced to undertake regular or even daily drug tests to prove they are ‘drug’ free, this disproportionately focuses attention on drug presence rather than fitness to parent. Regular positive drug tests are then used wrongly as evidence as to why the child should be ‘looked after’ by the state. Any assessment of a mothers parental capability to care for her child should never be reduced to a drug test.

  7. A pre-occupation with drug testing by key stakeholders can result in a paradigm shift in which abstinence and so-called ‘clean’ drug tests become the desired measure of any successful outcome. Not only does harm reduction get marginalised in the process, but the messy and challenging process of rehabilitation and social reintegration may be forgotten in the satisfaction that the person appears to be drug-free.

  8. Around 30-70% of young people in most western countries have used illicit drugs and the vast majority manage to avoid: a criminal record; a drug problem; harm to themselves or harm to others. Widespread random drug testing in schools, at the roadside, in employment, on benefit claimants etc., will only waste resources and result in capturing mainly non-problematic drug users who then risk being ascribed damaging labels as ‘deviant’ or ‘addicts’ that will pose serious damage to future life opportunities (education, employment, travel, insurance, housing etc) and in relationships.

  9. Resources for public and voluntary services are limited and money that could be used to deliver much-needed harm reduction services is wasted on expensive drug testing for people who don’t use drugs or those who use drugs in a non-problematic recreational manner.

  10. Random drug testing of pupils, students and children often accompanied by police and sniffer dogs as a health promotion strategy is misguided. Cultural behavioural change is not achieved through policing, confronting and punishing, but it is facilitating through meaningful, culturally relevant, reliable information exchange, harm reduction education, relationships and peer dialogue.

  11. The most widely used illicit drug (cannabis) is much less harmful than the promoted legal drugs alcohol and tobacco, it is, therefore, untenable or indeed hypocritical to pursue drug testing and punish cannabis use and not drug test and punish alcohol and tobacco use.

  12. Drug testing regimes with sanctions, such as random drug tests in schools to exclude students who test positive, create a ‘cat and mouse’ game in which an adversarial relationship is established, both sides then seek to out-smart the other with new technology or deceptive techniques. The winners in this game are the drug testing businesses and underground laboratories; but the losers are honesty, trust and communication.

  13. Tougher drug testing regimes to stamp out illicit drug use, such as drug testing in employment, have spawned the proliferation of new synthetic designer ‘legal’ highs to avoid detection (such as Spice). However, once these new drugs have been detected and subsequently outlawed the drug testing ‘net’ widens, then new legal highs are further developed and the never-ending spiral continues. These ‘legal highs’ may be considerably more dangerous than commonly used illicit drugs.

  14. Some drugs such as cannabis can stay in the body for over four weeks whereas drugs like cocaine can be out of the body within 48 hours. Random drug testing regimes (such as those in prisons) have inadvertently pressurised people to switch from the less harmful cannabis to the more dangerous heroin, spice or cocaine.

  15. Drug testing concentrates attention towards illegal drug use and unhelpfully firms up the misguided bifurcation between licit and illicit substances. It is not the use of any illicit drug that warrants attention but rather the misuse of any drug legal and illegal that should warrant attention. The legally promoted drugs (alcohol, caffeine, tobacco and sugar) can pose serious risks, sometimes greater than their illegal counterparts.

  16. A positive drug test may reduce the risk of people who are intoxicated from using machinery, driving a car or flying a plane, however, testing positive for a drug doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is intoxicated or impaired – for example cannabis can be detected a month after not using, so a positive drug test could result in misguided concern and unfair dismissals.

  17. Some maintenance opioid substitute prescribing regimes rooted in harm reduction engage in regular drug testing, but as a consequence of a positive drug test for illicit drug use, some automatically suspend or even terminate prescribing.  The use of drug testing in this manner transforms what was a low threshold harm reduction prescribing philosophy into a punitive abstinence-only regime.

 

 

Julian Buchanan

JulianBuchanan@gmail.com

 

Are reformers seeking to abolish prohibition or tweak it?

DSCN8305

‘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

Drifting towards Prohibition 2.0 under the guise of reform

Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 3.13.06 pm

As the ideologically driven nonsense that underpinned the Drug War becomes increasingly apparent and the need for drug law reform gathers momentum, it is important to recognise some of the subtle approaches and ideas expressed towards a drug reform model could well result in Prohibition 2.0. An approach that fails to fundamentally address the fallacies of  prohibition, perpetuates the drug apartheid and uses the medical profession and civil society as enforcers rather than the police, armed forces and customs.

What are the signs that could open the door to Prohibition 2.0? Well here are some common statements which on first impression, may appear to offer good support to a reform agenda, but on closer scrutiny these statements seriously risk replicating misinformation, and could open the door to new forms of state control, coercive treatment and punishment for people using the ‘wrong’ drugs.

 

  1. Drugs are dangerous that’s why we need strict regulation.
  2. Drug users shouldn’t go to prison, Drug Court is an effective alternative.
  3. We must accept our drug laws are out of date and need reforming.
  4. Drug use is not a crime problem it’s a public health problem.
  5. Soft drugs like cannabis should be decriminalised.
  6. NPS should be regulated, while unapproved NPS should be illegal to possess.
  7. People with substance use disorders should be forced to get treatment.
  8. Drugs that are legalised should only be available from approved suppliers.
  9. Tackling drug use through the criminal justice system was wrong we must tackle drug use through public health approaches.
  10. The drug war was a mistake but the state must protect people from the risk of addiction with strict controls over possession and supply.
  11. People diagnosed with substance use disorders cannot risk using drugs.
  12. Drug testing has an important role in public health and safety.
  13. Drug use is a problem we can’t eradicate so we must minimise it.
  14. Drug use isn’t a police problem it’s a medical issue.
  15. Only a small proportion of people use drugs and we are going to have to learn to accommodate them.
  16. We need to change drug laws not because drugs are safe, but because drugs are harmful and people are not being protected by current drug laws.
  17. Addiction is a brain disease so it shouldn’t be a criminal offence.

 

Perhaps most worrying is some reformers are calling for drug REGULATION, but this simply means state laws and policies to manage and control drugs (which is what we already have albeit done badly). Regulation is a broad and vague rally call to get behind. While it is more specifically understood as state overseen production, distribution, sale, advertising, labelling, storage and use of drugs, (which for example already happens for opiates), regulation may also continue to make the possession of certain drugs illegal. Substances that are unapproved and/or deemed unsafe by the state may, as in the case of the New Zealand model of regulation, be an offence to possess. This is prohibition by any other name, and replicates the present system of bifurcation.

 

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

December 2015

 

 

 

 

 

Drug Testing: Misleading Simplicity Masking Complex Issues


4440720319_2b3ee28e61

The Wider Social Context

Our sophisticated techy gadgets, gismos and latest ‘apps’ make life easier, simpler and quicker. Our technology driven society monitors, measures and controls almost every aspect of daily life. The Internet tracks our lifestyle, values and interests, bar codes scan our shopping habits, CCTV cameras our movement, GPS/mobile phones track our precise location – this mass of data provides greater surveillance, knowledge and certainty for a world with an insatiable appetite for the measurable, tangible and controllable.

But the real world is not so certain or quantifiable; it is blurred, complex and messy. The apparent ‘evidence’ and ‘facts’ we possess are more contested than we would like to acknowledge. The trend to simplify social problems is both seductive and dangerous. In recent decades there has been a growing tendency to stifle debate on complex issues to reduce discussion to simple binary opposites, such as, ‘you are either for us, or against us’.

In respect of recreational drug use, this resulted in a crude unscientific bifurcation, in which unapproved substances (such as LSD, heroin, cannabis and cocaine) are presented as dangerous, immoral and likely to lead to addiction, whereas approved and promoted substances (such as caffeine, alcohol and tobacco) risks are minimised and use is normalised, indeed rarely are they even considered as ‘drugs’. Despite the mounting evidence concerning the risks posed by these state approved and promoted drugs, alongside the relative safety, by comparison, of some illicit drugs, the over-simplistic misinformed binary approach dominates law, policy and practice.

People who regularly enjoy state approved drugs take offence at being considered a ‘drug user’. If they develop physical, social and psychological problems with legal drugs are never referred to as ‘addicts’, junkies or problem drug users. Despite the fact that more people are killed by tobacco and alcohol than all the other illegal drug deaths combined, it is illicit drugs that will not be tolerated and drug testing is a key weapon to deter and eradicate the use of unapproved drugs.

 

The Appeal of the Drug Test

Legal and illegal drugs can for a small proportion of people result in serious health and social problems – in rare cases with devastating and fatal consequences. It is understandable that a concern to prevent such tragedies creates an interest in a possible role for drug testing. The technology appears to offer some tempting evidence and insight. There are a growing number of companies selling a wide range of equipment to test saliva, hair, perspiration, blood and urine for a variety of drugs. It’s a burgeoning industry with strong connections with law enforcement, often managed by ex-police officers.

Drug testing has long history of use with the substitute prescribing, initially used for safety reasons to ensure that people issued with a clean legal supply of opioids had actually been using opiates. However, some prescribing regimes continue to use drug testing on its long term patients, as a punitive tool to impose sanctions for any on-going use of illicit street drugs.

