Drug Policy: Human Rights & Harm Reduction



I’ve been arguing for drug reform for many decades:

Back in 1987

[Please excuse the language used back then]

Promoting a Risk Reduction Approach

‘..from an abstentionist viewpoint … the expectation to give up is pressed from the outset of contact, the client either succumbs to that pressure of expectation and attempts abstinence through ’cold turkey’, ’detoxification programme’ or ’rehabilitation unit’. Unfortunately the degree of success achieved is minimal with by far the majority failing and returning to the drug scene, increasing [probation] officer, family and self, frustration, and feelings of failure. … We have come to believe that a different philosophy should be adopted which incorporates both apparently irreconcilable views onto a scale or ladder of achievable targets. This philosophy begins with the pragmatic statement that ’If it is, at a particular moment in time, impossible to ‘cure‘ a drug addict, one can at least try to create an environment for harm reduction.’

‘The implications of such a statement are that first one must identify those drug ‘abusers’ who are dependent and differentiate from those who are experimental or recreational users. One must also seek to ascertain what clients themselves wish to do, for whilst we might see their drug abuse as problematic, they may see it as the answer to a problem or may not wish to change their abuse for a variety of reasons. If one begins with the stance of ’Risk Reduction’, many more doors are open to engage with the client and discover ways of helping them.’ (Buchanan & Wkye 1987 pp. 123-124)

Buchanan, J. & Wyke, G. (1987) ‘Drug Abuse, Probation Practice and the Specialist Worker’, Probation Journal Vol. 34 No. 4 pp. 123-126


The Need for Empathy, Respect & Care

‘Unfortunately, it seems that when faced with a dependent drug user practitioners have too often assumed they know what the client wants to do (get off heroin), and how it should be done (dry out and go to a rehabilitation centre). Van Billion and Van Emst poignantly highlighted the problem many dependent drug users faced: ‘Heroin addiction seems to elicit from the therapist so much concern, that there is nothing left for the client!’ (1989, p.37). Basic social work principles, which have so often been neglected when working with dependent drug users, should form the foundation of any assessment.’

‘Remaining non-judgemental isn’t easy when working with dependent drug users, but clients must feel understood and accepted. The worker needs to accept and support clients who have no intention of giving up drugs, but simply want help to curb associated lifestyle difficulties. Listening is crucial, but may be inhibited if the worker has preconceived ideas of what the client ought to be saying. This may then lead to jointly agreed goals which reflect more the workers’ expectations than any desires of the clients. Change is unlikely to occur without the full support of the client, and the worker may be guilty of setting the client up to fail.’

‘Relapse back into a chaotic lifestyle needs to be discussed and seen as a real possibility. With each client it should be possible to identify potential high risk situations (triggers). For some clients it may be a particular day of the week when they are likely to have cash in their pocket, for others it may be a particular mood, person or social situation. This would form the basis of future work with the client, assisting and equipping them to develop alternative coping strategies. However, it is important that relapse or struggle is not viewed as a failure, but instead as a learning experience from which greater insights can develop.’ (Buchanan 1991)

Buchanan, J. (1991) ‘Enabling Dependent Drug Users – A Cognitive Behavioural Assessment.’ Practice Vol 5 No.1, 1991 BASW, London P34-46

Discrimination of  Women Drug Users

‘The first conclusion to be drawn is that the assessment of these women drug users in the courts was heavily determined by a gender stereotype which stresses both traditional roles (as wife, mother, carer) and assumed feminine attributes (passivity, irrationality, emotionality) as the components of ’normal’ womanhood.’

‘Decision-making based on such thinking begins with the remand decision and results in the provision of a relatively large pool of women offenders who may be considered for probation administered disposals, particularly probation. Secondly, probation officers appear willing to offer and sentencer’s ready to accept constructions of women drug users which portray them as passive victims of their own irrational behaviour and emotional instability. Whatever the reasons (tactical or otherwise) for probation officers’ collusion in this process, such professional depictions are dangerous in that they pre-empt rather than enlighten a serious examination of women’s actions and responsibilities’ (Buchanan, J., Collett, S. & McMullan, P. 1991 p61)

Buchanan, J., Collett S & McMullan P (1991) ‘Challenging Practice or Challenging Women? Female Offenders and Illicit Drug Use.’ Probation Journal, Vol.38, No.2 June 1991, pp56-62.


The Misguided War on Drugs

‘… the myth that it is possible to win a war on drugs. It gives the illusion that we can eradicate illegal drug use from our society, if only we are willing to try hard enough. The evidence indicates entirely the opposite conclusion – the more you prohibit drugs and push them underground, the more conducive the economic and social environment for a lucrative illegal drug trade.’

