The bifurcation of drugs: A misguided love-hate relationship?

Image Courtesy of Gregg O’Connell

Drug policy reform will founder if it colludes with these four prohibition paradigms:

1. “There is a war on drugs” — there has never been a war on drugs, or a war on drug users — what we have is a war on certain sections of society who use unapproved drugs.

2. “There is global drug problem” — there is no global drug problem, what we have is a devastating global drug policy problem caused by prohibitionist policies.

3. “Society is not ready to accept drugs” — society has never rejected drugs, it embraces them, indeed every section of society is using psychoactive drugs (including caffeine, alcohol, sugar, nicotine and pharmaceuticals).

4. “Some people need to become drug-free” — the term drug-free is prohibitionist propaganda, we all use drugs, even the people who are proclaimed ‘drug-free’ are continuing to use other psychoactive drugs.

It is time to speak truth to power. Prohibition, like sexism, racism, homophobia and disablism, - is an inhumane ideologically driven system of discrimination. Every system of oppression is in part sustained by misinformation, propaganda and misrepresentation. The propaganda serves to prevent people from realising the truth. The lies and fallacies that underpin ‘drug’ prohibition dominate our drug discourse, they distort and hinder how we engage with drug reform. The propaganda needs exposing and challenging.

Prohibition is having a devastating global impact on individuals, families, communities and countries. Prohibition will be remembered as one of the most barbaric and brutal systems of oppression in recent history.

When prohibition was enshrined in the UN Single Convention almost 60yrs ago, Anglophile governments across the globe already had a raft of other equally offensive laws and policies.

Policies to remove indigenous children from families, lock up gay people, restrict the movement of black people, deny woman’s right to participation, stigmatise the mentally ill and silo people with learning disabilities. These laws resulted in a history of shameful government oppression and stigma towards these people.

Thankfully, seven decades later, these offensive prejudices, sustained by propaganda, misinformation and lies, are no longer socially acceptable and crucially no longer state-sanctioned! They have been successfully exposed and challenged following exhausting work from activists, oppressive laws have been rescinded and human rights restored. Personal and cultural issues remain but at least discriminatory laws and policies have changed.

However, in contrast, over this same period, state-sanctioned oppression towards people who use alternative substances (to the government approved psychoactive drugs) has not changed.

Despite some concessions to cannabis, the fiercely enforced drug apartheid remains firmly in place, and otherwise, Prohibition has changed little.

Arguably, it’s worse today than it was in the 1960s, as surveillance, enforcement and exclusionary measures have now extended beyond the criminal realm into the civil domain, with drug testing for the presence of unapproved substances — imposed on people receiving welfare benefits, students, patients, motorists and employees.

Over this period we have witnessed the normalisation and cultural accommodation of state-approved psychoactive drugs (alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, pharmaceuticals & sugar), which have monopolised and saturated the market and become essential components to any social gathering, occasion or event.

This bifurcation between promoted state approved and demonised state banned drugs has no scientific or pharmacological basis — it’s rooted in racism, power and political propaganda. What we have been taught to see as ‘drugs’ is a social construct.

The state approved psychoactive substances are privileged and untouchable and somehow go unseen on the drug radar. While in contrast demonised banned drugs are blamed for the devastation and damage caused by prohibition!

Prohibition has not only distorted our view of drugs it has poisoned how we understand drug prevention, drug education and drug treatment. These services have become preoccupied with avoiding all unapproved drugs, intolerance, with becoming ‘clean’ or drug-free, and misinformed about addiction and recovery.

Prohibition over exaggerates the danger of drugs but one of the greatest threats to PWUBD 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 may lead to incarceration — even the death penalty. A growing punitiveness has seen Duterte in the Philippines and Trump in the USA promote the death penalty for suspected ‘drug’ dealers, — excluding, of course, drug dealers who peddle state-approved drugs.

Prohibition likes to blame drugs for the presence of violent gangs, gangsters and drug cartels, but they are not inevitable by-products of drugs or an unregulated market. No, they are inevitable outcomes spawned from a brutally enforced system of drug prohibition, as also witnessed with alcohol prohibition in the 1920s.

‘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.

Discriminatory policing has resulted in shocking disparities and over-representation of indigenous people and people of colour in prison, particularly in New Zealand, Australia, UK & USA.

In NZ Māori make up 15% of the pop. but 51% of the prison population.

Prohibition has fuelled misinformation, division, harm, violence and death. It has undermined public health, facilitated the spread of dangerous diseases such as HIV & hepatitis, caused environmental damage and pollution, weakened human rights, encouraged hostility, stigma and discrimination towards the ‘Other’. Prohibition has undermined international development and security, increased crime, facilitated lucrative illegal markets, negatively redefined police-community relations, led to overcrowded prisons, and wasted billions in a relentless attempt to enforce an ideologically driven system of oppression.

There are two main risks for people who use prohibited substances: the first is damage caused by law enforcement, criminalisation and punishment; and the second is the harm from using banned drugs — not knowing what you are using (because there is no framework for quality control) and for a small minority developing drug problems. Both issues must be resolved, — but the greatest extent of damage is caused overwhelmingly by law enforcement not drugs.

Enforcement measures disproportionately impact the poor, BME and indigenous people. Whereas, by contrast, people who are both white AND privileged are rarely captured in the ever-widening enforcement net of prohibition.

For privileged groups the greatest threat is not the criminal justice system, no, their greatest threat is ingesting an adulterated drug and acquiring a legitimate supply.

Hardly surprising then, two reform strategies currently gaining the most traction, are ‘drug checking’ at festivals (not at needle exchanges or drug consumption rooms) and cannabis legalisation.

Legal Regulation seeks to ensure a clean legal supply for those who can afford to purchase pharmaceutical grade drugs from the new government approved drug business entrepreneurs.

This removes the main threat of prohibition as experienced by the privileged (the lack of quality control), it additionally facilitates new business opportunities.

Legal Regulation is a broad concept. For example, alcohol is a legally regulated drug (poorly regulated in my opinion), but equally, opioids are another legally regulated drug (too strictly in my view). So when we call for Legal Regulation what are we actually promoting?

Legal Regulation is essentially a campaign for the government to take control and regulate drugs, but we should remember, it was the government that created this drug policy disaster because they tried to regulate what drugs we can and can’t consume!

Legal Regulation is a response to a symptom of Prohibition, but it fails to fundamentally address the cause of our drug policy problem. The draconian and brutal system of enforcement that seeks to determine what people can and cannot ingest.

Unless Prohibition is abolished drug law enforcement will create with new crimes for unregulated possession, production and supply of drugs, inevitably continuing to target the same vulnerable communities as before.

Prohibition has always been about maintaining power, profit and privilege. 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 new business opportunities.

Yes, I want to see a legally regulated supply of all drugs, not just cannabis, but to what extent that addresses the problem of an illegal market depends greatly on how the ‘regulation’ model operates. For example, under a regulation model, the government could insist all drugs 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. A Regulation model that prohibits and punishes unapproved adult personal possession, is Prohibition 2.0.

Let’s be clear and tell it as it is: the main problem is Prohibition (not drugs per se); the key protagonists are the UN & government law enforcement agencies (not gangsters); the main damage is fuelled by the military, criminal and community justice system (not criminals).

And the main victims are not so much the privileged class, but the poor, indigenous and BME communities who have for decades suffered terribly under prohibition, facing 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 and unapproved drugs 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 the target of drug law enforcement measures.

An open invitation to state (the perpetrators of prohibition), who have for decades continually and deliberately ignored science and evidence to enforce a brutal system of prohibition, to weave in a legal regulation model within a system of prohibition, is likely to result in continued disproportionate law enforcement measures imposed on the poor, the indigenous and BME groups for possession of ‘unapproved’ drugs.

Legal Regulation could be to Prohibition, what Jim Crow was to Slavery.

Before any regulation model should be considered, we must first and foremost be united in our push to decriminalise ALL possession, cultivation and production of drugs for adult personal use. It’s your body and should be your choice what you ingest, without threat, criminalisation, punishment or imprisonment from the state.

Decriminalisation is a simple step that could be enacted quickly and with little effort or cost. Importantly, it sets the human rights framework to then explore full legalisation and the complex process of legal regulation.

Decriminalisation of all personal possession is the easy to implement ‘low-hanging fruit’ — but so much more needs to be done. Decriminalising cultivation and production for personal use only would be the next easy step that would help users reduce the need for engagement in the criminal underworld, especially when the most popular drug used (cannabis) is, in most countries, 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 and receive reparation.

Ultimately, all drugs should be available to adults under a legally regulated market, with strict regulation over the businesses (rather than consumers).

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 becoming available in cafe’s, bars, restaurants and major events

This may sound like unknown territory, but it isn’t really. We have already regulated, culturally accommodated, privileged and promoted what is arguably the most harmful drug of all — alcohol — and we’ve regulated it badly.

However, despite pushing this poisonous and addictive depressant drug and managing it poorly, we have lived to tell the tale, and this evening lots of people at this conference without any sense of panic or fear will be using and enjoying alcohol — the state approved drug.

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 could 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 also lead to some wiser and better-informed choices — some already being witnessed in areas that have legalised cannabis.

Ending the monopoly currently awarded to state promoted psychoactive drugs will allow healthier and less harmful choices.

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, we don’t seek to prevent people from having coffee, glass of wine, or cigar — instead we must be in the business of preventing drug policy harms caused by prohibition policies, promoting safer drug use and preventing and treating drug addiction.

There has never been a war on drugs, or a war on drug users — what we have is a war on certain sections of society who use unapproved drugs. There is no global drug problem — what we have is a serious global drug policy problem. Society is not against drugs, nor has it ever been — every section of society drugs uses drugs (including caffeine, alcohol, sugar, nicotine and pharmaceuticals). The term drug-free is prohibitionist propaganda nonsense — we all use drugs — even the people who are proclaimed ‘drug-free’.

It’s time we speak the truth to power to expose and abolish this system of oppression known as prohibition.

Thank you.


Julian Buchanan
Friday 9th November 2018

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Retired Professor, international expert in drug policy, researcher, public speaker, writer and ex UN advisor.