We need to tackle the folly and futility of drug prohibition, in which we have created an irrational and unscientific bifurcation of drugs. An archaic system that favours, promotes and culturally embeds the use of some drugs, while fiercely policing, prohibiting and punishing the use of other drugs.
The 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the drug laws it has spawned, are deeply flawed, misinformed and misguided, they are an abuse of human rights and civil liberties. The realisation of this historic mistake and the momentum to end this draconian regime has gathered pace in recent years. While the US government has been a driving force defending and upholding drug prohibition, it is ironically the people of the US who are challenging the regime by voting to legalise cannabis. This is seen as a major step change by drug reformers to bring an end to prohibition, however, I question how Inviting cannabis to enjoy the privileges of other favoured drugs (alcohol, caffeine and tobacco) will tackle the wider and fundamental problem of drug prohibition.
Ironically, the legalisation of cannabis might actually bolster prohibition. The global and united drug reform movement could be undermined by an unintended consequence of privileging cannabis to join the elite drugs and subsequently ‘divide and rule’ to maintain the bifurcation process. No doubt, and understandably, after the decades of oppression suffered by cannabis users, legalisation of their drug of choice will be met with a celebration of the new found freedoms and privileges, but possibly also by a lack of interest to fight to end the prohibition of all drugs. Indeed, further, it could give rise to a new momentum against ‘drugs’ or ‘hard drugs’ – as recently liberated cannabis users redefining themselves as herbalists or sensible recreational users of ‘soft’ drugs.
I want to see cannabis legalised and sensibly (rather than strictly) regulated – in a way that avoids the oppression inherent in prohibition, and in a way that avoids the commercial exploitation we’ve seen in tobacco and alcohol. However, this is not something we should do for one or two selected substances, while maintaining and uphold the madness of prohibition again others. I’m an abolitionist, and I want to see all drugs legalised and regulated – there is no place for law enforcement and prohibition, personal drug consumption is not an issue per se, and if it does become a problem it is a social and health issue not a police matter.
Selectively privileging particular drugs based upon their popularity, to join alcohol, caffeine and tobacco as commercial products is not the way forward, it’s simply an extension of the principles of prohibition. Granting pardons for particular drugs is a dangerous and uncertain pathway towards drug reform. Instead, we should challenge the very foundations of prohibition and fight for the decriminalisation of every drug as a first step towards a comprehensive process to abolition, once this is achieved we urgently engage in the difficult and complex process to explore how best to legalise and regulate all drugs.
Julian Buchanan 27th April 2015
Julian Buchanan, Associate Professor, Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
It is widely assumed that the so called ‘war on drugs’ (the war between drugs), has been a disastrous failure, and faced with mounting evidence and criticism, governments would eventually seek legislative and policy change. Not so. The evidence presented to argue for the end of prohibition is largely based upon an analysis of the inability of drug prohibition to reduce the supply and demand for banned substances, supplemented by a critique outlining the widespread harms caused by prohibition. However, with a different agenda and focus, it might be that this ‘evidence’ in terms of the failure to dent supply and demand, has over time (fifty years), become secondary to other government, business and organisational interests.
Seen in a different light, the Drug War has been a major success, providing considerable opportunities and benefits:
- It protects the market share and status of the privileged, promoted and culturally embedded legal drugs: alcohol; caffeine; tobacco; sugar and pharmaceuticals.
It provides the police with excellent powers to easily stop, search, arrest, interrogate and prosecute.
It successfully attracts significant additional funding for police, armed services, customs officials and security services.
It provides justification for military action and invasion of other countries.
It provides excellent opportunities for significant additional resources for the police/state through the seizure of assets.
It provides excellent business opportunities and raw material (people) for the ever burgeoning penal industrial complex.
It provides considerable opportunities for new technology development and sales, in the invasive and expanding drug testing industry.
It provides considerable opportunities for new technology development and sales, in the avoidance of drug detection industry.
It provides the drug rehabilitation business with an endless supply of illicit users, who must always abstain, and forever be in recovery.
It provides excellent opportunities for the state to easily target, monitor, control and punish the poor, indigenous people, Black and minority ethnic groups and people of colour.