‘It is difficult to understand how waging ‘war on drugs’ can continue to be justified, though quite possibly the alternatives may be politically too challenging for this government to consider. Sooner or later an influential western nation will have to lead the way in a radical rethink of international and national drug policy.’ (Buchanan & Young 1998 p. 220)

Decriminalisation Must be Considered

‘Sooner rather than later, the government must address decriminalization seriously, especially in relation to cannabis. Failure to do so is, we believe, creating more problems. Thousands of otherwise ’law-abiding’ citizens are criminalised and they are forced into an underworld of criminal networks and secrecy, which then exposes them to other drugs and other criminal activity.’

‘Ultimately, this [war on drugs] will lead to the same mistaken policies seen in Northern America, where the authorities have effectively been waging war against their own socially excluded communities. Our war on drugs is in danger of becoming a war on drug users – a civil war.’

‘Unless the [drug] strategy changes, the next ten years will see the Government increasingly out of touch with youth culture. Large numbers of drug users will continue to be forced into criminal activity, and a continued policy of prohibition will lead to more dangerous and hostile environments. The illegal drug industry will thrive and becoming increasingly more established and organisationally more business-like.’ (Buchanan & Young 1998 p. 222)

Buchanan, J. & Young L (1998) ‘Failing to Grasp the Nettle: UK Drug Policy’ Probation Journal Vol. 45 No. 4


The Problem with Coercive Push to become Drug Free

‘[The promotion of] populist drug policies that seek to uncover drug users by urine testing and then `offer’ compulsory abstinence-orientated treatment programmes have further isolated problem drug users from mainstream society’ (Buchanan & Young 2000 p.18)

Overhaul Misuse of Drugs Act 1971

‘The war on drugs rhetoric is creating a fracture in society as thousands of otherwise `law abiding’ citizens are criminalized for recreationally using `soft’ drugs, while problem drug users, who tend to be dependent on `hard’ drugs such as cocaine and heroin, are stigmatised and kept isolated within drug subcultures.’

‘A bold and radical rethink of UK drug policy is needed. This should include an overhaul of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, a rational and non-emotive examination of recreational drug use (legal and illegal), serious consideration to decriminalise the possession of any substance for personal use, and the development of strategies that tackle inequality, disadvantage and discrimination to enable social reintegration for problem drug users. … [The] government appears reluctant to engage in an open and constructive dialogue, and unwilling to develop a rational drug policy fitting for 21st century Britain. The consequences are not insignificant.’ (Buchanan & Young 2000 p.19)

Buchanan, J. & Young L (2000) ‘The War on Drugs – A War on Drug Users’ in Drugs, Education, Prevention and Policy Vol. 7 No.4 2000 pp 409-422

Social Exclusion

‘This process of recovery can take many years, with relapse occurring frequently. Once the ‘control phase’ has been reached, recovering drug users who seek social reintegration are frequently prevented from gaining access to non-drug-using social networks and are subtly denied opportunities that are available to others, such as voluntary work, educational courses, employment and housing. This process of structural discrimination we describe as a ‘wall of exclusion’. (Buchanan, J. & Young L 2000a p.161)

Buchanan, J. & Young L (2000a) ‘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, Lisbon, ISBN 92-9168-088-5


Demonising illicit drug use 

‘It is clear then many problem drug users have experienced social exclusion and disadvantage prior to drug taking. For this group the onset of excessive drug taking in early adulthood may be a form of escape when there appears to be no legitimate way of accessing what appears to be widely available to the rest of society. In this sense social exclusion has led to problem drug use. Problem drug use does however, lead to further social exclusion as drug users become subject to ‘othering’ – presented as if they are somehow different to the majority in society (who prefer legalised recreational drugs such as alcohol and tobacco). Yet ironically and hypocritically, compared to some illicit drugs, alcohol and tobacco are potentially more dangerous substances and some of the most serious risks from illegal drugs are caused by their illegality. This othering of illicit drug users is reinforced and institutionalised as the government portrays problem drug users as a menace to society, and seeks to protect ‘us’ from the dangers ‘they’ pose.’ 

Buchanan J (2004) Missing Links: Problem Drug Use and Social Exclusion, Probation Journal Special Edition on Problem Drug Use Vol 51 No.4 pp.387-397


The Harm Caused by Criminalisation is Greater than the Harm Caused by the Drug

‘Additional risks arise when drug possession is made illegal, the user:

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 be 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 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 employment prospects, opportunities for world 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, by a river or 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.’ 

Buchanan J (2009) Understanding and misunderstanding problem drug use: working together, in R Carnwell & J Buchanan (eds) Effective Practice in Health, Social Care & Criminal Justice: A partnership approach, Open University Press, Maidenhead.


