Julian Buchanan

Home » Posts tagged 'drug misuse'

Tag Archives: drug misuse

Colluding with Prohibitionists to Broker Reform?

DSCN8305

‘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

Drug Testing: Misleading Simplicity Masking Complex Issues


4440720319_2b3ee28e61

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.

Conclusion

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

Ending Prohibition by Incremental Change or Abolition?

by Julian Buchanan (updated Dec 2016)
screen-shot-2016-12-04-at-12-00-06-pm

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!

Addiction as a Response to Enduring Personal and Structural Alienation

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

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:

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.


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. 

Power, Democracy and Drug Reform: Challenging the ‘War on Drugs’

 

The so called ‘War on Drugs’ never existed. There has never been a campaign against drugs. Society and governments appreciate the benefits and pleasures derived from drugs. Drugs have never been as popular as they are now. The overall availability, promotion and use of pharmaceutical and legal highs such as caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and sugar, has never been greater. These drugs escaped under the radar of the prohibitionist drug discourse that conveniently excludes them.

What we have is a drug war, a war between drugs, or more accurately, a process best understood as a politically driven Drug Apartheid; an arbitrary separation, not of people, but of drugs, where alcohol, tobacco and caffeine enjoy privilege, power and promotion, while ‘controlled’ drugs – portrayed as unpredictable, threatening and dangerous – are subject to propaganda, misinformation and marginalisation. Society has been successfully indoctrinated, at a personal, cultural and institutional level, to believe this unfounded, unscientific and deeply damaging social construction of ‘drugs’.

Nutt, Legalisation, harm reduction, Drug reform, decriminalisation, addict, addiction, regulation, stigma

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.

marijuana, weed, cannabis, legalisation, harm reduction, reform, drugs

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.

drug reform, legalisation, decriminalisation, harm reduction, human rights

Human Rights and Harm Reduction must be central in all reform.

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.

by Julian Buchanan, Associate Professor, Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand, 7th March 2015 (updated 26th April 2016)

Ending Drug Prohibition with a Hangover? Global Perspectives

 

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 11.36.49 am

 

Ending Drug Prohibition with a Hangover? Global Perspectives.

The Community Justice Portal 11th Annual Public Lecture

Sheffield Hallam University, England, 22nd May 2014 60 minute Podcast

We have not had a War on Drugs, nor has the use of drugs for pleasure been prohibited. The 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs imposed strict controls and punishments on particular substances while other dangerous drugs (alcohol and tobacco in particular) were granted a privileged and promoted status.

This socially constructed bifurcation of substances established a Drugs Apartheid that outlawed particular drugs so what we have is a ‘War between Drugs’ that ultimately became a war on people who used substances that didn’t have government approval. Black and Minority Ethnic groups and the discarded working class have been major casualties in this war. Radical drug law reform rooted in scientific evidence and human rights is needed to end the oppressive and unjust drug laws that have caused more harm than good.

To follow the PREZI presentation while listening to the Podcast go to:

http://www.cjp.org.uk/events/cjp-lectures/cjp-lecture-2014/cjp-lecture-2014-presentation/

Powerpoint on Drug Testing

%d bloggers like this: