Julian Buchanan

Home » Posts tagged 'problematic drug use'

Tag Archives: problematic drug use


Breaking Free From Prohibition: A Human Rights Approach to Successful Drug Reform

4754231502_940e0fe7f1_zImage courtesy of Connor Tarter


by Julian Buchanan 15th May 2018



We have a global drug policy problem

‘Drug’ P
rohibition is an archaic system rooted in the 1950s that’s had a devastating global impact upon individuals, families, communities and countries. In decades to come, it will be remembered as one of the most arbitrary, barbaric and brutal systems of oppression in recent history.

Offensive prejudices and beliefs prevalent in the 1950s directed towards indigenous people, homosexuality, black people, women, mental illness and learning disabilities resulted in institutionalised oppression of these groups. State sanctioned discrimination legitimised and normalised oppression of these groups at a structural, cultural and at an individual level. Thankfully, seven decades later these offensive prejudices, nurtured by ignorance, misinformation and lies, have been successfully exposed and challenged, and such attitudes are no longer socially acceptable, however, the legacy still pervades and there remains much work to be done.

Those oppressive attitudes in the 1950s directed towards people who used ‘drugs’ became enshrined in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs – and quite remarkably, by contrast, little has changed. Arguably, discrimination fuelled by ignorance, misinformation and lies is worse today than it was in the 1950s, as surveillance, enforcement and exclusionary measures have extended beyond the criminal realm into the civil domain, with drug testing people on welfare benefits, students, motorists and employees.


“What we have come to regard as ‘drugs’ is a social and cultural construct lacking any pharmacological evidence base.”


During this period we have been conned and coerced into embracing and promoting state approved drugs (alcohol, caffeine, tobacco & sugar), and to view with disdain all substances banned by the government. This sharp distinction between state approved and state banned drugs has no scientific or pharmacological foundation to support it, it is entirely based on political propaganda. What is commonly referred to as ‘drugs’ is simply a list of substances arbitrarily excluded for political reasons. Despite the lack of evidence to support this distinction between substances, banned drugs have been demonised by attributing blame upon the drug for the devastating damage caused by prohibition, or by a circular government argument that: ‘drugs are dangerous and the evidence that they are dangerous, is that they are illegal’.

What we have come to regard as ‘drugs’ is a social and cultural construct lacking any pharmacological evidence base. Perversely, banned substances (if under the same quality control conditions as state-approved drugs), are generally less physically, socially and psychologically harmful, – and arguably more pleasurable and desirable. Further, there are medical benefits to many banned drugs that have been to denied to patients, leaving some people with epilepsy, PTSD, depression, autism, Alzheimer’s, MS, Parkinson’s and cancer, to needlessly suffer, or alternatively risk criminalisation and punishment.

Prohibition too has distorted and thwarted our thinking on drug prevention, drug education and drug treatment which have instead become preoccupied with avoiding ‘drugs’, lifelong abstinence to become ‘clean’, and stigma towards people that use ‘drugs’. In some instances, this prohibitionist dogma has produced damaging and potentially dangerous ‘treatment’.

Arguably, the greatest harms have been meted out by enforcement measures. On an individual level prohibition means users have little idea of the strength of a substance, nor of the content – it could be ‘cut’ with highly toxic ingredients. If there is a quality control issue the purchaser has no legal process for complaint, and if they get into personal difficulties or become seriously intoxicated, they are much less likely to seek assistance for fear of stigma, arrest and/or punishment.


“Prohibition too, has distorted and thwarted our thinking on drug prevention, drug eduction and drug treatment which have instead become preoccupied with avoiding ‘drugs’”



Indeed, one of the greatest threats to life is posed not by drugs, but by a drug conviction. A criminal record for a drug defined crime may result in insurmountable hurdles when seeking employment, education, accommodation, international travel, insurance and relationships. In some countries, a drug conviction can lead to incarceration – even the death penalty. A growing punitiveness has seen Duterte in the Philippines and Trump in the US, both advocate death for drug dealers, which in the Philippines appears to have been interpreted as legitimating the killing of suspects without trial or due process. This barbaric reaction to suspected drug dealers excludes of course, without any sense of irony or hypocrisy, those who deal in state-approved drugs.

