Julian Buchanan

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Colluding with Prohibitionists to Broker Reform?


‘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

Drifting towards Prohibition 2.0 under the guise of reform

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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


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; 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 is both seductive and dangerous. In recent decades there has been a growing tendency to stifle debate on complex issues reducing issues to simple binary opposites such as ‘you are either for us or against us’.

In respect of drug taking this resulted in the bifurcation of drugs in which illicit drugs (such as heroin, cannabis and cocaine) were presented as dangerous, immoral and likely to lead to addiction, whereas licit drugs (such as caffeine, alcohol and tobacco) by comparison were not classed as drugs at all, the risks were minimised and use was normalised. Despite the mounting evidence concerning the dangers of licit drugs and the relative safety by comparison of some illicit drugs the over simplistic binary approach continues to dominate law, policy and practice. People that use licit drugs still take offence at being considered a ‘drug user’, if they develop physical, social and psychological problems with licit drugs are never referred to as ‘addicts’, junkies or problem drug users. More people are killed directly by tobacco and alcohol than all the other illegal drug deaths combined, but it’s illicit drugs that will not be tolerated and drug testing is a key weapon to encourage and enforce (illicit) drug free lives.


The Appeal of the Drug Test

Legal and illegal drugs can for a small proportion of people result in major health and social problems – in extreme cases with devastating and fatal consequences. It is understandable that a concern to prevent such tragedies has resulted in a growing interest in drug testing. The technology appears to offer some tempting evidence and insight. Numerous companies sell a wide range of equipment to test saliva, hair, perspiration, blood and urine for a variety of drugs. Drug testing has long history of use with the substitute prescribing initially to ensure that people issued with a clean legal supply have actually used illicit drugs and some regimes using on-going drug tests for confirmation and confrontation within the ‘treatment’ process.

More recently drug-testing technology has been incorporated in Drug Courts and positive tests invariably lead to warnings, breach and sometimes prison. 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-test 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 certainly appeals at this time of ‘punitive populism’ when binary simplistic approaches dominate, sadly it can also undermine any attempt to engage effectively with the complexity of the issue.

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 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 rare, 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 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 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 accurate information. Well let us assume that the test is 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. Drug use is not indicative of drug misuse.

These contextual details are much more important than the apparent ‘factual’ detail of the presence of a drug in your body. The drug testing technology is only able to provide scientific (but contested) ‘evidence’ that a person is (or is not) drug free. This information risks decontextualize and over-simplifying the issue of illicit drugs to a 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. It 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 flawed, it has a number of adverse and unintended consequences.

Adverse and Unintended Consequences of Drug Testing:

  1. Drug testing draws attention to the substance use rather the person’s context, needs and circumstances. Most people with a drug problem have suffered damaging personal and social circumstances before drugs became an issue, and need considerable help. A pre-occupation with the presence of the drug, risks side-stepping the real underlying issues, which if not addressed, will almost certainly lead to relapse.
  2. An elevated importance to drug testing from key stakeholders can result in a paradigm shift in which abstinence becomes the measure for success. Harm reduction may get lost in the process, and the messy and difficult business of rehabilitation and reintegration is reduced to a simple celebration that the person is drug free.
  3. Currently around 30-70% of young people in most countries have used illicit drugs and most manage to avoid: a criminal record; a drug problem; harm to themselves or others. Widespread random drug testing risks net widening and capturing non-problematic drug users who then risk attracting labels as deviant or addicts which would pose serious damage to future life opportunities and relationships.
  4. Resources for public services are limited and money that could be used to tackle problematic drug use is wasted on expensive drug testing for people who don’t use drugs, or those who use drugs in a non-problematic manner.
  5. Random drug testing of pupils, students and children is misguided, cultural behaviour change is not achieved through policing, confronting and punishing, but through through reliable information, education and dialogue.
  6. The most widely used illicit drug – cannabis – is less harmful than the permissible legal drugs alcohol and tobacco, it is therefore ethically problematic, irrational and hypocritical to drug test for cannabis and not for alcohol and tobacco.
  7. Drug testing regimes with sanctions, such as random drug tests in colleges 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; the losers are honesty, trust and communication.
  8. Tougher and more pervasive drug testing regimes to stamp out illicit drug use help spawn the proliferation of new synthetic designer ‘legal’ highs which avoid detection. Once the new drugs have been detected and outlawed the drug testing ‘net’ widens, new legal highs are developed and the spiral continues. These legal highs may be considerably more dangerous than commonly used illicit drugs.
  9. Some drugs like 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) may inadvertently pressurise some people to switch from the less harmful cannabis to the more dangerous heroin or cocaine.
  10. Drug testing concentrates attention towards illegal drugs and unhelpfully firms up the misguided bifurcation between licit and illicit substances. It is not the use of all illicit drugs that warrants serious attention but it is the misuse of all drugs that warrants specific attention.
  11. A drug test may reduce the risk of people who are intoxicated from using machinery 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.


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 PowerPoint presentation which can be accessed here

Naloxone and the Lethal Dose of Procrastination & Political Inaction

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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, but here in New Zealand 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.

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, the people who inject drugs (PWID) are often even lower down the stigma pecking order, and naloxone is primarily a service for PWID.

In August 2013 fifty-five agencies were represented at an invitiaton-only National Think Tank Event led and coordinating by the New Zealand Drug Foundation. After two days debating priorities, values and strategy, to shape the future of drug policy in Aotearoa, the NZ Drug Foundation produced a 12,000 word vision statement, that became known as the Wellington Declaration – but surprisingly this comprehensive document failed to even mention naloxone.