More recently drug-testing technology has been incorporated as a central tenet of Drug Courts and positive tests invariably lead to warnings, breach and sometimes short periods of imprisonment. Drug testing has become popular with some employers – a positive result may lead to suspension or termination from employment. Some countries (like USA and New Zealand) drug test welfare benefit claimants and stop payments if the person continues to test positive for illegal drugs. In some countries, like Sweden, drug testing is used in schools and colleges, in the USA parent groups advocate randomly drug-testing their children – there appears to be an endless range of circumstance when a drug test may ‘apparently’ prove useful.

When faced with a complicated situation of determining and responding appropriately to drug misuse a positive drug test appears to offer conclusive proof – clear evidence upon which straight talking and tough sanctions can be imposed. This measurable and quantifiable certainty of a drug test, in an era dominated by ‘punitive populism’ and simplistic approaches must have appeal, but sadly it can also undermine any attempt to engage effectively with the complexity of the issue, indeed it can do more harm than good.

What Does a Positive Drug Test Actually Tell Us?

A positive drug test provides an illusion of clear evidence, fact and truth. The illusion occurs because the results of the test are not 100% reliable and can be contested. First, the test could produce a ‘false’ positive, or for that matter a ‘false’ negative. Errors and misreading’s can be caused by human error in the testing process, or by faulty testing equipment. While this is not usual, there really should be no room for error given that the outcome could result in loss of liberty, loss of employment, damage to personal relationships and considerable repercussions in later life. Secondly, the result may not be a ‘misreading’ but it could be misleading – the person may accurately show positive for an illicit drug, but it might be a drug which was consumed as a herbal supplement or medication, for example, a person who takes a paracodeine tablet for a severe headache would test positive for opiates. It would then be misleading to assume the person was ‘back on heroin’ even though they tested positive. Thirdly, relying upon the apparent ‘truth’ of a drug test can be flawed because negative test results may be achieved via kits readily available from the Internet that mask the presence of the illicit drugs. So a positive or negative drug test isn’t necessarily a definitive outcome, it could be a contested and/or misleading outcome.

However, it could be argued that in most cases they provide useful and fairly accurate information. Well let us assume that the test is indeed accurate – what does it actually tell the parent, teacher, employer, court or drug worker? Imagine you had a drink problem and at a later date you test positive for the drug alcohol, what does it indicate – it doesn’t tell us how you took the drug (it could have been a sherry trifle), where you took the drug, why you took the drug, when you took the drug or who you took the drug with. Most important, a positive drug test would give no real insight as to whether or not you have an alcohol problem. It is important to be absolutely clear drug use is not indicative of drug misuse, and a positive result will not indicate why or in what circumstances the drug was ingested.

These contextual details are much more important than the apparent ‘factual’ detail of the presence of a drug in your body. At best drug testing technology is only able to provide contested ‘evidence’ that a person is (or is not) free from a particular drug. This crude indicator risks decontextualize and over-simplifying the issue of illicit drug use. Thinking can easily drifts into binary measure of:

  • you are either drug free or a drug addict;
  • you are either telling the truth or you are lying;
  • you are either co-operating or being deviant;
  • you either want help or you don’t want help.

Armed with a ‘hard copy’ evidence of a positive drug test gives those in power and authority confidence to impose sanctions and punishments upon the ‘outsider’ or ‘deviant’ based upon what masquerades as indisputable evidence. This approach is not only deeply flawed, it can also have a number of serious adverse and unintended consequences.


17 Negative Consequences of Drug Testing:

  1. Drug testing identifies substance ‘use’ rather than any substance disorder/problem. This misguidedly widens the net of concern, which should be directed towards the person with a drug problem not towards the recreational user.

  2. Most people with a chronic drug problem have endured damaging personal and social circumstances before drugs became an issue and need considerable help and support in life, more generally. Drug testing can lead to a pre-occupation on drug presence, and this narrow focus risks overlooking the real underlying issues, which if not addressed, will almost certainly lead to drug problem relapse.

  3. Women drug users with child care responsibilities are often forced to undertake regular or even daily drug tests to prove they are ‘drug’ free, this disproportionately focuses attention on drug presence rather than fitness to parent. Regular positive drug tests are then used wrongly as evidence as to why the child should be ‘looked after’ by the state. Any assessment of a mothers parental capability to care for her child should never be reduced to a drug test.

  4. A pre-occupation with drug testing by key stakeholders can result in a paradigm shift in which abstinence and so-called ‘clean’ drug tests become the desired measure of any successful outcome. Not only does harm reduction get marginalised in the process, but the messy and challenging process of rehabilitation and social reintegration may be forgotten in the satisfaction that the person appears to be drug free.

  5. Around 30-70% of young people in most western countries have used illicit drugs and the vast majority manage to avoid: a criminal record; a drug problem; harm to themselves or harm to others. Widespread random drug testing in schools, at the roadside, in employment, on benefit claimants etc., will only waste resources and result in capturing mainly non-problematic drug users who then risk being ascribed damaging labels as ‘deviant’ or ‘addicts’ that will pose serious damage to future life opportunities (education, employment, travel, insurance, housing etc) and in relationships.

  6. Resources for public and voluntary services are limited and money that could be used to deliver much needed harm reduction services is wasted on expensive drug testing for people who don’t use drugs, or those who use drugs in a non-problematic recreational manner.

  7. Random drug testing of pupils, students and children often accompanied by police and sniffer dogs as a health promotion strategy is misguided. Cultural behavioural change is not achieved through policing, confronting and punishing, but it is facilitating by meaningful, culturally relevant, reliable information exchange, harm reduction education, relationships and peer dialogue.

  8. The most widely used illicit drug (cannabis) is much less harmful than the promoted legal drugs alcohol and tobacco, it is therefore, untenable or indeed hypocritical to pursue drug testing and punish cannabis use and not drug test and punish alcohol and tobacco use.

  9. Drug testing regimes with sanctions, such as random drug tests in schools to exclude students who test positive, create a ‘cat and mouse’ game in which an adversarial relationship is established, both sides then seek to out-smart the other with new technology or deceptive techniques. The winners in this game are the drug testing businesses and underground laboratories; but the losers are honesty, trust and communication.

  10. Tougher drug testing regimes to stamp out illicit drug use, such as drug testing in employment, have spawn the proliferation of new synthetic designer ‘legal’ highs to avoid detection (such as Spice). However, once these new drugs have been detected and subsequently outlawed the drug testing ‘net’ widens, then new legal highs are further developed and the never ending spiral continues. These ‘legal highs’ may be considerably more dangerous than commonly used illicit drugs.

  11. Some drugs such as cannabis can stay in the body for over four weeks whereas drugs like cocaine can be out of the body within 48 hours. Random drug testing regimes (such as those in prisons) have inadvertently pressurised people to switch from the less harmful cannabis to the more dangerous heroin, spice or cocaine.

  12. Drug testing concentrates attention towards illegal drug use and unhelpfully firms up the misguided bifurcation between licit and illicit substances. It is not the use of any illicit drug that warrants attention but rather the misuse of any drug legal and illegal that should warrants attention. The legally promoted drugs (alcohol, caffeine, tobacco and sugar) can pose serious risks, sometimes greater than their illegal counterparts.

  13. A positive drug test may reduce the risk of people who are intoxicated from using machinery, driving a car or flying a plane, however, testing positive for a drug doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is intoxicated or impaired – for example cannabis can be detected a month after not using, so a positive drug test could result in misguided concern, and unfair dismissals.

  14. Some maintenance opioid substitute prescribing regimes rooted in harm reduction engage in regular drug testing, but as a consequence of a positive drug test for illicit drug use some automatically suspend or even terminate prescribing.  The use of drug testing in this manner transforms what was a low threshold harm reduction prescribing philosophy into a punitive abstinence only regime.

  15. A positive drug test indicates drug presence but not necessarily drug impairment, but as in the case of drug driving government campaigns are often conflating drug presence with drug impairment, ascribing much more to drug testing than it is telling us. Association does not mean causation.

  16. A positive drug test may be incorrect due to a small percentage of ‘false positives’ caused by equipment failure or human error, and conversely ‘false negative’ can occur.

  17. An accurate positive drug test still maybe misleading. It is assumed that the person has taken illicit drugs when those drugs may have been ingested legally. For example, consuming poppy seeds in bread can lead to a positive drug test for opiates, or if the person took a para-codeine tablet for a headache they’d show positive for opiates.

Conclusion

While drug testing seems to offers seductive simplicity, the shortfalls, ambiguities and misuse of drug testing technology has arguably greater potential to mislead and distort rather than to inform. The future of drug prevention and drug treatment lie not with monitoring, coercion and punishments, but with listening, engaging and caring – drug testing sits firmly with the former and not with the latter. Drug checking by contrast is an important harm reduction strategy to check the contents of unknown substances to protect people from overdose or poisoning. Testing pills is quite different to drug testing people, one is vital and the other is a counter productive waste of money.

Julian Buchanan


  • This blog is based on a conference paper, the PowerPoint presentation which can be accessed here

Why is access to naloxone still a problem across New Zealand?