It provides politicians with a societal scapegoat, and the chance to rally support and votes by getting ‘tough’ on a socially constructed enemy within: the ‘addict’ hooked and controlled by the ‘demon drugs’.
It provides the news media with easy, cheap dirty stories and pictures of the apparent horrors associated with illicit drug use.
It provides a much needed distraction from the serious problems caused by the more harmful, addictive and culturally embedded legal drugs – alcohol, tobacco, sugar and pharmaceuticals.
Internationally, it rallies otherwise disparate nations together by finding common ground to fight a shared war against a global enemy, ‘drugs’.
It provides the Banks with massive investments from money laundering.
It provides researchers and academics will a constant and reliable stream of funding sources for endless prevalence studies and evidence to uphold prohibition propaganda such as reefer madness, gateway theory, crack babies and krokodil.
It allows governments to detract attention away from the key structural drivers behind most chronic addiction (inequality, stigma, exclusion, poverty and blocked opportunities) and instead, misleadingly shift attention towards the supposed demonising and devastating power of the illicit drug.
It provides a lucrative illegal market that enables gangsters and drug cartels to make incredible untaxed profits.
It provides an attractive and unquestionable dogma for religious groups to ‘say no’ to drugs, avoiding the complexities of science, reason and rationale, and indeed the contradiction in respect of sugar, caffeine, tobacco and alcohol.
It provides excellent careers for drug enforcement officials and drug policy entrepreneurs and careerists, facilitating endless debates, inquiries, international travel, networking and conference events, particularly via the United Nations.
If these are key drivers that sustain prohibition and maintain the ‘war between drugs’ then appealing to the groups that benefit from prohibition by providing endless research reports and campaigns to highlight the limited impact prohibition has upon supply and demand, or the negative unintended outcomes from criminalisation, may have limited political impact or sway given the benefits experienced by these powerful groups and organisations.
by Julian Buchanan, Associate Professor Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand, (updated 24th August 2015).
Thanks to @mhound and @ChurchOfBong for helpful suggestions!
The Stages of a Legal Regulation Approach
- Gangsters shouldn’t be in charge of drug distribution – we must end prohibition
- Drugs are dangerous and need to be Legally Regulated.
- Only approved companies should produce and distribute them.
- Only recognised and approved outlets should sell them.
- Only approved legally regulated drugs should be sold.
- Individuals should not be allowed to manufacture or cultivate drugs.
- Possession of unregulated or non-approved drugs should be an offence.
- Individuals should only consume ‘approved’ regulated drugs.
- Police should be able to enter without a warrant if unregulated drug production/cultivation is suspected.
- Strict enforcement should apply to possession and supply of all unregulated unapproved drugs.
- Strict Regulation has produced: state approved legal regulated drugs and outlawed underground unregulated drugs.
- A full circle, welcome to New Prohibition.
Is Strict Regulation Prohibition 2.0?
This model of Regulation was adopted in New Zealand to control New Psychoactive Substances. Worryingly, it received support from a number of key Drug Reformers.
A Human Rights Approach
Because prohibition of drugs is a damaging breach of human rights that has done more harm than the drugs ever could…
- Gangsters can’t be in charge of drug distribution we must end prohibition.
- Commercially sold drugs should be regulated.
- Only approved companies should produce them for commercial distribution.
- Only approved outlets should sell them.
- Only approved regulated drugs should be commercially sold.
- Strict regulatory controls are placed on all business practices (advertising, packaging, distribution, sale etc).
- Individuals can manufacture and/or cultivate ANY substance – for personal use only.
- Individuals can possess and consume ANY substance – for personal use.
- Registered societies and clubs can meet exchange information, knowledge and equipment.
- The fundamental human right for a person to consume in their body, what they choose, without threat, controls or punishment from the state remain paramount and must always be protected.
- All drug prohibition has been abolished.
The freedom, liberty and human rights of the individual must be protected from the controlling and paternalistic state, and against exploitation from multi-national corporations and businesses. It’s business activities that need regulating not people.
The so called ‘War on Drugs’ never existed. The idea that there is or has been a war against drugs is a lie, it’s classic prohibition propaganda. There has never been a campaign against drugs. Let me explain. Society and governments have always appreciated the wide ranging benefits and pleasures derived from drugs. Drugs have never been as popular as they are now. The availability, promotion and use of pharmaceutical and legally approved drugs such as caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and sugar, has never been greater. However, prohibition propaganda has conveniently resulted in these drugs escaping under the radar of the prohibitionist drug discourse, and these substances are incorrectly, not perceived as drugs.
Rather than a War on Drugs, what we have is a Drug War, a hostile war waged by the proponents of approved drugs against anyone using unapproved drugs. More accurately, a process better conceptualised as a politically driven Drug Apartheid; an arbitrary and illogical separation, not of people, but of drugs. This distinction between these two sets of drugs has no rational basis, it has no science or evidence to support it, neither is it based on the risk of harm. Under the strictly enforced Drug Apartheid alcohol, sugar, tobacco and caffeine enjoy privilege, power and promotion, while unapproved drugs are outlawed and anyone found involved in possession, production or supply risks stigma, criminalisation and punishment, including life imprisonment and the death penalty. This brutal, inhumane and damaging system that impacts negatively on individuals, families, communities and nations, is perpetuated because society has been successfully indoctrinated (at a personal, cultural and institutional level), to believe a social construction of ‘drugs’.
Anyone seeking to expose or challenge the drug apartheid, risks being ridiculed, and is vulnerable to public humiliation, as experienced by Professor David Nutt. The unwarranted and ill-founded attack on David Nutt was no isolated incident. Further, to deter any association with outlawed drugs, armed forces, customs officials, and police invest massive energy and resources, while magistrates and Judges impose some of the severest sentences available to the courts for drug violations. Such is the power of the drug apartheid, that a criminal conviction for using the ‘wrong drug’ results in life-long consequences for travel, employment, housing, relationship and opportunities. The ever increasing business opportunities and technologies, spawned from the drug apartheid, drug testing (urine, blood, hair, sweat, saliva, and waste water!), has enabled the oppressive regime to extend beyond law enforcement agencies, to the civil arena, so that surveillance, monitoring and sanctions to maintain the drug apartheid are now carried out by employers, benefit agencies, schools, colleges and even in homes by parents on their children.
This untenable and indefensible position, of outlawing some drugs and privileging others, was enshrined in the 1961 UN Single Convention, a law that is rooted in moral and politically ideology from the 1930s, 40s & 50s. The decision to isolate a group of substances was never based upon science, reason or evidence. Yet ironically, since it’s inception, drug reformers have tried to end this drug war by engaging ideologically driven politicians, governments and UN bodies with endless streams of evidence, inquiries, research, reports and debates.
This considerable drug reform effort, has for five decades (1960-2010), resulted in no significant drug law or policy change by any major advanced western capitalist country, – apart from some US state privileging cannabis for entirely different reasons. The vast array of campaigns, reports, research, presentations, inquiries, reviews, and publications have for decades been consigned to a vacuum, while the increasingly wealthy and all powerful multi-national companies with a vested interest in maintaining the drug apartheid, have worked closely alongside politicians and government agencies, to maintain drug policy inertia through propaganda, procrastination, misinformation and distortion. Indeed prohibition benefits many groups and organisations.
A recent US opinion poll (the General Social Survey), that explores support for cannabis legalisation, indicates that for almost 40 years (1970-2007) public interest in legalising cannabis changed little, fluctuating between 16% and 33% during that period. However, in the seven year period since 2007, support for legalisation has risen rapidly from 31% to 52%. How do we make sense of this dramatic shift?
One influential contributing factor over this period, has been the global and widespread increased access to the internet, and the mass engagement with social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Scoop.it, LinkenIn and YouTube. Social media provides an alternative source to information, evidence and peer exchange, and has I believe, played a significant part in enabling the wider public to gain access to independent, research based knowledge and reason, necessary to critically consider and question the basis of the Drug Policy Sham. In particular, the widespread dissemination of research evidence, facts and case stories (such as Charlotte Figi), about cannabis to the public, has resulted in long overdue, and much needed calls for decriminalisation and legalisation, to allow people suffering with life limiting illnesses, that fail to respond to medicine, to explore possible benefits from cannabis, and sensibly too, to allow recreational use of cannabis. Personal possession of cannabis should never have been outlawed, but neither should personal possession of any substance. Every person should in principle have totally rights over their own body and what they consume without threat of harassment, punishment or incarceration. The risks associated with personal consumption of any substance is a health and social care issue, not a law enforcement issue (if it’s an issue at all!).