‘Drug’ enforcement has been deeply divisive – targeting the poor, the indigenous, people of colour, and people from black and minority ethnic groups (BME), despite evidence that levels of drug use are similar across most communities. This discriminatory policing has resulted in deeply worrying disparities in terms of over-representation of indigenous people and people of colour in prison, particularly in New Zealand, Australia, UK & USA. So bad is the problem for ‘people of colour’ in the USA, Professor Michelle Alexander has referred to drug law enforcement as the New Jim Crow. Indeed, in most countries Prohibition has seriously damaged relationships between these communities and law enforcement.

The drug policy ratchet under seven decades of prohibition only ever allows for more punitive approaches. However, research indicates that policing to remove dealers from stable supply chains has actually increased violence in communities, while militarised responses to drug cartels have effectively resulted in violent ‘drug wars’ that have destabilised countries such as Mexico. The worrying growth of violent gangs, gangsters and drug cartels are not inevitable by-products of drugs, as we are led to believe. No, they are inevitable outcomes spawned from a brutally enforced system of drug prohibition, as also witnessed in the 1920s with alcohol prohibition. 


“‘Drug’ enforcement has been deeply divisive – targeting the poor, the indigenous, people of colour, and people from black and minority ethnic groups”



Efforts to eradicate supply over many decades have largely been futile, they have barely had any impact whatsoever, on reducing illegal drug supplies. But in countries such as Afghanistan and Colombia crop eradication and carcinogenic crop spraying have devastated some of the poorest farmers in the country, a desperately poor community with few viable alternatives available to them.

Prohibition has fuelled misinformation, division, harm, violence and death – locally, nationally and internationally. It has undermined public health, facilitated the spread of dangerous diseases such as HIV & Hepatitis, caused deforestation and pollution, weakened human rights, encouraged hostility, stigma and discrimination towards the ‘Other’, undermined international development and security, increased crime, facilitated lucrative illegal markets, negatively redefined police-community relations, led to overcrowded prisons, and wasted billions of dollars in a relentless attempt to enforce a system that can’t be, and shouldn’t be enforced. So impossible is the task of prohibiting drug possession, that even high-security prisons are rife with prohibited drugs. The full extent of the damage caused by prohibition has been comprehensively detailed by the excellent work of  “Count the Costs”


What needs to be done?

There are two main risks for people who use prohibited substances: the damage caused by law enforcement, criminalisation and punishment; and the other is the damage caused by not knowing what you are using because there is no framework for quality control. Both issues must be resolved, – but the greatest extent of damage is caused by former not the latter.


“…people who are both white and privileged are rarely captured in the ever extending enforcement net of prohibition.”


It is important to remember, that brutal enforcement measures meted out for drug defined crimes disproportionately target and impact the poor, BME and indigenous people.  Whereas, by contrast, people who are both white and privileged are rarely captured in the ever-extending enforcement net of prohibition. For this privileged group the greatest threat is not a heavy-handed criminal justice system that threatens to target and ruin life opportunities with a drug conviction, no, the more likely threat they face is posed by ingesting an adulterated drug with has not been quality controlled.

Hardly surprising then, two strategies gaining the most traction in the drug reform movement, (led by the privileged class), are ‘drug checking’  at festivals (not at needle exchanges or drug consumption rooms) and cannabis legalisation. Bottom line, the drive for Legal Regulation is a commitment to secure a clean legal supply is available for those who can afford to buy legally regulated drugs from the new government approved drug business entrepreneurs. This removes the brunt of prohibition as experienced by the privileged (the lack of quality control) and additionally facilitates new business opportunities.

It should really come as no surprise, given that prohibition has always been about power, profit and privilege, that in areas of North America where cannabis has been legalised, ex-drug law enforcement officers who so vehemently rallied against ‘drugs’, are switching sides to seize the lucrative business opportunities.


“Legal Regulation is a somewhat vague ‘rally call’ from drug law reformers a little like a rallying call asking the government to take control of drugs.”