Getting naloxone into the community was recommended by the World Health Organisation, and some countries like the USA, Australia, Scotland, Wales have made excellent progress.  In 2009 I was involved evaluating the naloxone take home scheme rolled out in Wales, but since my arrival in New Zealand in 2011, it has been difficult to get naloxone on the drug policy agenda, let alone into the community, despite the fact that Coroner data indicates that every week someone dies of an opioid overdose in New Zealand.

Why should this be so difficult when naloxone has no abuse potential, is relatively cheap, easy to administer and is so effective at reversing overdose? Unfortunately, the failure to deliver a humane and effective drug policy has little to do with a lack of evidence, understanding or science, but much more to do with a lack of interest, care or regard for people who use illicit drugs, and people who inject drugs (PWID) tend to be the most marginalized. Naloxone distribution is a vital life-saving service for PWID.

Numerous opportunities have existed in New Zealand to ensure naloxone is available to users, families and friends. In August 2013 sixty-seven agencies were represented at an invitation-only National Drug Policy Think Tank Event, led and coordinated by the New Zealand Drug Foundation. After two days debating priorities, values and strategy, to shape the future of drug policy in Aotearoa, 

A year later in 2014, when the WHO recommended wide distribution of naloxone, rather than present a robust case for naloxone distribution in New Zealand, the NZ Drug Foundation in its August 2014 Matters of Substance Magazine framed Naloxone take-home as a contestable issue, open to debate. They presented arguments for and against naloxone distribution. This included some spurious arguments against naloxone distribution including “there could be an unintended consequence from widening availability of naloxone” and “people could become less cautious about their drug use because they know life-saving treatment is close at hand”.

In October 2014 after a new government was elected the NZ Drug Foundation prepared a twenty-page Briefing Paper to Parliament which was designed to identify key drug policy priorities to enable ‘opportunities to make real reductions in drug-related harm‘ (p.3). The document emphasised the need to secure New Zealand representation at the United Nations international meetings (see below), and specifically highlighted the need to tackle deaths caused by huffing solvents, but astonishingly made no reference or representation to the new government concerning fatal opioid overdoses, nor did it mention the need to distribute naloxone to users, families and friends. [my additional text in blue & red]

With this lack of formal commitment to naloxone distribution from the lead NGO organisation for drug users/drug agencies in New Zealand, it was hardly surprising that when the new government eventually rolled out its five-year Drug Policy Strategy 2015-2020 on 28th August 2015, the policy document made no mention of naloxone whatsoever. Interestingly, the new drug policy did, as promoted in the NZ Drug Foundation Briefing Paper, prioritise a commitment to ensure New Zealand would be represented at international UNGASS meetings (p.22).

Belatedly, in 2015 Matters of Substance published a better informed and considered magazine feature on Naloxone after the embarrassing ‘for or against’ debate, followed by a stand-alone Naloxone Background Paper. However, while this background paper includes some excellent sources and appeared to offer a robust argument for reducing overdose, it also undermined the campaign with some odd statements and inclusions, such as “Due to the controversial nature of drug harm reduction and naloxone access”, and it confusingly recommends consideration for an option to: “legal protection from arrest for drug possession and/or the act of injecting someone for people who administer naloxone in an emergency situation”, [my highlight in red], as well as recommending “reclassifying naloxone as restricted medication” rather than pharmacy only, largely it seems, to ensure that anyone who accesses naloxone must receive training. The briefing paper also offered some odd arguments against naloxone: “There may also be views that wider access is not necessary with naloxone already available in hospitals and with advanced paramedics” and then further posited the view that  “[naloxone] will lead to greater risk taking behaviour”.

There are other disconcerting aspects buried within what might otherwise give the impression of a solid report arguing for greater naloxone distribution, such as the omission of data concerning the high percentage of overdose deaths that importantly occur before the medics arrive, for example, a London study by Hickman et al (2007:320) found that when an ambulance was called the person who overdosed was already dead before the arrival of the ambulance in 85% of cases. Had this information been understood and included in the NZ Drug Foundation background paper they would surely have given greater emphasis to ensuring naloxone is in the hands of People Who Inject Drugs (PWID), their friends and family, but the report seems to prioritise naloxone training over naloxone distribution. The recommendations in the paper also include loopholes that seem to almost invite a piecemeal approach to distributing naloxone, by suggesting various components of naloxone distribution could be seen as possible ‘separate options’ for consideration.

a London study by Hickman et al (2007:320) found that when an ambulance was called the person who overdosed was already dead before the arrival of the ambulance in 85% of cases

While this paper was primarily about the role of naloxone to reduce overdose death, it was an ideal opportunity to mention closely related strategies known to reduce OD deaths in New Zealand, such as the benefit of allowing prescribing injectable drugs in New Zealand to people who continually inject rather than restrict them to oral methadone which is then invariably injected, or the effectiveness of Drug Consumption Rooms in reducing overdose. Here’s a link to the report that includes my highlighted concerns and critique.

Despite the absence of any clear formal commitment to wider naloxone distribution, the campaigning in Aotearoa NZ must continue for naloxone take-home, and indeed for other strategies to reduce overdose and drug policy harm, including: drug checking; prescribing injectable opioids to opioid injectors; a Good Samaritan Law to end arrests for possession and manslaughter when co-users call for emergency help; end the risk of criminalisation for possession of needles and utensils  in New Zealand (unless proven to be obtained from the needle exchanges); and establishing Drug Consumption Rooms.

In view of this failure to put naloxone on the formal agenda, it was somewhat incongruous see the Director of the NZ Drug Foundation on International Overdose Day showcase a persuasively well-argued newspaper article (with no sense of irony or doublespeak), asserting that ‘New Zealand must do more to tackle overdose‘ and distribute naloxone. If the New Zealand Drug Foundation had proactively promoted the need for naloxone, it may have been quite different. Arguably, it’s New Zealand Drug Foundation, in its pivotal drug policy advisory role, that needs to do more to tackle overdose and push for naloxone distribution.

It is hard to understand given the insights clearly displayed in their newspaper piece on International Overdose Day (August 2015), why the New Zealand Drug Foundation omitted naloxone from important documents (the Wellington Declaration & subsequently the Harm Reduction Briefing to Parliament), and why they haven’t campaigned when and where it matters, for naloxone take-home from the outset. Staff from the NZ Drug Foundation did, however, as promoted and prioritised in the harm reduction Briefing to Parliament, go to Vienna and New York (see here) and engage in the inertia of the UN drug control system that is committed to a ‘drug’ free world.

With an alternative emphasis on promoting evidence-based drug policy reform in New Zealand rather than international drug policy and networking, important drug policy harms could be tackled. Key drug policy issues that need tackling here in New Zealand include:

  1. Possession of needle/syringes is an offence if it can be proved they were not obtained from a Needle Exchange.
  2. There is no nationwide naloxone take home for family, friends and users.
  3. There is no long term injectable maintenance prescribing.
  4. There is no heroin prescribing.
  5. There is no Good Samaritan law.
  6. There are no Drug Consumption Rooms / Supervised Injection Facilities.
  7. Unemployed people on state benefits are drug tested and can lose benefits if they repeatedly test positive for illegal drugs.
  8. People are criminalised if caught self-medicating with cannabis unless the can prove in court they have a medical defence.
  9. The Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Courts adopted from the USA and based on an abstinence and disease model of addiction that uses scram bracelets and random alcohol and drug testing, have been rolled out further.
  10. New legislation came in force in February 2018 that gives the government powers to compulsory assess and compulsory treat someone considered to have an addiction problem.
  11. The Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 extended the net of prohibition by making possession and supply of every NPS an automatic offence – unless the substance is subsequently approved by the state (none have been approved).
  12. Housing NZ has fuelled an unfounded moral panic about methamphetamine contaminated houses evicting tenants and awarding over $100m to companies to supposedly decontaminate houses.

The 2016 and 2017 CND and UNGASS meetings predictably delivered no tangible positive outcomes or progress for drug reform.  New Zealand users, families and friends are still struggling to gain easy access to naloxone. In 2018 naloxone distribution was agreed in principle, but two years of procrastination concerning the production of additional health education material to accompany the new naloxone product stalled distribution.

Having failed to even mention naloxone in the weighty 2013 Wellington Drug Policy Declaration, and failed to mention it in the 2015 Briefing to Parliament, the urgent need for naloxone was finally acknowledged by the New Zealand Drug Foundation in their December 2017 Briefing to new Labour/NZF/Green Parliament, but it’s been too little and too late. On International Overdose Awareness Day 2018 users, family and friends were still waiting for access to naloxone.

While nations like New Zealand, inexcusably fail to deliver easy to implement evidence-based harm reduction drug policy reforms at a national level but instead invest considerable energy in high maintenance international drug policy reform gatherings, serious harms will continue. However, a growing number of drug reformers are recognising the need for genuine national policy transformation. It is time to stop talking the talk and start delivering evidence-based drug policies locally and nationally, including nationwide low threshold, easy access, naloxone take home.

Until then, people who use illicit drugs in New Zealand are needlessly suffering, some are dying. No naloxone take home – no excuse. It is already a matter of life or death, and judging from other countries, the issue will only get worse once fentanyl is widely available. 