A year later in August 2014 in it’s Matters of Substance Magazine rather than present a robust case for naloxone distribution the NZ Drug Foundation magazine framed Naloxone take-home as an issue open to debate and offered arguments for and against. This included some  insulting 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”.

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In October 2014 after a new government was elected the NZ Drug Foundation prepared a twenty page Briefing Paper to Parliament designed to identify key drug policy priorities to provide ‘opportunities to make real reductions in drug related harm‘ (p.3). While 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, it astonishingly made no reference or representation to the new government concerning fatal opioid overdoses or the need to distribute naloxone into the hands of users, families and friends.

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With this lack of formal commitment to naloxone 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).

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Belatedly, Matters of Substance published a better informed and considered magazine feature on Naloxone after the embarrassing ‘for or against’ debate, and then in June 2015 the New Zealand Drug Foundation produced a stand alone Naloxone Background Paper. However, while this discussion paper includes some excellent sources and appears to offer a robust argument for reducing overdose, it is also undermined and littered 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: “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 receives training. The briefing paper also aired 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 it further “[naloxone] will lead to greater risk taking behaviour”.

There are other disconcerting aspects buried within what might otherwise appear a solid report arguing for greater naloxone distribution, such as the omission of data concerning the high percentage of overdose deaths that 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 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 priority naloxone training over naloxone distribution. The recommendations in the paper also includes loop holes 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.

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 could have been quite different. It’s New Zealand Drug Foundation in its pivotal drug policy advisory role, that needs to do more to tackle overdose and distribute naloxone.

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

With an alternative emphasis on national drug policy reforms in New Zealand rather than international networking, important drug policy harms could be tackled. Key issues that need tackling here in New Zealand Drug Policy 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 naloxone take home.
3. There is no injectable prescribing, injectors are given oral methadone.
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 lose benefits if they repeatedly test positive for illegal drugs.
8. People with life limiting illnesses are criminalised if caught self medicating with cannabis.
9. The Police and Air Force scour the countryside every year digging up millions of dollars worth cannabis plants.
10. US styled Drug Abstinence Courts which involve 12 step programmes and regular alcohol and drug testing have been established in Auckland.
11. New legislation to enforce Compulsory Assessment & Compulsory Treatment of Addiction has just gone through parliament.
12. The Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 made possession and supply of all NPS an offence – unless approved by the state (none have been approved).

The 2016 and 2017 CND and UNGASS meetings predictably delivered no tangible positive outcomes or progress. It’s now March 2017 and New Zealand users, families and friends are still unable to gain access to naloxone.  Distribution has been agreed in principle, but debates the cost and production of additional health education to accompany the naloxone have delayed distribution. Talks continue with no deadline for completion.

While nations like New Zealand, inexcusably fail to deliver easy to implement drug policy reforms at a national level, and instead invest considerable energy on high maintenance but low outcome international drug policy reform gatherings, serious harms continue. A growing number of drug reformers are recognising the need for genuine policy transformation. It is time to stop talking the talk and start delivering outcomes, one in particular Low Threshold, Easy Access, Naloxone Take Home.

In the meantime, people who use illicit drugs are needlessly suffering, some are dying. No naloxone take home – no excuse, it is literally a matter of life or death.

Julian Buchanan

Dr Julian Buchanan, is a retired Associate Professor, Victoria University of Wellington, Institute of Criminology
31st August 2015 on International Overdose Day. (updated  16th Feb 2017)

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

Twenty Drivers 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.

The evidence presented 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 will a constant and reliable stream of funding sources for endless prevalence studies and evidence 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 as a Response to Enduring Personal and Structural Alienation

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


1. Most harm arising from recreational illicit drug use does not arise from the drug itself but arises from drug policy abuses – the drug laws and policies that do much more harm than good.

2. Whereas chronic problematic drug use and/or addiction are largely caused by personal, social and political dislocation (Alexander 2008), and those struggling with drug centred lifestyles also have to endure considerable harm from drug policy abuse.

I was delighted to be cited by the much respected Owen Jones in his book Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class -an honour, but let me explain further the way I see drug dependence and drug use. Drug taking is not of itself a ‘problem’, so we should have no particular concern on learning about a person using drugs (apart from understandable concern arising from the considerable risks posed by drug policy abuse such as criminalisation), any more than we would upon learning someone was using the legal drugs caffeine or alcohol.

So our concern should be for a small minority who struggle with chronic problematic drug use, (estimated to be only 3-6% of the people who regularly use drugs), who also further suffer considerably from drug policy abuse, such as stigma, discrimination, criminalisation, enforced abstinence, no access to clean, reliable and quality controlled drugs, degrading and poor services.

While anyone can lose control, it is worth noting that most people who do lose control successfully regain control without professional help or medication, however, there are a small group who lack the resources, support networks, agency or life experience, and for this group addiction can become a fixed state which they struggle to move on from. Indeed, for this chronic group ‘addict’ becomes an all embracing internalised identity, a label that defines them, tells others all they need to know about them and all we need to know about 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 particularly seen as a medical problem or a disease. Chronic problematic drug use is largely caused by personal, social, cultural and political pain and suffering (and at times will may also include psychological, physiological and legal issues). This is something I observed working on Merseyside in the mid 1980s as a probation officer  and drug worker, and for subsequent decades researching the topic as an academic.

Experience as a drug worker and academic research tells me chronic problematic drug use is largely driven by enduring personal and structural alienation, factors that were serious issues long before drugs became a problem.

Here are six articles/book chapters you can download where I explore 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

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

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