If in seeking to end Prohibition, we rally behind Legal Regulation, we are supporting a vague concept. For example, alcohol is a legally regulated drug (poorly regulated in my opinion), but opioids too, are a legally regulated drug (far too strictly in my opinion). So when we call for Legal Regulation what are we actually rallying behind, and what would it look like in policy and practice?

Regulation simply means managed by the state and legally available in certain circumstances. In most countries, it is possible for an adult to purchase beer (alcohol) in a supermarket and codeine (opioids) at a pharmacy – without much difficulty. Under the regulation of other opioids such as morphine, diamorphine or fentanyl are legal to use, in particular circumstances – such as when prescribed for acute pain relief. However, while opioids are legally regulated, possession of certain opioids are in most circumstances strictly prohibited, and unapproved possession and/or supply can result to some of the harshest punishments available to the criminal courts – including life imprisonment. By contrast restrictions and punishments concerning possession and supply of another regulated drug, alcohol, are more liberal and generally lenient, as are regulations concerning alcohol sale outlets, sponsorship, media coverage and advertising.

So supporting Legal Regulation is a somewhat vague ‘rally call’ from drug law reformers a little like a rallying call asking the government to take control of drugs. Legal Regulation is a response to a symptom of Prohibition, but it fails to address the cause of our drug policy problem – Prohibition!

Yes, we do need a legally regulated supply of all drugs, (and not just cannabis), but whether that addresses the problem of an illegal market depends greatly on how the ‘regulation’ model operates. A Legal Regulation model that incorporates the prohibition and punishment of unapproved adult personal possession and social dealing, is I’d argue,  simply perpetuating the problems in a repackaged Prohibition 2.0.

Under a regulation model, the state may approve and legally regulate a wider range of drugs, while still prohibiting so-called ‘dangerous drugs’. We see this happening now where cannabis is invited to the top table to join the other privileged state approved drugs. Some may see this as a slow but incremental dismantling of prohibition, I think paradoxically, it is more likely to extend prohibition. Even if the state made all drugs available under a Legal Regulation model, the model still allows the government to insist that those substances remain prohibited, unless purchased from state-licensed companies. We would then have a model in which it is an offence to be in possession of any drug from an unregulated source – for example, homegrown cannabis. Prohibition 2.0 would then continue to fuel an underground illegal drug market, and drug law enforcement desperately needing a cultural change of focus, would continue as before, once again targeting the poor, the indigenous, black and minority ethnic (BME) groups.


“Regulation that perpetuates a two tier system of state approved drugs that can only be purchased; and unapproved drugs which are banned; simply replicates the existing oppressive model.”


Those who suffered most under Prohibition must be the first to be protected in any new regime.

Let’s be clear and tell it as it is: the problem is Prohibition (not drugs per se); the protagonists are the UN & government law enforcement (not gangsters); the damage is largely caused by the military, criminal and community justice system (not criminals); and the victims we must protect are not so much the privileged class (who are relatively by comparison, unaffected), but the poor, indigenous and BME communities who have for decades suffered unfairly under prohibition.

To the privileged class prohibition is a flawed policy worthy of discussion and in need of reform, but rarely are they subject to drug law enforcement measures. Whereas under prohibition poor people, indigenous communities and BME groups face considerable daily threats: being stopped, searched; arrested; charged; found guilty; imprisoned; excluded; marginalised; denied employed, housing, insurance, healthcare, travel and participation.

Regulation that perpetuates a two-tier system of state-approved drugs that can only be purchased; and unapproved drugs which are banned; simply replicates the existing oppressive model. Less privileged members of society unable to afford the prices charged by state-licensed suppliers would turn to the underground illegal market, and find themselves once again subject to drug law enforcement measures. Legal Regulation could be to Prohibition, what Jim Crow was to Slavery.

Legal Regulation fails to properly address the core problems of prohibition – the breach of human rights over your body and what you choose to ingest and the deeply discriminatory law enforcement measures imposed. It deals with harshest aspects of prohibition as experienced by the privileged class, by enabling them new opportunities to purchase a clean legal supply.