In Jan 2019 The New Zealand Drug Foundation publishes a twelve page  ‘State of the Nation’ report to identify current concerns in NZ drug policy – but it makes no mention whatsoever of naloxone.

Feb 2019  Health Minister David Clark claims the delay in distributing naloxone take home is because only a pre-filled syringe kit can be circulated to people who use drugs, and that requires a new pharmaceutical supplier and a new Medsafe approval process. A pharmaceutical company that already supplies a naloxone product that has Medsafe approval it’s available to GP’s who can issue it on prescription, but for some reason been deemed inappropriate.

July 2019 Medsafe NZ approve naloxone nasal spray (Nyxoid), which will be available on Pharmacy Only. Pharmaco Emergency Care (N.Z.) Ltd who have stocks, do not appear to have been approached to distribute the Nasal Spray to Needle Exchanges

October 2020 Ross Bell Executive Director resigns from the New Zealand Drug Foundation

December 2020 Sarah Helm is appointed as the new Executive Director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation

Sarah Helm in anticipation of International Overdose Day on 31st August 2021 states she was: ‘shocked to read this blog from my predecessor Ross Bell, written in 2015. So little has progressed – if anything, since it was written, things have gotten worse. The time for change is well and truly overdue.’

As expected the right sentiments are expressed by Ross Bell in his 2015 blog designed for International Overdose Day on 2015, but unfortunately were not matched by actions before or after that blog.

Two years earlier (2013) the NZ Drug Foundation held an invite only hui and produced a 12,000-word vision statement for drug policy in Aotearoa, known as the Wellington Declaration – but surprisingly, despite the comprehensive nature of this document that outlined drug policy priorities, naloxone didn’t get a mention. In 2014 the Drug Foundation magazine did a feature on naloxone, but it portrayed naloxone as an issue for debate, publishing arguments for and indeed against naloxone distribution. In their drug policy In their drug policy briefing report to Parliament in 2015 the Foundation failed to even mention naloxone. The need for naloxone was eventually flagged up by the Foundation in December 2017 in their Briefing to Parliament. However, despite the inertia surrounding naloxone distribution, the foundation overlooked the issue in their State of the Nation Report highlighting current drug policy issues – naloxone once again failed to get a mention.

Why couldn’t the naloxone that GP’s have been able to prescribe for many years – be distributed? Who and why was it insisted that a separate new naloxone product was required for naloxone take home – it’s caused massive delay.

31st August 2021 is once again International Overdose Day, have we made any further progress on naloxone? I am hopeful that Sarah Helm the new Executive Director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation will lead the Foundation to become a stronger advocate for the needs of people who use substances banned by the state, and indeed help reduce the considerable drug policy related harm in Aotearoa. 

Julian Buchanan

Dr Julian Buchanan, is a retired Associate Professor, Victoria University of Wellington, Institute of Criminology

Written 31st August 2015 on International Overdose Day (updated 30th August 2021)

Ending Prohibition by Incremental Reform or Abolition?

by Julian Buchanan (updated Dec 2016)
screen-shot-2016-12-04-at-12-00-06-pm

While it can be argued that some groups have benefitted from drug prohibition, this divisive and ill-founded strategy has caused untold harm to many. Yet despite the unequivocal evidence of social damage, severe law enforcement measures to deter the use of certain substances have continued unabated for over five decades. In their eagerness to end the draconian drug war and replace it with a policy rooted in evidence, science and reason, should Drug Reformers accept and embrace any policy improvement as a step in the right direction? Before we consider the issue of drug reform in terms of incremental change versus abolition, we need to distinguish between individuals, and the organisations/leaders/spokespeople who have an interest in drug policy. With regard to individuals who may have shifted from once embracing the dominant discourse of prohibition to a more informed and enlightened view of drugs, any incremental move warrants encouragement and supportive discussion. In respect of organisations, leaders, and spokespeople with an interest in drug policy, however, I think we need to be more much more questioning and critical.

An incrementalist approach, which perceives any step away from the traditional drug war model as an inherently positive move, is at best naive. It mistakenly assumes that incremental changes to Prohibition should automatically be supported, as key steps towards ending the Drug War. Herein lies a major issue. So, for example – imagine that one ‘Reform’ organisation campaigns to get drugs ‘out of the hands of gangsters‘ and wants drugs to be regulated.

On the face of it, this sounds good – as if we are on the same page, heading in the same direction. If, however, the proposed changes promoted by this ‘Reform’ organisation mean that some drugs will be legalised, but will only be available via BigPharma or Big Business, and new laws will be rolled out to make possession of ‘unregulated’ drugs a criminal offence – then we are definitely not on the same page: I can’t support replacing prohibition with Prohibition 2.0.

For me, the wrongful policing, criminalisation, and incarceration of people for possession of banned drugs is the most important issue in the Drug War, and I think it is paramount, from a human rights perspective, that in the course of any reform, the State shouldn’t decide what a person can and can’t consume, and shouldn’t seek to prevent such consumption, or to punish people for personal possession of unapproved drugs. Such enforcement has always been selective, repeatedly and unfairly targeting disadvantaged people, indigenous people, Black people, women and ethnic and minority groups. So, what might appear to be a step in the right direction could end up being a lost opportunity for genuine reform. If reformers aren’t careful, they could wind up supporting the launch of a new regime of Prohibition.

The example above highlights the importance of clarity and transparency concerning what individuals and organisations who ‘sit around the table’ to tackle the drug war, are actually seeking to replace it with, and why. Inevitably, abolition will involve a process of change, but it is vital to support only those changes that are clearly part of the bigger process of abolition.

A further example would be a shared concern regarding the huge number of people going to prison for drug-defined crimes (such as possession, cultivation, and supply). An organisation comes along and says prison for drug-defined crime is wrong. Yes, this appears to be another incremental step in the right direction that we should support. On the surface it is; but this penal reform organisation seeking to keep offenders out of prison, later also disturbingly argues that we can stop drug users going to prison by setting up Drug Abstinence Courts, random drug testing, scran tags and 12-step rehabilitation programmes. In our shared efforts to produce incremental reform, we risk supporting new oppressive regimes rooted in prohibition and abstinence.

Should we support this ‘incremental improvement’ away from prison to Drug Abstinence Courts? I don’t think so. Drug Abstinence Courts are new prohibition, utilising quasi-compulsory methods to enforce abstinence and impose a blanket ban on drug use. In the USA, this apparent step in the right direction has spawned a huge rehab and drug-testing business that profits from these drug ‘offenders’. There are now around 3,000 Drug Courts, with more being rolled out in other Anglophile countries.

A third example would be a reform organisation promoting the view that drug use is not a crime problem, but a public health issue. In our gratitude at the prospect of drugs moving out of the law enforcement arena to which they should never have been consigned, it would be easy to lend support to this change. Further examination and discussion, however, reveals that while the ‘reform’ organisation supports decriminalisation of all drugs, it sees the use of all currently-banned drugs as a public health issue, and fails to distinguish between recreational use and problematic use, or between different drugs. The risk here is that the oppression for so long endured at the hands of law enforcement could be replaced by oppression at the hands of the medical and health professions coercively ‘treating’ people for their ‘public health’ problem.

A fourth example is that of campaigns to legalise particular drugs, such as the growing move to legalise cannabis. While this is laudable, and a move I wholeheartedly agree with in principle, selectively privileging particular drugs, based upon their popularity, to join the licit market in alcohol, caffeine and tobacco does not signal an end to Prohibition – on the contrary;  it arguably bolsters 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 push for the legal right to possess any substance for personal use, without threat, intimidation or punishment from the state.

The trouble with combating a systemic human rights abuse, such as prohibition ‘drug’ law enforcement, and then settling for incremental adjustments, is that it compromises, complicates and confuses the reform movement and message, it dilutes and divides the drive for reform, and it establishes a new regime which then gains its own momentum, and poses its own problems, which are even harder to correct.

The Drug War will be remembered in history as one of the greatest social policy disasters in modern times, an ill-founded and ill-conceived approach, a serious breach of human rights which has devastated the lives of individuals, families, communities, and indeed whole countries. There is only one acceptable solution to Prohibition and that is Abolition.

Julian Buchanan*

*With thanks to Jerry Dorey for helpful edits and suggestions!

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

Vested Interest is the Driver of Prohibition

war on drugs, addict, drug reform, legalisation, decriminalisation, prohibition, criminalisation, drug war, regulation
Do the benefits of prohibition outweigh the costs to those in power?

It 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 eventually seek legislative and policy change. Not so. The evidence presented to argue for the end of prohibition is largely based upon an analysis of the inability of drug prohibition to reduce the supply and demand for banned substances, supplemented by a critique outlining the widespread harms caused by prohibition. However, with a different agenda and focus, it might be that this ‘evidence’ in terms of the failure to dent supply and demand, has over time (fifty years), become secondary to other government, business and organisational interests.

