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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 must 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.
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:
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 starting 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?
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 refers 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 has 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 product of ill-conceived drug policy, they are not an inherent consequence of ‘drugs’.
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 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.
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 regulation 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 are 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.
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 drug 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
by Julian Buchanan (updated Dec 2016)
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.
*With thanks to Jerry Dorey for helpful edits and suggestions!
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.
Unintended consequences or deliberate strategy? Either why some have a vested interest in continuing the war on drugs.
See on www.counterpunch.org