Before any regulation model should be considered, we must first and foremost decriminalise ALL possession, cultivation and production of drugs for personal use. This is a simple step that could be enacted quickly and with little cost. Importantly, it sets the human rights framework to then explore the complex process of legal regulation, and that new framework must ultimately ensure we move beyond the initial stage of decriminalisation, and establish a legal right for adults to possess, cultivate and/or produce any drug for personal use. 


The way forward

 We should not support any Legal Regulation model that includes punishing adults for personal possession or consumption of ‘unapproved’ substances. This is a fundamental human right abuse enshrined in Prohibition that under no circumstances should be accommodated in reform. It’s your body and your choice what you ingest.  Most advocates for Legal Regulation are silent on such issues, or regard trading those rights as a necessary compromise to broker ‘reform’.  For example, New Zealand received global acclaim for its highly publicised ‘World Leading Drug Reform’ when they introduced the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 to legally regulate New Psychoactive Substances.


“We should not support any Legal Regulation model that includes punishing adults for personal possession or consumption of ‘unapproved’ substances. This is a fundamental human right abuse”


However, what the model did was widened the net of prohibition by making the possession of previously legal drugs (legal highs or NPS) illegal, and it also offered an approval system for NPS via a regulation process. The fact that it worryingly punished personal adult possession of unapproved substances, leaving the door open to the heart of the problem (Prohibition) seemed to be overlooked by drug reformers.

Given the enforcement abuses under drug prohibition, one clear non-negotiable principle in any reform must be to ensure that we reclaim the Human Right over our bodies to be able to choose what we ingest without the threat of criminalisation, punishment, hospitalisation, imprisonment or the death penalty by the state.  


Decriminalisation – the low hanging fruit

Portugal did the right thing in 2001 when they decriminalising all personal possession of drugs and built in additional support for the small percentage of drug users who develop problems with addiction. It’s a drug reform no-brainer! It is a decision that makes great sense and it has had positive outcomes in reducing: addiction rates; the burden on the criminal justice system; and fatal overdoses.

Decriminalisation of all personal possession is easy picking ‘low-hanging fruit’ that should be the first step of reform for every country. But so much more needs to be done. Decriminalising cultivation and production for personal use only would be a second easy step that would help users reduce the need for engagement in the criminal underworld, especially when the most popular drug used by far (cannabis) is easily homegrown. After that government should rescind drug laws and ensure they are replaced with a sensible evidence-based model of Legal Regulation rooted firmly in human rights and harm reduction.  People with drug defined conviction should have their convictions removed, be issued with an apology and compensation.


“…the key reform priority is to end all law enforcement for adult drug possession, cultivation and production for personal use.”


An open invitation to state (the perpetrators of prohibition), who have consistently and deliberately ignored science and evidence and continued to enforce a brutal and draconian system of prohibition for decades, to devise a new regulation model, is likely to result in continued disproportionate law enforcement measures imposed on the poor, the indigenous and BME groups for possession of ‘unapproved’ drugs. Before the state even begins to think about the difficult and complex process of legally regulating drugs, we must first and foremost, ensure we abolish Prohibition once and for all and restore human rights.

To most reformers (myself included) the key reform priority is to end all law enforcement for adult drug possession, cultivation and production for personal use. This is a matter of principle that cannot be compromised and should not be diluted by attempting to roll out human rights incrementally. The Human Right over your body must be instantly restored, while the devastating law enforcement abuses in policing drug possession must end, and this will require cultural reform as well as legal reform. Once those human rights are secured and bolted down, then the important work to establish an appropriately regulated drug market can begin.

I would make all drugs available to adults under a legally regulated market, with strict regulation over the businesses (rather than consumers). Governments have a poor record of regulating the pharmaceutical (for example Fentanyl), sugar, alcohol and tobacco industry, so if the state is going to sensibly regulate all ‘drugs’ in a manner that protects human rights and promotes harm reduction they will need careful oversight, advice and political pressure. The risk of oppression from the state can be minimised by ensuring that the new regulatory frameworks sit on a foundation of well established human rights concerning personal use, cultivation and production.


“…hopefully we have learned lessons from alcohol and tobacco regulation, so forewarned and forearmed – we can do a much better job living with all drugs.”