Seen in a different light, the Drug War has been a major success, providing considerable opportunities and benefits:

  1. It protects the market share and status of the privileged, promoted and culturally embedded legal drugs: alcohol; caffeine; tobacco; sugar and pharmaceuticals.
  2. It provides the police with excellent powers to easily stop, search, arrest, interrogate and prosecute.
  3. It successfully attracts significant additional funding for police, armed services, customs officials and security services.
  4. It provides justification for military action and invasion of other countries.
  5. It provides excellent opportunities for significant additional resources for the police/state through the seizure of assets.
  6. It provides excellent business opportunities and raw material (people) for the ever burgeoning penal industrial complex.
  7. It provides considerable opportunities for new technology development and sales, in the invasive and expanding drug testing industry.
  8. It provides considerable opportunities for new technology development and sales, in the avoidance of drug detection industry.
  9. It provides the drug rehabilitation business with an endless supply of illicit users, who must always abstain, and forever be in recovery.
  10. It provides excellent opportunities for the state to easily target, monitor, control and punish the poor, indigenous people, Black and minority ethnic groups and people of colour.
  11. It provides politicians with a societal scapegoat, and the chance to rally support and votes by getting ‘tough’ on a socially constructed enemy within: the ‘addict’ hooked and controlled by the ‘demon drugs’.
  12. It provides the news media with easy, cheap dirty stories and pictures of the apparent horrors associated with illicit drug use.
  13. It provides a much needed distraction from the serious problems caused by the more harmful, addictive and culturally embedded legal drugs – alcohol, tobacco, sugar and pharmaceuticals.
  14. Internationally, it rallies otherwise disparate nations together by finding common ground to fight a shared war against a global enemy, ‘drugs’.
  15. It provides the Banks with massive investments from money laundering.
  16. It provides researchers and academics with a constant and reliable stream of funding sources for endless prevalence studies and evidence, needed to uphold prohibition propaganda such as reefer madness, gateway theory, crack babies and krokodil.
  17. It allows governments to detract attention away from the key structural drivers behind most chronic addiction (inequality, stigma, exclusion, poverty and blocked opportunities) and instead, misleadingly shift attention towards the supposed demonising and devastating power of the illicit drug.
  18. It provides a lucrative illegal market that enables gangsters and drug cartels to make incredible untaxed profits.
  19. It provides an attractive and unquestionable dogma for religious groups to ‘say no’ to drugs, avoiding the complexities of science, reason and rationale, and indeed the contradiction in respect of sugar, caffeine, tobacco and alcohol.
  20. It provides excellent careers for drug enforcement officials and drug policy entrepreneurs and careerists, facilitating endless debates, inquiries, international travel, networking and conference events, particularly via the United Nations.

If these are key drivers that sustain prohibition and maintain the ‘war between drugs’ then appealing to the groups that benefit from prohibition by providing endless research reports and campaigns to highlight the limited impact prohibition has upon supply and demand, or the negative unintended outcomes from criminalisation, may have limited political impact or sway given the benefits experienced by these powerful groups and organisations.

by Julian Buchanan, Associate Professor Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand, (updated 24th August 2015).

Thanks to @mhound and @ChurchOfBong for helpful suggestions!

Addiction: A Response to Enduring Personal Pain and Alienation

drugs, addiction, addicts, junkies, problematic drug use, unemployment, chavs, social exclusion, poverty

Summary

1. Most of the harms associated with drug use are not caused by drugs, but are caused by the war on drugs. Prohibitionist drug laws and policies are destroying lives, devastating communities and destabilizing countries. We have a global drug policy problem.

2. Chronic problematic drug use and addiction are serious issues, albeit for a small percentage of people using drugs, but these issues are largely responses to severe personal, social and structural pain and dislocation (Alexander 2008). These unresolved underlying issues are rarely addressed by policy makers and treatment providers that see ‘drugs’ as the problem. In addition to grappling with the pain and consequences from damaged and difficult lives, exacerbated the ravages of addiction, this group of drugs users endure considerable harm, stigma and discrimination from drug policy abuses.


The main problems are caused by prohibition
Drug taking per se is not a ‘problem’. For example, we would not be anxious upon learning a friend was using the psychoactive drugs caffeine, tobacco or alcohol, so nor should we be inevitably anxious about a person using other psychoactive drugs. However, a person using illegal drugs unfortunately faces considerable additional risks – arising not from the drug, but risks created by prohibitionist drug policies (Buchanan 2008).

Here are seven ways that prohibition increases the risks. The person using a prohibited drug:

1. Has no idea of the strength of the drug – it could be so strong it could result in risk of overdose or death.

2. Has no guarantee about the purity or indeed content of the drug – it could contaminated or even mixed with toxic ingredients that could cause serious harm even death.

3. Has to buy the drug ‘underground’ – exposing the person to the vagaries of a potentially dangerous criminal underworld.

4. Buying, using and sharing illegal drugs puts the person at risk of serious criminal court sanctions, such as a community sentence with a drug rehabilitation requirement or even imprisonment.

5. A person using an illegal drug risks acquiring a criminal record for a drugs offence – which could have lifelong consequences upon opportunities for employment, relationships, insurance, travel and housing.

6. Has to use the drug in secret. For some people this may mean using in an isolated location which could be potentially dangerous especially when intoxicated – such as a condemned building, under a railway bridge, a canal etc.

7. Has to hide the use of illegal drugs making it more difficult to manage and harder to seek help, support or advice if a problem arises.

If it wasn’t for these harms caused by drug war policies, the risks posed by the drugs that are currently illegal would be comparable to those posed by state approved substances caffeine, sugar, alcohol and tobacco. Indeed, there is evidence some illegal substances are less harmful than the state approved drugs. Alcohol in particular is a high risk psychoactive substance that sits alongside some of the more risky banned drugs.

Chronic addiction is more of a social problem than a health Issue.
People using illegal drugs do not have a health problem and don’t need treatment.  Only a small minority of people who use drugs develop issues with addiction – estimated to be around 10% of those who use drugs (legal or illegal) – meaning that around 90% of people who use drugs do so without developing issues. Most of the 10% who get into difficulties recover, often without professional help. However, a proportion of the 10% struggle with chronic addiction, and those that do tend to be ill-equipped, struggling with with additional issues and limited resources. Once identified and labelled an ‘addict’ or ‘junkie’ this small group struggling with chronic addiction endure drug policy abuse including; stigma, discrimination, criminalisation, exclusion, enforced abstinence, punishment, incarceration, as well as degrading and poor health, housing and social care services.

Most of us at some point in our life may lose some degree of control over our patterns of drug use, but importantly most people successfully regain control without professional help or medication. Just ask an ex-tobacco users, most will have had periods of serious uncontrolled tobacco addiction, however, most tobacco users manage to regain control without seeking professional help.

However, there is a small vulnerable group of people who become addicted to drugs who lack the personal resources, support networks, agency, social and cultural capital and/or positive life experiences necessary to regain control. For this group addiction can become entrenched and all consuming, masking underlying stresses and issues. Indeed, for this group chronic addiction can be an all-embracing lifestyle and the term ‘addict’, sometimes becomes a damaging internalised identity. The term ‘addict’ or ‘junkie’ becomes a label that defines the person, and importantly these degrading stereotypes are used to tells others all they need to know about ‘them’ and how ‘they’ should be treated.

Problematic drug use (and indeed drug use) should never have been constructed as a crime problem, but neither should it be constructed as a medical problem or a disease. Chronic problematic drug use or addiction are largely caused by personal, social, cultural and political pain and suffering (and at times may also include psychological, physiological and legal issues). This is something I observed working as a drug worker on Merseyside, England during the mid-1980s ‘heroin epidemic’. As a probation officer and drug worker at the Liverpool Drug Dependency Unit working alongside psychiatrist Dr John Marks I worked with hundreds of people struggling with chronic addiction, and subsequently spent many decades researching addiction and drug policy as an academic. This experience as a drug worker and academic taught me that chronic problematic drug use is largely driven by enduring personal and structural alienation, factors that were serious issues long before drugs became a problem.

If chronic drug addiction is providing an escape for underlying issues, then helping people come off those drugs without addressing the real needs is arguably irresponsible and likely to set the person up to fail.

Here are eight articles/book chapters free to download where I present the evidence and discuss these issues further:

  1. Buchanan, J. & Young, L. (2000) ‘Examining the Relationship Between Material Conditions, Long Term Problematic Drug Use and Social Exclusion: A New Strategy for Social Inclusion’ in J. Bradshaw & R. Sainsbury (eds) Experiencing Poverty, pp. 120-143 click here
  2. Buchanan J & Young L (2000) Problem Drug Use, Social Exclusion and Social Reintegration – the client speaks Understanding and responding to drug use: the role of qualitative research Greenwood G & Robertson K (eds.) pp155-161 EMCDDA click here
  3. Buchanan, J. & Young, L. (2000) ‘The War on Drugs – A War on Drug Users’. Drugs: Education, Prevention Policy, 7(4), 409-422 click here
  4. Buchanan, J. (2004) ‘Missing links? Problem drug use and social exclusion’ Probation Journal, 51(4) click here
  5. Buchanan, J. (2006) ‘Understanding Problematic Drug Use: A Medical Matter or a Social Issue?’. British Journal of Community Justice, 4, (2)  click here
  6. Buchanan J (2005) Problem Drug Use in the 21st Century: A Social Model of Intervention in Social Work in T. Heinonen & A. Metteri (eds.) Health and Mental Health: Issues Developments and Actions. click here
  7. Buchanan, J (2015) ‘Ending Prohibition With a Hangover’ British Journal of Community Justice, Vol. 13, No.1 pp.55-74 click here
  8. Roy, A., and Buchanan, J. (2016) The Paradoxes of Recovery Policy: Exploring the Impact of Austerity and Responsibilisation for the Citizenship Claims of People with Drug Problems. Social Policy & Administration, 50: 398–413. click here

*I was delighted to be cited by the much respected Owen Jones in his book Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class featured in the image above.