The public acceptance of cannabis is a very significant shift, indeed, it could mark the ’tipping point’ – the start of the process that could see the end of the drug apartheid. But let’s be clear here, cannabis reform in the US is not occurring because fifty years of research, evidence and debate has finally persuaded politicians the drug war was a mistake, and the politicians are seeking legislative change. No, cannabis is being embraced, essentially because public insight and awareness has significantly increased since 2007, and there has been a shift in public opinion, that has resulted in serious electoral pressure upon politicians to enact cannabis law reform. The drive is coming from the grassroots, it’s not being led by politicians, instead governments are being forced to change by the public and ballot box.
In an era where the interests and activities of multi-national companies and politicians are becoming increasingly enmeshed. An era where democracy seems unresponsive to the needs of the vulnerable, and shows little interest in the protection of the common good, another four decades of inquiries, reports, reviews towards incremental change, would be a grave strategic mistake. The leverage for drug reform will be found, not in trying to persuade politicians or the INCB, UNODC, UNGASS, CND to lead the way on incremental changes which fail to address the underlying fallacies, but rather, by winning over mass public support, by utilising social media to distribute evidence, developing well-informed community movements, regularly disseminating accurate information, sharing influential case studies and rallying a huge social movement and public outcry that demands political change and transformation. The Drug War fallacies spawned by UN, have created a global system of propaganda and prohibition. This system needs exposing and ending, it is misguided to imagine it can provide foundations that can be adjusted and reformed incrementally to deliver drug legalisation.
Despite this encouraging drug law reform development, in respect of cannabis, the attempts towards genuine global drug reform could easily be thwarted. If, as drug reformers, we are not clear in our arguments and strategies for reform, which should be firmly rooted in protecting human rights and promoting harm reduction, cannabis will simply be invited to join the other privileged legal drugs in the drug apartheid. This could be a positive outcome for: big business, who can extend their repertoire and profit from the commercial sale of cannabis; for the state, who can profit from taxes, as well as continue to utilise drug laws as a key control mechanism for stopping, searching, arresting and punishing the poor, indigenous and minority ethnic groups; and the business enterprises spawned from the drug wars, (the industrial penal complex, the drug testing industry and the drug treatment industries). In this pivotal period for drug reform, simply privileging cannabis and failing to address the fundamentally flawed system of drug control would amount to colluding with a corrupt system.
Some drug reform entrepreneurs may attempt to hail privileging cannabis as an incremental step in the right direction, but the widespread and growing public support for decriminalisation, (and ultimately the regulation of all drugs), could be dissipated by this tokenistic gesture to invite cannabis to sit around the table of the powerful. While alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and maybe cannabis enjoy privileged status, the scourge, oppression and madness of a drug apartheid, remains an affront to human rights, a system of punishment and control that will continue to haunt this generation and future generations to come, one that will be remembered shamefully in history. The international system of drug control is deeply flawed and damaging to individuals, communities and countries. There is no ‘World Drugs Problem’ what we have is a UN led World Drug Policy Problem. It needs naming, exposing and dismantling. There can be no minor adjustments, or so-called incremental steps to accommodate the status quo, abolition is what is required not compromise.
This period of history will be recalled for the needless self-inflicted harm, imposed across the globe by a drug apartheid, in which drug laws and drug policy have caused considerably more harm than the drugs ever could.
by Julian Buchanan, Associate Professor, Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand, 7th March 2015 (updated 26th April 2016)
The NZ Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 (PSA2013) was never world leading drug reform as frequently claimed by some drug reformers and re-asserted in an article by one of the Act’s key flag bearers. It was however, world leading drug legislation, that succeeded in gaining almost unanimous support across New Zealand Parliament (apart from one MP), because this new drug law extended prohibition to include EVERY new psychoactive substance not currently incorporated within the Misuse of Drugs Act. If the concept of the PSA2013 to make drugs illegal (unapproved NPS), punish personal possession and supply, while privileging other selected drugs (approved NPS), may sound strangely familiar, it is, it’s called prohibition. It mirrors what has been happening for decades with approved legal drugs (alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and pharmaceuticals) and unapproved outlawed drugs listed under the Misuse of Drugs Act, except it provides a blanket ban unless specifically approved, rather than a blanket acceptance unless specifically banned.
The key problem with the PSA2013 is it’s like an illusion. The Act can be whatever you want it to be, it depends upon how you tell it, what you tell, and what you omit. To prohibitionists, it was sold as offering an end to the legal high ‘cat n mouse’ game, by introducing a once-and-for-all blanket ban on all substances currently legal. The Act removed legal highs from circulation and prevented them being sold in corner shops. By extending prohibition to every New Psychoactive Substance, the PSA2013 makes all NPS in New Zealand illegal unless subsequently approved by the state. Worryingly, the PSA makes personal possession of any new psychoactive drugs a punishable offence (s.71), it introduced new police powers to enter premises without a warrant (s.77), and a two year prison sentence for anyone supplying an ‘unapproved’ psychoactive drugs (s.70). Issues I highlighted in writing and in an oral presentation to the Health Select Committee.
To drug reformers these disconcerting aspects of the PSA are frequently airbrushed out of the story. Instead, to the drug reforming community, the PSA was sold as offering ‘world-leading’ drug reform, an exciting framework to regulate new psychoactive substances (that the same law made illegal), – provided these new substances could be demonstrated to be low risk. But it was always unclear what exactly is a ‘psychoactive’ substance, what would be considered ‘low risk’, and would there ever be a political willingness to approve any new drug? What the PSA has effectively done is to outlaw those drugs that were legal, impose punishments for possession of these drugs, and offer the possibility that, if proved low risk, some of these drugs might possibly, one day, be approved for circulation.
The PSA 2013 is prohibition under the guise of reform. Instead of the tedious and expensive process of the government having to use the Misuse of Drugs Act, to ban each individual drug that comes on the market, the PSA has simply banned the lot, albeit with a slim backdoor possibility that some ‘low risk’ drugs might, one day, be accommodated. The Act delivered what the Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne always promised it would when in July 2012 he declared: “We are winning the battle [against drugs] and we are about to deliver the knockout blow with this legislation“.
We know from difficult experience with the 40 year old Misuse of Drugs Act, that bad laws are hard to change. The problem with our New Zealand PSA 2013 is, it was from the outset, a compromised pig in a poke. Unfortunately, proponents had little time or interest for considering the risks in blending prohibitionist agendas with drug reform aspirations. It seemed the intoxication of promoting world leading reform was too great to be worrying over the detail. Maybe drug reform proponents thought the most important goal was to send out a global message that countries are rolling out world leading drug reform, in an attempt to create a momentum? Whatever the misguided motivation, we are sadly left with an Act that has ultimately extended prohibition and widened the scope of the drug wars. I’m sure reformers didn’t intend this.
So the real lessons from here in New Zealand are: don’t get high on drug reform; think critically about what is being proposed; be willing to ask the tough questions; and don’t be tempted to form an alliance with prohibitionists on some shared pseudo agenda, simply to get drug reform legislation passed. If we have learned nothing else from the drug wars, it is that a non-negotiable principle in any reform, must be that personal possession of any substance must never be an offence, but our ‘world leading’ kiwi drug ‘reform’ has succeeded in outlawing personal possession of all new psychoactive drugs – even those not yet invented. Bad drug laws are hard to change, and here in New Zealand, we now have two bad drug laws: the Misuse of Drug Act 1975; and the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 which has effectively extended the net of prohibition.
Julian Buchanan is Associate Professor of Criminology at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, Kelburn Campus, Wellington, 6140 Aotearoa New Zealand
Regulation – the promised land?
