Julian Buchanan

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Colluding with Prohibitionists to Broker Reform?

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‘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.’ 


In my view 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 – which the state encourages us to 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 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 minority groups for possession of unregulated 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

Ending Prohibition by Incremental Change or Abolition?

by Julian Buchanan (updated Dec 2016)
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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 major injustice such as the Drug War, 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!

15 reasons why the drug war is actually a great success! by @CounterPunchOrg

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

The Drug War would indeed be a failure if its real function was to reduce drug consumption or drug-related violence. But the success or failure of state policies is rightly judged by the extent to which they promote the interests served by the state. The Drug War is a failure only if the state exists to serve you.

Julian Buchanan‘s insight:

Unintended consequences or deliberate strategy? Either why some have a vested interest in continuing the war on drugs.

See on www.counterpunch.org

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