References: Alexander, B.K. (2008). The globalisation of addiction: A study in poverty of the spirit. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Human Rights: Lost in Legal Regulation?

Here’s the process of Legal Regulation to illustrate how the needs of the poor, Black and indigenous populations get lost in translation:

A Prohibitionist Legal Regulation Approach


  1. Gangsters shouldn’t be in charge of drug distribution – we must end prohibition
  2. Drugs are potentially dangerous, they all need to be legally regulated.
  3. Only state approved and regulated companies should produce and distribute drugs.
  4. Only state approved regulated outlets should be allowed to sell drugs.
  5. Only approved legally regulated drugs should be sold.
  6. To support and protect the Legal Regulated market, possession of unregulated or non-approved drugs must be an offence.
  7. To protect people from the dangers of drugs, only approved regulated drugs should be consumed.
  8. Strict enforcement and penalties should apply to all possession and supply of unregulated unapproved drug.
  9. Because drugs can be dangerous, and we have a regulated market, individuals must not be allowed to manufacture or cultivate drugs.
  10. Law enforcement should be able to enter without a warrant if unregulated drug production/cultivation is suspected in a building.
  11. Strict Regulation has successfully produced a Legal Regulation model which has state approved legal regulated drugs and outlawed underground unregulated drugs.
  12. That may sound unnervingly familiar. A full circle, welcome back to Prohibition 2.0.

regulation, legalisation, prohibition, drugs, addict, junkie, drug dependence, reform

This model of Regulation was adopted in New Zealand to control New Psychoactive Substances. Worryingly, it received support from a number of key drug reformers and was described as ‘world leading reform’. 

A Human Rights Legal Regulation Approach


Because prohibition of drugs is a damaging breach of human rights that has done more harm than the drugs ever could…

  1. Gangsters can’t be in charge of drug distribution we must end prohibition.
  2. Commercially sold drugs should be regulated.
  3. Only approved companies should produce them for commercial distribution.
  4. Only approved outlets should sell them.
  5. Only approved regulated drugs should be commercially sold.
  6. Strict regulatory controls are placed on all business practices (advertising, packaging, distribution, sale etc).
  7. Individuals can manufacture and/or cultivate ANY substance – for personal use only.
  8. Individuals can possess and consume ANY substance – for personal use.
  9. Registered societies and clubs can meet exchange information, knowledge and equipment.
  10. The fundamental human right for a person to consume in their body, what they choose, without threat, controls or punishment from the state remain paramount and must always be protected.
  11. All drug prohibition has been abolished.

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 9.29.09 am The freedom, liberty and human rights of the individual must be protected from the controlling and paternalistic state, and against exploitation from multi-national corporations and businesses. It’s business activities that need regulating not people.


Julian Buchanan

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

 

The so called ‘War on Drugs’ never existed. The idea that there is or has been a war against drugs is a lie,  it’s classic prohibition propaganda. There has never been a campaign against drugs. Let me explain. Society and governments have always appreciated the wide ranging benefits and pleasures derived from drugs. Drugs have never been as popular as they are now. The availability, promotion and use of pharmaceutical and legally approved drugs such as caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and sugar, has never been greater. However, prohibition propaganda has conveniently resulted in these drugs escaping under the radar of the prohibitionist drug discourse, and these substances are incorrectly, not perceived as drugs.

Rather than a War on Drugs, what we have is a Drug War, a hostile war waged by the proponents of approved drugs against anyone using unapproved drugs. More accurately, a process better conceptualised as a politically driven Drug Apartheid; an arbitrary and illogical separation, not of people, but of drugs. This distinction between these two sets of drugs has no rational basis, it has no science or evidence to support it, neither is it based on the risk of harm. Under the strictly enforced Drug Apartheid alcohol, sugar, tobacco and caffeine enjoy privilege, power and promotion, while unapproved drugs are outlawed and anyone found involved in possession, production or supply risks stigma, criminalisation and punishment, including life imprisonment and the death penalty. This brutal, inhumane and damaging system that impacts negatively on individuals, families, communities and nations, is perpetuated because society has been successfully indoctrinated (at a personal, cultural and institutional level), to believe a 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)

Unmasking New Zealand’s ‘World Leading Drug Reform’

reform, Psychoactive Substances, Legal highs, Redulation, New Zealand, Drug Reform, Prohibition,
Banning all NPS was made to look like reform

The NZ Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 (PSA2013) was never world leading drug reform as frequently claimed by some drug reformers and re-asserted in an article by one of the Act’s key flag bearers. It was however, world leading drug legislation, that succeeded in gaining almost unanimous support across New Zealand Parliament (apart from one MP). It gained overwhelming support in a country that’s been slow to accept harm reduction let alone drug reform, because this new drug law extended prohibition so that every new psychoactive substance not currently incorporated within the Misuse of Drugs Act was banned and a crime to possess.

If the concept of the PSA2013 – to make drugs illegal (unapproved NPS), punish personal possession and supply, while privileging other selected drugs (approved NPS), may sound strangely familiar, – it is, it’s the system of prohibition. The PSA replicates what has been happening for decades with approved legal drugs (alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and pharmaceuticals) and unapproved outlawed drugs listed under the Misuse of Drugs Act, except the PSA provides a blanket ban on personal possession of every psychoactive drug, unless specifically approved. Whereas the MDA provides a blanket acceptance of substances unless specifically named and banned.

The key problem with the PSA2013 is it’s like an illusion. The Act can be whatever you want it to be, it depends upon how you tell it, what you tell, and what you omit. To prohibitionists, it was sold as offering an end to the legal high ‘cat n mouse’ game, by introducing a once-and-for-all blanket ban on all NPS currently legally sold. The Act removed these legal highs from open circulation and prevented them being sold in corner shops. Of course, this didn’t remove the drugs from circulation it simply pushed circulation and distribution underground.

By extending prohibition to every New Psychoactive Substance, the PSA2013 makes all NPS in New Zealand illegal unless subsequently approved by the state. Worryingly, the PSA makes personal possession of any new psychoactive drugs a punishable offence (s.71), it introduced new police powers to enter premises without a warrant (s.77), and introduced a two year prison sentence for anyone supplying an ‘unapproved’ psychoactive drugs (s.70). Issues I highlighted in writing and in an oral presentation to the Health Select Committee.

To drug reformers these disconcerting aspects of the PSA are frequently airbrushed out of the story. Instead, to the drug reforming community, the PSA was sold as offering ‘world-leading’ drug reform, an exciting framework to regulate new psychoactive substances (that the same law made illegal), – provided these new substances could be demonstrated to be low risk. But it was always unclear what exactly constitutes a ‘psychoactive’ substance, who defines it, what would be considered ‘low risk’, and would there ever be a political willingness to approve any new drug? What the PSA has effectively done is to outlaw those drugs that were legal, impose new punishments for possession of these drugs, while also offering the olive branch that, if proved low risk, some of these drugs might possibly, one day, be approved for circulation.

The PSA 2013 is prohibition under the guise of reform. Instead of the tedious and expensive process of the government having to use the Misuse of Drugs Act, to ban each individual drug that comes on the market, the PSA has simply banned the lot, albeit with a slim backdoor possibility that some ‘low risk’ drugs might, one day, be accommodated. The Act delivered what the Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne always promised it would when in July 2012 he declared: “We are winning the battle [against drugs] and we are about to deliver the knockout blow with this legislation“.

We know from difficult experience with the 40 year old Misuse of Drugs Act, that bad laws are hard to change. The problem with our New Zealand PSA 2013 is, it was from the outset, a compromised pig in a poke. Unfortunately, proponents had little time or interest for considering the risks in blending prohibitionist agendas with drug reform aspirations. It seemed the intoxication of showcasing world leading reform was too great to be worrying over the detail. Maybe drug reform proponents thought the most important goal was to send out a global message that countries are rolling out world leading drug reform, in an attempt to create a momentum? Whatever the misguided motivation, we are sadly left with an Act that has ultimately extended prohibition and widened the scope of the drug wars. I’m sure reformers didn’t intend this.

So the real lessons from here in New Zealand are: don’t get high on drug reform; think critically about what is being proposed; be willing to ask the tough critical questions; and don’t be tempted to form an alliance with prohibitionists on some shared pseudo agenda, simply to get drug reform legislation passed. If we have learned nothing else from the drug wars, it is that a non-negotiable principle in any reform, must be that personal possession of any substance must never be an offence, but our ‘world leading’ kiwi drug ‘reform’ has succeeded in outlawing personal possession of all new psychoactive drugs – even those not yet invented.

Bad drug laws are hard to change, and here in New Zealand, we now have two bad drug laws: the Misuse of Drug Act 1975; and the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 which has effectively extended the net of prohibition.

Julian Buchanan is Associate Professor of Criminology at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, Kelburn Campus, Wellington, 6140 Aotearoa New Zealand

julianbuchanan@gmail.com

The demons in drug law reform: A critical look at regulation and stigma

drug reform, harm reduction, drugs, legalisation, stigma, regularion, addicts, substance misuse
Will reform get caught in the web of Prohibition?

 

Regulation – the promised land?

At a time when it is now widely accepted we need to manage drugs differently, because the prohibition of particular drugs has caused more damage than the drugs the state was purported to be protecting us from, there is a risk drug reformers seize any offers of apparent positive change – without thinking more critically about what is on offer. After decades of frustration from the archaic criminalisation of possession of particular drugs, while other more dangerous legal drugs went under the radar, some level of drug reform now appears likely, and there is a rally call to unite under the the very broad umbrella of drug ‘regulation’ as the way ahead.

The main thrust of prioritising regulation appears to be we need to get the drug market out of the hands of the criminal underworld. I wouldn’t disagree with taking drugs out of the hands of gangsters, however, let’s be clear here, most damage suffered by people who use illicit drugs isn’t caused by the criminal underworld, most damage results from state criminalisation and policing. In the absence of strict state regulation the daily activity of growing, making, buying, selling and exchanging goods and services doesn’t inevitably drift into the hands of dangerous criminals who manage business with guns, knives and baseball bats, but extreme law enforcement measures and severe penalties, have created a hostile and violent environment within which a lucrative underground drug business must operates.

Why Decriminalisation?

The notion that decriminalisation, rather than regulation, as an initial first step would result in the illegal drug market entirely managed by gangsters is somewhat exaggerated. If we prioritised decriminalisation rather than strict state control (regulation) then cannabis, which is the drug most frequently used illicit drug and the one that occupies most police time, would largely be home grown, shared and exchanged by friends, local growers and societies. Other illicit drugs that are not easily ‘home grown’ could, in a more relaxed  transitionary period of drug policy development, be more easily purchased via websites such as Silk Road that operate a consumer rating system, not dissimilar to TradeMe or Ebay. Not perfect, not properly regulated, but this can hardly be described as a threatening market ruled by violence, exploitation and gangsters. The present criminal sub-culture that surrounds the illicit drug market has much more to do with the environment created by fierce law enforcement and prohibition than any preferred pattern of operation by producers, buyers and sellers of drugs, and little to do with the product on sale.

Decriminalisation as a first step towards living with drugs would importantly protect users (particularly the poor, indigenous people and people of colour who are targeted by law enforcement agencies) from police stop and searches, drug related arrests, penalties and incarceration. Drug users would be free from the serious and life long damage of a drug conviction. This would provide more time to look critically and carefully at drug market regulation.  The history of regulation involving legal substances alcohol and tobacco has not exactly inspired confidence. The recent significant increase in drug overdose deaths in the USA due largely to regulated painkilling drugs featured in the article below is a reminder of the serious problems that can arise – despite regulation.

painkillers, pharmaceuticals, prescribed, drugs

The Carrot of Tackling Stigma

If multi-national corporations, and in the example above BigPharma, have unbridled control and extensive freedom to promote and distribute their commercial drug products, major problems can arise from the culture and patterns of drug use. In addition to highlighting the problem of fatal overdoses in the USA the article promotes the need to tackle the stigma of addiction. So after years of trying to combat stigma, discrimination and hostility towards people who use illicit drugs, drug reformers now have the support of the all-powerful USA to unite and push to remove stigma from addiction. An attractive proposition – how could we disagree with removing stigma, surely it’s a campaign worth joining? In and of itself, it certainly would be, but If we look closely, the momentum in the USA to remove stigma is strongly tied with a commitment to promote and embrace the abstinence based disease model of addiction – and the burgeoning rehab and drug testing industry associated with it.

This commitment to the disease and abstinence model has been reinforced by recent high profile appointments in the US drugs field of ‘recovering addicts’ such as Mr. Botticelli the Drug Czar, who will lead the campaign to end the stigma of addiction by pushing for a global adoption of the twelve steps disease model of addiction where the ‘sick’ will forever be in recovery and will be required to live a life of sobriety. No thanks. Like the US campaign to end stigma that has a worrying sting in the tail (promoting abstinence and the adoption of a disease model of addiction), the drive towards drug regulation may also contain some nasty surprises. Strict state regulation per se is a dangerous path to follow, much depends upon what state controls and punishments are imposed. The devil is in the detail and it seems somewhat strange to immediately place trust in the perpetrator to become the new arbitrator and designer of drug control regulations. Under the guise of protecting the individual from the potential harm of illicit drugs the paternalistic state has been trusted with powers over the sovereignty of what a person can consume in their own body. This trust has been misplaced, and these law enforcement powers have been woefully abused. The war on illicit drugs will be remembered with great shame and incredulity in history, and lessons should be learned from this breach of human rights.

New Zealand Psychoactive Substances Regulation

A worrying example of a regulatory model widely promoted by some drug reformers, is the New Zealand Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 which ‘regulated’ legal highs. Under this model, instead of all substances being legal to possess (unless specified and banned under the NZ Misuse of Drugs Act 1975), all psychoactive substances in New Zealand are now illegal to possess unless approved by the state and purchased from an approved commercial seller. In this model of regulation personal possession of any ‘unregulated’ psychoactive substance is an offence that carries a $500 fine, while supply of any unregulated substance is an offence that can lead to two years in prison. Doesn’t this sound a little like repackaged prohibition? The degree of perceived threat posed by unregulated psychoactive substances is such that in order to prevent unregulated supplies New Zealand police have been issued with new intrusive warrantless powers for substances that were previously legal:

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 11.57.40 am

What this regulatory model has effectively done is widen the net of prohibition, state control and punishment in New Zealand to include every new psychoactive substance. This raises further important questions regarding how we define what is a psychoactive substance.

After thirty years of working in the drugs field and seeing the terrible damage caused by the war on people who use illicit drugs, it is clear that more harm has been caused by drug policy than from drug use, and whatever regulatory model is eventually rolled out, the non-negotiable priority is that we must ensure personal possession is not an offence, civil or criminal. The individual must have the sovereign right over their own body to consume what they wish – without fear, threat or punishment from the state – the human right to choose. Regulations instead should be confined to market related issues such as production, distribution, sale and advertising and seek to protect the rights and freedom of the individual.

Out of the Frying Pan and into the Fire

A united drug reform campaign to end prohibition and stigma sounds like a dream ticket – but not if drug regulation provides the state with new powers to punish personal possession of unregulated substances, and not if combating stigma means enforcing abstinence and rolling out a the 12 step disease model of addiction – that’s akin to jumping out of the ‘frying pan into the fire’.

Hard fought campaigns for drug law change should not be squandered. For forty years the UK Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and in New Zealand Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 have been impervious to any positive reform and this illustrates just how difficult it might be to make positive amendments to any new drug legislation. Whereas, punitive orientated amendments to drug laws have been much easier to achieve. Considerable caution should therefore be exercised before supporting any new drug laws.

This war between drugs (legal vs illegal) maintained by a relentless, oppressive and robust global drug apartheid, must collapse, like slavery, like the Berlin wall and the South African racial apartheid. The global human and environmental damage caused by the war on illegal drugs is comparable to these terrible historic injustices, and similarly the insidious legacy of propaganda, lies and prejudice will take many decades to dispel.

The legal drug industry profiteers realise support from the law enforcement regime of the drug apartheid is in its final chapter, and we observe a strategic shift and reconfiguration taking place to secure new civil controls through abstinence, drug testing and a disease model. As drug reformers we need to push for revolutionary reform at this critical moment in time, and demand a rational, evidenced based approach to drug policy with human rights and harm reduction at the centre. The campaign to end drug prohibition should not be dissipated by an invitation to cannabis to join the elite substances on the privileged and powerful side of the drug apartheid, nor by the offer to replace prohibition with strict state regulation that incorporates punishment for unapproved possession. No, tweaking or transforming the present corrupt model rooted in racism, self-interest and misinformation is not an option. Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 9.29.09 am

The Way Ahead?

The first and foremost change to reduce harm and restore human rights is to prioritise the decriminalisation of personal possession of all substances. Once the human right to possess and consume what an individual chooses with their own body is restored, without fear, threat or punishment from the state, then the complex and tricky road of developing appropriate drug market regulations can begin, but there are a number of potential threats to derail this much needed drug policy change as illustrated in the graphic above. Drug policy change is now possible and indeed likely, but we need to make sure the opportunity is not squandered or hijacked by drug reform entrepreneurs because it could be another four decades before the next opportunity arises.

by Julian Buchanan 7th October 2014

Julian Buchanan is Associate Professor at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

 

 

DRUGO: The prohibition lie that there’s only one drug dragon

by Julian Buchanan Wednesday 27th August 2014

 

Drugo, drugs, alcohol, decriminalisation, GCDP, legalisation, prohibition, reform
Does this video perpetuate the myth that drugs are only the illegal substances?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a thought-provoking animation.