In terms of adult accessing drugs initially, the main outlets could be pharmacies, soon followed by off licenses and gradually a cultural change with the most commonly preferred social and recreational drugs being available in cafe’s, bars, restaurants and major events. This may sound like unknown territory, but it isn’t really. Regrettably,  we have already regulated, culturally accommodated, privileged and promoted arguably the most harmful drug of all – alcohol – and we’ve regulated it badly. However, despite pushing a particularly poisonous harmful drug and managing it poorly, we have lived to tell the tale, and while reading this folk might be enjoying a glass of Pinot Noir, rightly without any sense of panic or fear. We know from the folly of alcohol prohibition we need to live with drugs, but hopefully, we have learned lessons from alcohol and tobacco regulation, so forewarned and forearmed – we can do a much better job living with all drugs. While there will be a concern for an increased range of drug-related issues, the wider availability and choice is likely to lead to some wiser and better-informed choices – some already being witnessed in areas that have legalised cannabis.

Alongside this new legal freedom must be easy access to sensible and truthful balanced information about the risks posed by all drugs. Drug education, addiction prevention and addiction treatment should be informed not by ideological belief or moral crusade but by evidence-based research. These services must promote harm reduction and human rights. We should not be in the business of preventing drug use, in the same way, that we shouldn’t seek to prevent people from having a cup of coffee, glass of wine, or cigar – instead we must be in the business of preventing drug policy harms caused by prohibition policies, and preventing and treating drug addiction.


Dr Julian Buchanan is a retired Associate Professor from the Institute of Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand.


Harm Reduction: More than just clean needles

Screen Shot 2018-04-21 at 9.49.52 PM

Harm reduction is a realistic, pragmatic and non-judgmental approach based upon openness, understanding and respect. It was initially adopted as an ‘alternative’ approach to try to engage people using banned drugs in the 1980s, partly because the dominant abstinence approach was failing, but largely because agencies were worried about the spread of HIV/AIDS to the wider community. To encourage safer sex and safer drug use governments reluctantly adopted harm reduction drug policies as a means to reach and engage the cooperation injecting drug users.


The global threat posed by AIDS in the 1990s has now subsided, by no coincidence so has the government commitment to harm reduction. However, harm reduction has proven to be effective in engaging people with drug problems into treatment, reducing the spread of infectious diseases, reducing fatal overdose, and reducing addiction. But in some countries harm reduction has stalled and failed to move much further than needle exchange schemes.

Having proved so effective harm reduction has evolved, and now harm reduction is no longer confined to reducing harms from disease, but more significantly it’s more broadly about reducing the harm caused by prohibitionist drug policies.

Has your country moved on from a 1980s model of harm reduction which was largely confined to running needle exchanges? To check out just how far your country has progressed and evolved with it’s harm reduction philosophy here are thirty-one harm reduction policies:


    1. Naloxone take home kits for users and friends
    2. Naloxone available without prescription at pharmacies
    3. Naloxone in public areas alongside AEDs
    4. Good Samaritan laws
    5. Legalisation of all injecting equipment
    6. Drug Consumption Rooms/Injecting Facilities
    7. Drug Consumption Rooms for those who don’t inject
    8. Drug checking at Drug Consumption Rooms
    9. Prescribing the drug the person is addicted to
    10. Oral, inhale-able and injectable prescribing
    11. Injectable heroin prescribing
    12. Injectable methadone prescribing
    13. Client led maintenance prescribing
    14. Free Needle/syringe distribution* in cities
    15. Free Needle/syringe distribution* outreach mobile units
    16. Drug checking at Needle/syringe distribution centres
    17. Condom distribution at all drug agencies
    18. Sharps boxes in public toilets
    19. Sharps boxes in all drug agencies
    20. Drug checking at needle/syringe distribution centres
    21. Decriminalise all drug possession for personal use
    22. Decriminalise all cultivation/production for personal use
    23. Drug checking at public events/festivals
    24. Social media early warning system for rogue drugs
    25. Substitute prescribing in prisons
    26. Needle/syringe exchange in prisons
    27. Wet houses for people with drink problems
    28. Rehabs that support oral & ampoule maintenance prescribing
    29. Injecting technique advice at DCRs
    30. Injecting technique advice at Needle Exchanges
    31. Basic health care (showers, laundry room & nurse) at DCRs

*Facilitating collection – not exchange only

Julian Buchanan
April 2018


Are reformers seeking to abolish prohibition or tweak it?


‘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.’ 

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, substances which the state insists we 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 and misinformation 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 the poor and minority groups for possession of unapproved 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


The Wider Social Context

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

In respect of recreational drug use, this resulted in a crude unscientific bifurcation, in which unapproved substances (such as LSD, heroin, cannabis and cocaine) are presented as dangerous, immoral and likely to lead to addiction, whereas approved and promoted substances (such as caffeine, alcohol and tobacco) risks are minimised and use is normalised, indeed rarely are they even considered as ‘drugs’. Despite the mounting evidence concerning the risks posed by these state approved and promoted drugs, alongside the relative safety, by comparison, of some illicit drugs, the over-simplistic misinformed binary approach dominates law, policy and practice.

People who regularly enjoy state approved drugs take offence at being considered a ‘drug user’. If they develop physical, social and psychological problems with legal drugs are never referred to as ‘addicts’, junkies or problem drug users. Despite the fact that more people are killed by tobacco and alcohol than all the other illegal drug deaths combined, it is illicit drugs that will not be tolerated and drug testing is a key weapon to deter and eradicate the use of unapproved drugs.


The Appeal of the Drug Test

Legal and illegal drugs can for a small proportion of people result in serious health and social problems – in rare cases with devastating and fatal consequences. It is understandable that a concern to prevent such tragedies creates an interest in a possible role for drug testing. The technology appears to offer some tempting evidence and insight. There are a growing number of companies selling a wide range of equipment to test saliva, hair, perspiration, blood and urine for a variety of drugs. It’s a burgeoning industry with strong connections with law enforcement, often managed by ex-police officers.

Drug testing has long history of use with the substitute prescribing, initially used for safety reasons to ensure that people issued with a clean legal supply of opioids had actually been using opiates. However, some prescribing regimes continue to use drug testing on its long term patients, as a punitive tool to impose sanctions for any on-going use of illicit street drugs.

More recently drug-testing technology has been incorporated as a central tenet of Drug Courts and positive tests invariably lead to warnings, breach and sometimes short periods of imprisonment. 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-testing 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 certainty of a drug test, in an era dominated by ‘punitive populism’ and simplistic approaches must have appeal, but sadly it can also undermine any attempt to engage effectively with the complexity of the issue, indeed it can do more harm than good.

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 not 100% reliable and can be 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 not usual, 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 it could be 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 severe 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 fairly accurate information. Well let us assume that the test is indeed 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. It is important to be absolutely clear drug use is not indicative of drug misuse, and a positive result will not indicate why or in what circumstances the drug was ingested.

These contextual details are much more important than the apparent ‘factual’ detail of the presence of a drug in your body. At best drug testing technology is only able to provide contested ‘evidence’ that a person is (or is not) free from a particular drug. This crude indicator risks decontextualize and over-simplifying the issue of illicit drug use. Thinking can easily drifts into 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.

Armed with a ‘hard copy’ evidence of a positive drug test 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 deeply flawed, it can also have a number of serious adverse and unintended consequences.

17 Negative Consequences of Drug Testing:

  1. Drug testing identifies substance ‘use’ rather than any substance disorder/problem. This misguidedly widens the net of concern, which should be directed towards the person with a drug problem not towards the recreational user.

  2. Most people with a chronic drug problem have endured damaging personal and social circumstances before drugs became an issue and need considerable help and support in life, more generally. Drug testing can lead to a pre-occupation on drug presence, and this narrow focus risks overlooking the real underlying issues, which if not addressed, will almost certainly lead to drug problem relapse.

  3. Women drug users with child care responsibilities are often forced to undertake regular or even daily drug tests to prove they are ‘drug’ free, this disproportionately focuses attention on drug presence rather than fitness to parent. Regular positive drug tests are then used wrongly as evidence as to why the child should be ‘looked after’ by the state. Any assessment of a mothers parental capability to care for her child should never be reduced to a drug test.