Missed Opportunities and Historic Mistakes in Managing and Controlling Drugs

In decades to come future generations will look back to this period in history with incredulity and disbelief at the: inconsistencies and stark contrast in approach towards legal and illegal recreational drug use; at the individual, local, national and global damage caused by prohibition of specific recreational drugs; at the way the war on drugs has become a civil war fuelling stigma, prejudice and discrimination upon particular drug users; and at the hypocrisy as we can sit back and read this article while enjoying a glass of red wine, while at a nearby neighbourhood someone might be facing a prison sentence having been caught smoking their home-grown cannabis. Governments sometimes need to take responsibility and introduce forward-thinking changes for the good of the country that might not always at the time attract popular appeal – this was a real opportunity for the New Labour government – but sadly instead they delivered a rehashed and failed US drug policy which has only prolonged the misguided war on drugs and resulted in a burgeoning prison population. Whichever party is elected on 6 May 2010 there is an urgent need for a fresh approach to drug policy, one which is scientifically evidence-based and informed by experts in the field, rather than one which is populist-based and informed by the tabloid press. (Buchanan 2010 p.259)

Buchanan, J. (2010) Drug policy under New Labour: Prolonging the war on drugs, Probation Journal: The Journal of Community and Criminal Justice, Special Edition: Criminal Justice under New Labour, Vol. 57,  No.3,


Rational Debate on Drugs

Rational Debate on Drugs pic n txt



Using the Psychoactive Substance Act to extend the net of prohibition

drugs, decriminalisation, legalisation, NPS, PSA, legal highs, addict, harm reduction



Is Drug Reform Selling Us Short?

“The UK government claims it is ‘committed to an evidence-based approach, high quality scientific advice in this complex field is therefore of the utmost importance’ (Home Office, 2010: 9), however, this article has demonstrated there is a paucity of evidence to support this claim. Drug policy nevertheless, seeks to vindicate itself by continuing to assert that illicit drugs cause a wide range of harms, and that drug prohibition protects society from these harms, but to the contrary, the evidence indicates the present drug policy is causing more harm and offering little or no benefits to either users or non-users.

Drug policy premised on media driven myth, flawed assumptions and political populism lacks credibility and legitimacy. The UK drug policy imbues prohibited drugs with innate powers to cause crime, poverty, family and community breakdown, disease and even death, and drugs have become society’s scapegoat (Szasz, 2003). This demonization of drugs conveniently detracts from the more complex personal, social and structural drivers of addiction, such as poverty and social exclusion (MacGregor and Thickett, 2011); while it also avoids addressing the hypocrisy inherent in the bifurcation of substances (Buchanan, 2009).

This article contends recent shifts towards selective regulation, decriminalization or legalization fail to tackle fundamental drug war fallacies, and perpetuate a discourse rooted in prohibition rather than scientific evidence and reason. Selectively inviting particular drugs to join alcohol, caffeine and tobacco as commercial products is a dubious and uncertain pathway towards dismantling prohibition. Reform advocates may argue these alternative drug policies represent a progressive incremental movement – but we contend that these amendments symbolize the ‘metamorphosis of prohibition’, and are rooted in the drug policy malaise. Indeed, tweaking the flawed model risks obfuscating the fundamental contradictions and hypocrisy at the heart of prohibition and the 1961 UN Single Convention.

We would argue that the 1961 Convention was not a mistake; it was a deliberate strategy to protect the privileged position of the preferred drugs, its users and the associated industries dominating the western market in the 1950/1960s. Prohibition created the ‘drug apartheid’, a brutal system of inclusion and exclusion, rooted in the politics and culture of maintaining power and privilege. The contradictions between legal and illegal drugs and the arbitrary classification of drugs in the UK Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 suggest this law is no longer fit for purpose and should be repealed not reformed. There is a need to challenge the social construction of ‘drugs’ and the ‘drug user’, a need to develop a new approach that is rooted in human rights, health and social care and not prohibition, criminalization and punishment. Drug reform must engage in the difficult and complex process of exploring how best to legalize and regulate all  psychoactive substances that are currently legal and illegal, to develop a drug policy that seeks to embrace and accommodate the use of all  drugs in society rather than prevent, deny or privilege particular drug use. Drug reformers who see incremental adaptations to existing drug policy as stepping stones towards ending prohibition should at the very least be clear about the transitory nature of such ‘reforms’, and vocal and explicit about long-term goals. This is however, a risky strategy that too often involves compromising key principles and confusing important issues to achieve short-term gains. Each incremental step must be part of dismantling the drug apartheid; it cannot be seen to be colluding with or supporting ongoing systemic misinformation, unsound policies and practices that are rooted in prohibition.

The current raft of reforms fail to expose and challenge the very principles that underpin prohibition; instead they perpetuate the flawed discourse upholding it. The drug apartheid is a deeply divisive and damaging system that cannot be adapted, but must be dismantled. Abolition inevitably requires a process of transition; it could begin with the decriminalization of all possession, cultivation and production for personal use – while acknowledging and planning a model of regulation to address the ongoing harm caused by the perpetuation of wider prohibition and the continued criminalization of those involved in manufacture and supply. Unless a mature, scientific and evidence-based approach to drug policy reform is adopted that clearly starts to expose, challenge and dismantle the very foundations of the drug apartheid any new regulatory framework or so called reform is arguably little more than repackaged prohibition.”




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