It Illustrates well that prohibition, incarceration and fierce law enforcement have failed to deter the supply or use of banned drugs (depicted by DRUGO the dragon).  However, prohibition has succeeded in causing more collateral damage than banned drugs ever could [see]. While the analogy in this animation helpfully exposes the failure of prohibition to prevent banned drug use, it is also somewhat misleading. The analogy adopts and sustains some of the fundamental myths underpinning the war on ‘drugs’.

DRUGO, the outlawed and persecuted dragon in the animation is demonized, shunned and presented as the only dragon that exists. However, DRUGO’s ex-partner, better known as LEGALO the dragon (alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, pharmaceutical drugs, food drugs etc) – has been living like royalty in the kingdom, fully accommodated, promoted, integrated and supported by Kings and Queens across the nations. Indeed, LEGALO the dragon, has been so favoured among the people that they have forgotten LEGALO is actually a dragon! LEGALO has been airbrushed out of the animation as if DRUGO & LEGALO were never partners as if LEGALO never existed or somehow isn’t a dragon like DRUGO.

Worryingly the animation goes on to suggest a world without DRUGO would be a desirable utopia (seriously?), then pragmatically concedes it might be better to learn to live with DRUGO as we can’t eliminate him. Suggesting a world without cannabis, opiates, LSD, cocaine etc., might in some way be desirable is disturbing and worrying. The health and social benefits of those substances listed by the UN in the 1960s as dangerous are significant and widespread, and the world would suffer considerably without them. Imagine people dying of cancer denied the painkilling benefits of opioids.  Also, to suggest that these drugs are the inherent problem is a seriously misleading inference. Banned drugs have never been the main cause of the problem – it is drug policies and cultures that have caused the main problems.

 

“Banned drugs have never been the main cause of the problem – it is drug policies and cultures that have caused the main problems.”

 

By contrast to the privileged LEGALO, DRUGO is presented as a dangerous beast that causes harm but might cause less harm if we manage him better. However, the animation is ominously silent about the cultural accommodation and privilege enjoyed by LEGALO and this feeds into the distorted dominant discourses on what we have come to see and understand as ‘drugs’. It perpetuates the unscientific bifurcation between illicit and legal drugs.  It unhelpfully supports the social construct of ‘drugs’ as banned substances, rather than psycho-active substances. Misleadingly, it presents all banned drugs as inherently dangerous and by omission hides the risks posed by legally approved drugs.

The Global Commission of Drug Policy has made a remarkable and helpful contribution to promoting drug reform and I applaud them, however, while this animation is made with good intentions and will no doubt encourage many positive outcomes in terms of beginning a debate – if genuine and lasting drug policy reform is to occur we need to acknowledge and indeed address, the propaganda, misinformation and lies at the heart of the problem.

There has never been a war on the drugs, society depends on drugs and uses them liberally. What we have is a war against a particular drug dragon (DRUGO). This is somewhat ironic when the other drug dragon (LEGALO) is more powerful and dangerous and goes unrecognized as a dragon. The video suggests there is only one threat and only one dragon.

 

“Misleadingly, it presents all banned drugs as inherently dangerous and by omission hides the risks posed by legally approved drugs.”

 

 

So this animation sidesteps the crux of the problem – the fiercely imposed drug apartheid that accommodates LEGALO and seeks to destroy DRUGO. It is a system upheld by propaganda, myths and misinformation, that results in a hostile and irrational rejection of illicit drugs and indeed illicit drug users. If we are to tackle the drug apartheid we must acknowledge and address the institutionalized inequalities, the abuse of power and the false assumption that have created this untenable bifurcation of substances.

It’s ironic too because the animation suggests society is hostile to drugs and needs to learn to be more tolerant and accommodating of drugs. When in reality society is probably more pro-drugs and using more substances now than it’s ever done with BigPharma and BigLegalDrugsBusiness readily supplying and encouraging (legal) drug use at every available occasion possible. But then we are led to believe that people using LEGALO like those in this video aren’t taking drugs – are they?

There is a need for a more honest, mature and informed discussion on what we call ‘drugs’. A debate that acknowledges the oppressive, discriminatory and hypocritical position of drug laws, policies. A debate that includes legal substances – which are often more dangerous than illicit drugs. A debate that is rooted in science, reason, evidence, and research. A debate that exposes and challenges the flawed and misinformed prohibition discourse, rather than accommodate it.

Let that debate begin soon.

 
Julian Buchanan
Julian Buchanan is Associate Professor at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.
julianbuchanan@gmail.com

Ending Drug Prohibition with a Hangover? Global Perspectives

 

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 11.36.49 am

 

Ending Drug Prohibition with a Hangover? Global Perspectives.

The Community Justice Portal 11th Annual Public Lecture

Sheffield Hallam University, England, 22nd May 2014 60 minute Podcast

We have not had a War on Drugs, nor has the use of drugs for pleasure been prohibited. The 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs imposed strict controls and punishments on particular substances while other dangerous drugs (alcohol and tobacco in particular) were granted a privileged and promoted status.

This socially constructed bifurcation of substances established a Drugs Apartheid that outlawed particular drugs so what we have is a ‘War between Drugs’ that ultimately became a war on people who used substances that didn’t have government approval. Black and Minority Ethnic groups and the discarded working class have been major casualties in this war. Radical drug law reform rooted in scientific evidence and human rights is needed to end the oppressive and unjust drug laws that have caused more harm than good.

To follow the PREZI presentation while listening to the Podcast go to:

http://www.cjp.org.uk/events/cjp-lectures/cjp-lecture-2014/cjp-lecture-2014-presentation/

Drunk Driving More Deadly than Drugged Driving by Far

See on Scoop.itDrugs, Society, Human Rights & Justice

A new study finds drunk driving 9 times likelier to kill than drugged driving.

Julian Buchanan‘s insight:

We need an evidence based approach to drug driving and don’t want to repeat the punitive populist ignorance  that has been driving drug policy

See on www.psychologytoday.com

Metropolitan Police UK releases ‘alarming’ strip-search figures

See on Scoop.itDrugs, Society, Human Rights & Justice

People from black and minority ethnic backgrounds account for more than half of those strip-searched by the Metropolitan Police in the past three years, according to “extremely alarming” figures collected by the force.

See on www.independent.co.uk

ARTICLE: Student Drug Testing vs Positive School Climates: Longitudinal Study on Impact of drug behaviour

See on Scoop.itDrugs, Society, Human Rights & Justice

Conclusions: Student drug testing appears to be less associated with substance use than positive school climates. Nevertheless, even favorable school climates may not be able to influence the use of alcohol, which appears to be quite normative in this age group. (J. Stud. Alcohol Drugs, 75, 65–73, 2014)

Julian Buchanan‘s insight:

Drug Testing Students  – a good example of policy led research … that is, there was no evidence to support drug testing of students the policy was not research led -it was policy led (probably to appease a punitive populist political agenda). Now having implemented the drug testing approach (lucrative business btw) research is done to try to support it.

 

Existing research and practice wisdom would indicate it was not a scheme worth exploring in the first place.

See on www.jsad.com

Caffeine pill ‘could boost memory’

See on Scoop.itDrugs, Society, Human Rights & Justice

A US study has raised the possibility that we may one day rely on caffeine to boost memory as well as to wake up. The research, published in Nature Neuroscience, tested the memories of 160 people over 24 hours. It found those who took caffeine tablets, rather than dummy pills, fared better on the memory tests.

Julian Buchanan‘s insight:

Funny how research on legal drugs can explore the positive benefits whereas research on illegal drugs is confined to examining negative consequences.

I wonder if this will result in a cry for banning the drug in examinations and a role of out exam drug testing … in the same crazy way it we have responded to illegal drugs? I’m sure it wont. And wish it didn’t for illegal drugs.

See on www.bbc.co.uk

ARTICLE: Student Drug Testing vs Positive School Climates: Longitudinal Study on Impact of drug behaviour

See on Scoop.itDrugs, Society, Human Rights & Justice

Conclusions: Student drug testing appears to be less associated with substance use than positive school climates. Nevertheless, even favorable school climates may not be able to influence the use of alcohol, which appears to be quite normative in this age group. (J. Stud. Alcohol Drugs, 75, 65–73, 2014)

Julian Buchanan‘s insight:

Drug Testing Students  – a good example of policy led research … that is, there was no evidence to support drug testing of students the policy was not research led -it was policy led (probably to appease a punitive populist political agenda). Now having implemented the drug testing approach (lucrative business btw) research is done to try to support it.

 

Existing research and practice wisdom would indicate it was not a scheme worth exploring in the first place.

See on www.jsad.com

ARTICLE: Under the influence | BMJ – the power of the industry to influence policy

See on Scoop.itDrugs, Society, Human Rights & Justice

Julian Buchanan‘s insight:

If drug and alcohol policy is not based on evidence (and it isn’t) then churning out copious evidence that only gets sidelined is not going to bring about policy change – future policy change rests with informing the public rather than fellow researchers, academics and politicians. Cannabis is a case in point.

See on www.bmj.com