By Julian Buchanan
7th October 2014
At a time when it is now widely accepted we need to manage drugs differently because the prohibition of particular drugs has caused more damaged than the drugs society 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 particular drugs (while other more dangerous legal drugs go under the radar) there appears to be rally call for drug reformers to unite under the the very broad umbrella of drug ‘regulation’ as the way forward. 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 to people who use illicit drugs isn’t caused by the criminal underworld, most damage is caused by criminalisation and law enforcement agencies. Indeed it is tough enforcement that has created the environment for lucrative underground drug business.
The portrayal of all illegal drug use ultimately managed by gangsters is somewhat exaggerated. If we prioritised decriminalisation rather than regulation then cannabis (the drug most frequently used and the one that occupies most police time) would be home grown by many and passed around and exchanged by friends and local growers. Other illicit drugs not easily home grown would largely be purchased by websites such as Silk Road that operate a consumer rating system, not dissimilar to TradeMe or Ebay. Not perfect, not properly regulated but a far cry from urgent need to take drugs out of the hands of the dangerous threat of gangsters. Decriminalisation as a first step towards better regulation, would protect users (particularly the poor, indigenous people and people of colour) from police stop and searches, arrests, penalties and incarceration. They’d be free from the serious damage of a conviction.
This would give is time to look more critically and closely at drug regulation – it isn’t inherently good. The latest epidemic of ‘regulated’ drugs in the article featured below reminds us of the serious problem of painkilling drugs in the USA – despite regulation.
If big business, and in this example BigPharma, have unbridled control and extensive freedom to promote and distribute their commercial products, major problems can arise from the culture and patterns of use. In the article featured we see a serious problem of fatal overdoses in the USA arising from drugs which are regulated. The article also 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 massive 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 many so called ‘recovering addicts’, 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 need to live a life of sobriety. No thanks.
So like the US campaign to end stigma has a worrying sting in the tail (promoting abstinence and a disease model of addiction), drug regulation may also contain some nasty surprises. Regulation per se is a dangerous path to follow, much depends upon what the regulation looks like. The devil is in the detail. A worrying example of 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 added to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 and banned), under this regulation model all psychoactive substances in New Zealand are now illegal to possess unless approved by the state and purchased from an approved commercial seller. So regulation mean personal possession of any ‘unregulated’ psychoactive substance can be punished by a fine of $500, while supply of an unregulated substance can result in 2 years prison. Doesn’t this sound a little like repackaged prohibition? So this regulation has effectively widened the net of prohibition and punishment in New Zealand to include every new psychoactive substance. This also raises further questions regarding how we define and determine a psychoactive substance. Should caffeine be included? From thirty years of working in the field and seeing the damage arising from the war on people who use illicit drugs it is clear whatever regulatory model is rolled out the non negotiable priority is we ensure personal possession is not an offence (civil or criminal).
Further laws under the New Zealand model of regulation also provide the police with new intrusive powers concerning substances previously legal:
So a united drug reform campaign to tackle criminalisation and stigma sounds like a dream ticket – but regulation that punishes personal possession of any substance not approved by the state and combating stigma by rolling out a the 12 step disease model of addiction is akin to jumping out of the ‘frying pan into fire’. Hard fought campaigns for change should not be squandered, and the experience of the Misuse of Drugs Act (UK 1971) and New Zealand 1975 both impervious to positive change illustrates just how difficult it might be to make positive amendments to any new regulation laws. Punitive orientated amendments to drug laws seem much easier to achieve.
This war between drugs (legal vs illegal) maintained by a relentless and oppressive global drug apartheid needs to collapse, like slavery, like the Berlin wall and the South African racial apartheid. The legal drug industry profiteers realise the law enforcement regime of the apartheid has now had its day, and we observe a strategic shifting and reconfiguration taking place to gain new controls through abstinence, drug testing and a disease model.
As drug reformers we need to aim for revolutionary reform at this critical moment in time, and push for a rational, evidenced based approach with human rights and harm reduction at the centre. Tweaking or transforming to maintain the present model is not a wise option. The first and foremost change to reduce harm and restore human rights would be to prioritise the decriminalisation of personal possession of all substances. Once human rights to possess and consume what individual choose to with their own body is restored, then the complex and tricky road of developing ‘good’ regulation can begin, but there are a number of potential threats to much needed drug policy change:
As drug policy change is now possible and likely, we need to make sure the opportunity is not squandered or hijacked by drug reform entrepreneurs.