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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.
The so called ‘War on Drugs’ never existed. The idea that there is or has been a war against drugs is a lie, it’s classic prohibition propaganda. There has never been a campaign against drugs. Let me explain. Society and governments have always appreciated the wide ranging benefits and pleasures derived from drugs. Drugs have never been as popular as they are now. The availability, promotion and use of pharmaceutical and legally approved drugs such as caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and sugar, has never been greater. However, prohibition propaganda has conveniently resulted in these drugs escaping under the radar of the prohibitionist drug discourse, and these substances are incorrectly, not perceived as drugs.
Rather than a War on Drugs, what we have is a Drug War, a hostile war waged by the proponents of approved drugs against anyone using unapproved drugs. More accurately, a process better conceptualised as a politically driven Drug Apartheid; an arbitrary and illogical separation, not of people, but of drugs. This distinction between these two sets of drugs has no rational basis, it has no science or evidence to support it, neither is it based on the risk of harm. Under the strictly enforced Drug Apartheid alcohol, sugar, tobacco and caffeine enjoy privilege, power and promotion, while unapproved drugs are outlawed and anyone found involved in possession, production or supply risks stigma, criminalisation and punishment, including life imprisonment and the death penalty. This brutal, inhumane and damaging system that impacts negatively on individuals, families, communities and nations, is perpetuated because society has been successfully indoctrinated (at a personal, cultural and institutional level), to believe a social construction of ‘drugs’.
Anyone seeking to expose or challenge the drug apartheid, risks being ridiculed, and is vulnerable to public humiliation, as experienced by Professor David Nutt. The unwarranted and ill-founded attack on David Nutt was no isolated incident. Further, to deter any association with outlawed drugs, armed forces, customs officials, and police invest massive energy and resources, while magistrates and Judges impose some of the severest sentences available to the courts for drug violations. Such is the power of the drug apartheid, that a criminal conviction for using the ‘wrong drug’ results in life-long consequences for travel, employment, housing, relationship and opportunities. The ever increasing business opportunities and technologies, spawned from the drug apartheid, drug testing (urine, blood, hair, sweat, saliva, and waste water!), has enabled the oppressive regime to extend beyond law enforcement agencies, to the civil arena, so that surveillance, monitoring and sanctions to maintain the drug apartheid are now carried out by employers, benefit agencies, schools, colleges and even in homes by parents on their children.
This untenable and indefensible position, of outlawing some drugs and privileging others, was enshrined in the 1961 UN Single Convention, a law that is rooted in moral and politically ideology from the 1930s, 40s & 50s. The decision to isolate a group of substances was never based upon science, reason or evidence. Yet ironically, since it’s inception, drug reformers have tried to end this drug war by engaging ideologically driven politicians, governments and UN bodies with endless streams of evidence, inquiries, research, reports and debates.
This considerable drug reform effort, has for five decades (1960-2010), resulted in no significant drug law or policy change by any major advanced western capitalist country, – apart from some US state privileging cannabis for entirely different reasons. The vast array of campaigns, reports, research, presentations, inquiries, reviews, and publications have for decades been consigned to a vacuum, while the increasingly wealthy and all powerful multi-national companies with a vested interest in maintaining the drug apartheid, have worked closely alongside politicians and government agencies, to maintain drug policy inertia through propaganda, procrastination, misinformation and distortion. Indeed prohibition benefits many groups and organisations.
A recent US opinion poll (the General Social Survey), that explores support for cannabis legalisation, indicates that for almost 40 years (1970-2007) public interest in legalising cannabis changed little, fluctuating between 16% and 33% during that period. However, in the seven year period since 2007, support for legalisation has risen rapidly from 31% to 52%. How do we make sense of this dramatic shift?