  4. A pre-occupation with drug testing by key stakeholders can result in a paradigm shift in which abstinence and so-called ‘clean’ drug tests become the desired measure of any successful outcome. Not only does harm reduction get marginalised in the process, but the messy and challenging process of rehabilitation and social reintegration may be forgotten in the satisfaction that the person appears to be drug free.

  5. Around 30-70% of young people in most western countries have used illicit drugs and the vast majority manage to avoid: a criminal record; a drug problem; harm to themselves or harm to others. Widespread random drug testing in schools, at the roadside, in employment, on benefit claimants etc., will only waste resources and result in capturing mainly non-problematic drug users who then risk being ascribed damaging labels as ‘deviant’ or ‘addicts’ that will pose serious damage to future life opportunities (education, employment, travel, insurance, housing etc) and in relationships.

  6. Resources for public and voluntary services are limited and money that could be used to deliver much needed harm reduction services is wasted on expensive drug testing for people who don’t use drugs, or those who use drugs in a non-problematic recreational manner.

  7. Random drug testing of pupils, students and children often accompanied by police and sniffer dogs as a health promotion strategy is misguided. Cultural behavioural change is not achieved through policing, confronting and punishing, but it is facilitating by meaningful, culturally relevant, reliable information exchange, harm reduction education, relationships and peer dialogue.

  8. The most widely used illicit drug (cannabis) is much less harmful than the promoted legal drugs alcohol and tobacco, it is therefore, untenable or indeed hypocritical to pursue drug testing and punish cannabis use and not drug test and punish alcohol and tobacco use.

  9. Drug testing regimes with sanctions, such as random drug tests in schools to exclude students who test positive, create a ‘cat and mouse’ game in which an adversarial relationship is established, both sides then seek to out-smart the other with new technology or deceptive techniques. The winners in this game are the drug testing businesses and underground laboratories; but the losers are honesty, trust and communication.

  10. Tougher drug testing regimes to stamp out illicit drug use, such as drug testing in employment, have spawn the proliferation of new synthetic designer ‘legal’ highs to avoid detection (such as Spice). However, once these new drugs have been detected and subsequently outlawed the drug testing ‘net’ widens, then new legal highs are further developed and the never ending spiral continues. These ‘legal highs’ may be considerably more dangerous than commonly used illicit drugs.

  11. Some drugs such as cannabis can stay in the body for over four weeks whereas drugs like cocaine can be out of the body within 48 hours. Random drug testing regimes (such as those in prisons) have inadvertently pressurised people to switch from the less harmful cannabis to the more dangerous heroin, spice or cocaine.

  12. Drug testing concentrates attention towards illegal drug use and unhelpfully firms up the misguided bifurcation between licit and illicit substances. It is not the use of any illicit drug that warrants attention but rather the misuse of any drug legal and illegal that should warrants attention. The legally promoted drugs (alcohol, caffeine, tobacco and sugar) can pose serious risks, sometimes greater than their illegal counterparts.

  13. A positive drug test may reduce the risk of people who are intoxicated from using machinery, driving a car or flying a plane, however, testing positive for a drug doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is intoxicated or impaired – for example cannabis can be detected a month after not using, so a positive drug test could result in misguided concern, and unfair dismissals.

  14. Some maintenance opioid substitute prescribing regimes rooted in harm reduction engage in regular drug testing, but as a consequence of a positive drug test for illicit drug use some automatically suspend or even terminate prescribing.  The use of drug testing in this manner transforms what was a low threshold harm reduction prescribing philosophy into a punitive abstinence only regime.

  15. A positive drug test indicates drug presence but not necessarily drug impairment, but as in the case of drug driving government campaigns are often conflating drug presence with drug impairment, ascribing much more to drug testing than it is telling us. Association does not mean causation.

  16. A positive drug test may be incorrect due to a small percentage of ‘false positives’ caused by equipment failure or human error, and conversely ‘false negative’ can occur.

  17. An accurate positive drug test still maybe misleading. It is assumed that the person has taken illicit drugs when those drugs may have been ingested legally. For example, consuming poppy seeds in bread can lead to a positive drug test for opiates, or if the person took a para-codeine tablet for a headache they’d show positive for opiates.