At a time when it is now widely accepted we need to manage drugs differently, because the prohibition of particular drugs has caused more damage than the drugs the state was purported to be protecting us from, there is a risk drug reformers seize any offers of apparent positive change – without thinking more critically about what is on offer. After decades of frustration from the archaic criminalisation of possession of particular drugs, while other more dangerous legal drugs went under the radar, some level of drug reform now appears likely, and there is a rally call to unite under the the very broad umbrella of drug ‘regulation’ as the way ahead.
The main thrust of prioritising regulation appears to be we need to get the drug market out of the hands of the criminal underworld. I wouldn’t disagree with taking drugs out of the hands of gangsters, however, let’s be clear here, most damage suffered by people who use illicit drugs isn’t caused by the criminal underworld, most damage results from state criminalisation and policing. In the absence of strict state regulation the daily activity of growing, making, buying, selling and exchanging goods and services doesn’t inevitably drift into the hands of dangerous criminals who manage business with guns, knives and baseball bats, but extreme law enforcement measures and severe penalties, have created a hostile and violent environment within which a lucrative underground drug business must operates.
The notion that decriminalisation, rather than regulation, as an initial first step would result in the illegal drug market entirely managed by gangsters is somewhat exaggerated. If we prioritised decriminalisation rather than strict state control (regulation) then cannabis, which is the drug most frequently used illicit drug and the one that occupies most police time, would largely be home grown, shared and exchanged by friends, local growers and societies. Other illicit drugs that are not easily ‘home grown’ could, in a more relaxed transitionary period of drug policy development, be more easily purchased via websites such as Silk Road that operate a consumer rating system, not dissimilar to TradeMe or Ebay. Not perfect, not properly regulated, but this can hardly be described as a threatening market ruled by violence, exploitation and gangsters. The present criminal sub-culture that surrounds the illicit drug market has much more to do with the environment created by fierce law enforcement and prohibition than any preferred pattern of operation by producers, buyers and sellers of drugs, and little to do with the product on sale.
Decriminalisation as a first step towards living with drugs would importantly protect users (particularly the poor, indigenous people and people of colour who are targeted by law enforcement agencies) from police stop and searches, drug related arrests, penalties and incarceration. Drug users would be free from the serious and life long damage of a drug conviction. This would provide more time to look critically and carefully at drug market regulation. The history of regulation involving legal substances alcohol and tobacco has not exactly inspired confidence. The recent significant increase in drug overdose deaths in the USA due largely to regulated painkilling drugs featured in the article below is a reminder of the serious problems that can arise – despite regulation.
The Carrot of Tackling Stigma
If multi-national corporations, and in the example above BigPharma, have unbridled control and extensive freedom to promote and distribute their commercial drug products, major problems can arise from the culture and patterns of drug use. In addition to highlighting the problem of fatal overdoses in the USA the article promotes the need to tackle the stigma of addiction. So after years of trying to combat stigma, discrimination and hostility towards people who use illicit drugs, drug reformers now have the support of the all-powerful USA to unite and push to remove stigma from addiction. An attractive proposition – how could we disagree with removing stigma, surely it’s a campaign worth joining? In and of itself, it certainly would be, but If we look closely, the momentum in the USA to remove stigma is strongly tied with a commitment to promote and embrace the abstinence based disease model of addiction – and the burgeoning rehab and drug testing industry associated with it.
This commitment to the disease and abstinence model has been reinforced by recent high profile appointments in the US drugs field of ‘recovering addicts’ such as Mr. Botticelli the Drug Czar, who will lead the campaign to end the stigma of addiction by pushing for a global adoption of the twelve steps disease model of addiction where the ‘sick’ will forever be in recovery and will be required to live a life of sobriety. No thanks. Like the US campaign to end stigma that has a worrying sting in the tail (promoting abstinence and the adoption of a disease model of addiction), the drive towards drug regulation may also contain some nasty surprises. Strict state regulation per se is a dangerous path to follow, much depends upon what state controls and punishments are imposed. The devil is in the detail and it seems somewhat strange to immediately place trust in the perpetrator to become the new arbitrator and designer of drug control regulations. Under the guise of protecting the individual from the potential harm of illicit drugs the paternalistic state has been trusted with powers over the sovereignty of what a person can consume in their own body. This trust has been misplaced, and these law enforcement powers have been woefully abused. The war on illicit drugs will be remembered with great shame and incredulity in history, and lessons should be learned from this breach of human rights.
New Zealand Psychoactive Substances Regulation
A worrying example of a regulatory model widely promoted by some drug reformers, is the New Zealand Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 which ‘regulated’ legal highs. Under this model, instead of all substances being legal to possess (unless specified and banned under the NZ Misuse of Drugs Act 1975), all psychoactive substances in New Zealand are now illegal to possess unless approved by the state and purchased from an approved commercial seller. In this model of regulation personal possession of any ‘unregulated’ psychoactive substance is an offence that carries a $500 fine, while supply of any unregulated substance is an offence that can lead to two years in prison. Doesn’t this sound a little like repackaged prohibition? The degree of perceived threat posed by unregulated psychoactive substances is such that in order to prevent unregulated supplies New Zealand police have been issued with new intrusive warrantless powers for substances that were previously legal:
What this regulatory model has effectively done is widen the net of prohibition, state control and punishment in New Zealand to include every new psychoactive substance. This raises further important questions regarding how we define what is a psychoactive substance.
After thirty years of working in the drugs field and seeing the terrible damage caused by the war on people who use illicit drugs, it is clear that more harm has been caused by drug policy than from drug use, and whatever regulatory model is eventually rolled out, the non-negotiable priority is that we must ensure personal possession is not an offence, civil or criminal. The individual must have the sovereign right over their own body to consume what they wish – without fear, threat or punishment from the state – the human right to choose. Regulations instead should be confined to market related issues such as production, distribution, sale and advertising and seek to protect the rights and freedom of the individual.
Out of the Frying Pan and into the Fire
A united drug reform campaign to end prohibition and stigma sounds like a dream ticket – but not if drug regulation provides the state with new powers to punish personal possession of unregulated substances, and not if combating stigma means enforcing abstinence and rolling out a the 12 step disease model of addiction – that’s akin to jumping out of the ‘frying pan into the fire’.
Hard fought campaigns for drug law change should not be squandered. For forty years the UK Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and in New Zealand Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 have been impervious to any positive reform and this illustrates just how difficult it might be to make positive amendments to any new drug legislation. Whereas, punitive orientated amendments to drug laws have been much easier to achieve. Considerable caution should therefore be exercised before supporting any new drug laws.
This war between drugs (legal vs illegal) maintained by a relentless, oppressive and robust global drug apartheid, must collapse, like slavery, like the Berlin wall and the South African racial apartheid. The global human and environmental damage caused by the war on illegal drugs is comparable to these terrible historic injustices, and similarly the insidious legacy of propaganda, lies and prejudice will take many decades to dispel.
The legal drug industry profiteers realise support from the law enforcement regime of the drug apartheid is in its final chapter, and we observe a strategic shift and reconfiguration taking place to secure new civil controls through abstinence, drug testing and a disease model. As drug reformers we need to push for revolutionary reform at this critical moment in time, and demand a rational, evidenced based approach to drug policy with human rights and harm reduction at the centre. The campaign to end drug prohibition should not be dissipated by an invitation to cannabis to join the elite substances on the privileged and powerful side of the drug apartheid, nor by the offer to replace prohibition with strict state regulation that incorporates punishment for unapproved possession. No, tweaking or transforming the present corrupt model rooted in racism, self-interest and misinformation is not an option.
The Way Ahead?
The first and foremost change to reduce harm and restore human rights is to prioritise the decriminalisation of personal possession of all substances. Once the human right to possess and consume what an individual chooses with their own body is restored, without fear, threat or punishment from the state, then the complex and tricky road of developing appropriate drug market regulations can begin, but there are a number of potential threats to derail this much needed drug policy change as illustrated in the graphic above. Drug policy change is now possible and indeed likely, but we need to make sure the opportunity is not squandered or hijacked by drug reform entrepreneurs because it could be another four decades before the next opportunity arises.
by Julian Buchanan 7th October 2014
Julian Buchanan is Associate Professor at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.