One influential contributing factor over this period, has been the global and widespread increased access to the internet, and the mass engagement with social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Scoop.it, LinkenIn and YouTube. Social media provides an alternative source to information, evidence and peer exchange, and has I believe, played a significant part in enabling the wider public to gain access to independent, research based knowledge and reason, necessary to critically consider and question the basis of the Drug Policy Sham. In particular, the widespread dissemination of research evidence, facts and case stories (such as Charlotte Figi), about cannabis to the public, has resulted in long overdue, and much needed calls for decriminalisation and legalisation, to allow people suffering with life limiting illnesses, that fail to respond to medicine, to explore possible benefits from cannabis, and sensibly too, to allow recreational use of cannabis. Personal possession of cannabis should never have been outlawed, but neither should personal possession of any substance. Every person should in principle have totally rights over their own body and what they consume without threat of harassment, punishment or incarceration. The risks associated with personal consumption of any substance is a health and social care issue, not a law enforcement issue (if it’s an issue at all!).
The public acceptance of cannabis is a very significant shift, indeed, it could mark the ’tipping point’ – the start of the process that could see the end of the drug apartheid. But let’s be clear here, cannabis reform in the US is not occurring because fifty years of research, evidence and debate has finally persuaded politicians the drug war was a mistake, and the politicians are seeking legislative change. No, cannabis is being embraced, essentially because public insight and awareness has significantly increased since 2007, and there has been a shift in public opinion, that has resulted in serious electoral pressure upon politicians to enact cannabis law reform. The drive is coming from the grassroots, it’s not being led by politicians, instead governments are being forced to change by the public and ballot box.
In an era where the interests and activities of multi-national companies and politicians are becoming increasingly enmeshed. An era where democracy seems unresponsive to the needs of the vulnerable, and shows little interest in the protection of the common good, another four decades of inquiries, reports, reviews towards incremental change, would be a grave strategic mistake. The leverage for drug reform will be found, not in trying to persuade politicians or the INCB, UNODC, UNGASS, CND to lead the way on incremental changes which fail to address the underlying fallacies, but rather, by winning over mass public support, by utilising social media to distribute evidence, developing well-informed community movements, regularly disseminating accurate information, sharing influential case studies and rallying a huge social movement and public outcry that demands political change and transformation. The Drug War fallacies spawned by UN, have created a global system of propaganda and prohibition. This system needs exposing and ending, it is misguided to imagine it can provide foundations that can be adjusted and reformed incrementally to deliver drug legalisation.
Despite this encouraging drug law reform development, in respect of cannabis, the attempts towards genuine global drug reform could easily be thwarted. If, as drug reformers, we are not clear in our arguments and strategies for reform, which should be firmly rooted in protecting human rights and promoting harm reduction, cannabis will simply be invited to join the other privileged legal drugs in the drug apartheid. This could be a positive outcome for: big business, who can extend their repertoire and profit from the commercial sale of cannabis; for the state, who can profit from taxes, as well as continue to utilise drug laws as a key control mechanism for stopping, searching, arresting and punishing the poor, indigenous and minority ethnic groups; and the business enterprises spawned from the drug wars, (the industrial penal complex, the drug testing industry and the drug treatment industries). In this pivotal period for drug reform, simply privileging cannabis and failing to address the fundamentally flawed system of drug control would amount to colluding with a corrupt system.
Some drug reform entrepreneurs may attempt to hail privileging cannabis as an incremental step in the right direction, but the widespread and growing public support for decriminalisation, (and ultimately the regulation of all drugs), could be dissipated by this tokenistic gesture to invite cannabis to sit around the table of the powerful. While alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and maybe cannabis enjoy privileged status, the scourge, oppression and madness of a drug apartheid, remains an affront to human rights, a system of punishment and control that will continue to haunt this generation and future generations to come, one that will be remembered shamefully in history. The international system of drug control is deeply flawed and damaging to individuals, communities and countries. There is no ‘World Drugs Problem’ what we have is a UN led World Drug Policy Problem. It needs naming, exposing and dismantling. There can be no minor adjustments, or so-called incremental steps to accommodate the status quo, abolition is what is required not compromise.
This period of history will be recalled for the needless self-inflicted harm, imposed across the globe by a drug apartheid, in which drug laws and drug policy have caused considerably more harm than the drugs ever could.