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 conference paper, the PowerPoint presentation which can be accessed here

Addiction: A Response to Enduring Personal Pain and Structural Alienation

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


1. Most harm arising from adult 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 is largely caused by personal, social and political dislocation (Alexander 2008), and those struggling with drug centred lifestyles also endure considerable harm from drug policy abuse.

The main problems are caused by Prohibition and the not the drug.
Drug taking is not of itself a ‘problem’. We would not be anxious upon learning someone was using the legal drugs caffeine, tobacco or alcohol, so nor should be anxious about a person using other (illegal) drugs. However, it is right to be concerned that a person using illegal drugs faces considerable risks – arising from drug policy harm, caused not by the drug, but by the regime of prohibition (Buchanan 2008). Here are seven ways that Prohibition increases the risks.

The person using a prohibited drug:

“1. Has no idea of the strength of the drug – it could be so strong it could result in risk of overdose or death.

2. Has no guarantee about the purity or indeed content of the drug – it could contaminated or even mixed with toxic ingredients that could cause serious harm even death.

3. Has to buy the drug ‘underground’ – exposing the person to the vagaries of a potentially dangerous criminal underworld.

4. Buying, using and sharing illegal drugs puts the person at risk of serious criminal sanctions such as a community sentence with a drug rehabilitation requirement or even imprisonment.

5. A person using an illegal drug risks acquiring a criminal record for a drugs offence – which could have lifelong consequences upon employment prospects, opportunities for world travel and housing.

6. Has to use the drug in secret. For some people this may mean using in an isolated location which could be potentially dangerous especially when intoxicated – such as a condemned building, under a railway bridge, a canal etc.

7. Has to hide the use of illegal drugs making it more difficult to manage and harder to seek help, support or advice if a problem arises.”

Aside from drug policy harms, adult use of prohibited drugs poses risks that are not dissimilar to those posed by state approved substances caffeine, sugar, alcohol and tobacco. Indeed, some illegal substances are  less harmful than the state approved drugs.

Chronic addiction is more of a social problem than a health Issue.
People using illegal drugs don’t have a health problem and don’t need ‘treatment’.  Only a small minority of people who struggle with chronic problematic drug use, (estimated to be around 3-6% of those who use drugs) will need treatment and/or professional support. In addition to their struggle with chronic addiction this small group will face very serious challenges posed by drug policy abuse including; stigma, discrimination, criminalisation, exclusion, enforced abstinence, punishment, degrading and poor health and social care services,

While most of us can temporarily lose control of habitual behaviours, it is important to note, most people who do lose control, successfully regain control without professional help or medication. Just ask ex-tobacco users, most will have had a period of serious uncontrolled tobacco addiction, yet most manage to regain control without seeking professional help. However, there are a small vulnerable group who become addicted to drugs who lack the resources, support networks, personal agency, social and cultural capital and/or positive life experience, and for this group addiction can sometimes become an entrenched and fixed state, and unlike others who regain control, this group struggles to regain control. Indeed, for this group chronic addiction becomes an all embracing lifestyle and the term ‘addict’ (an obnoxious label), sometimes becomes as internalised identity. The term ‘addict’ becomes a label that defines the person, 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 constructed as a medical problem or a disease. Chronic problematic drug use or addiction 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 first observed working on Merseyside in the mid 1980s as a probation officer and drug worker working with people struggling with chronic addiction, and subsequently spent many decades researching as an academic.

Experience as a drug worker and my academic research suggest chronic problematic drug use is largely driven by enduring personal and structural alienation, factors that were serious issues long before drugs became a problem. For this group drug addiction is a serious issue but its a symptom of a more enduring and painful struggle rooted in enduring social and psychological damage and disadvantage.

Here are eight 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
  8. Roy, A., and Buchanan, J. (2016) The Paradoxes of Recovery Policy: Exploring the Impact of Austerity and Responsibilisation for the Citizenship Claims of People with Drug Problems. Social Policy & Administration, 50: 398–413. click here


*I was delighted to be cited by the much respected Owen Jones in his book Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class featured in the image above.

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. 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’.

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)
%d bloggers like this: