Drug policy has never been about reducing harm or protecting the public.
History shows that drug policy is rarely about preventing harm. More often, it is concerned with issues of race, profit, morality and political power.
In late 2014, British Home Secretary Theresa May came under fire from then-Drugs Minister Norman Baker, as well as several advocacy groups, for the alleged suppression of a report discussing drug policy reform. The report, which has at long last been released to the public, examines the policies of several other countries in an attempt to improve current policy in the United Kingdom.
Despite successive governments claiming that the current approach is working, prohibition has undeniably failed. Drug use and drug-related health problems, including deaths, have generally remained stable or increased, while drug-related crime has also risen. This is despite the British government spending an estimated £19 billion per year on enforcement efforts, anti-drug education in schools and health care associated with drug use. This is unsurprising, given that evidence from worldwide studies shows there is no link between harsh enforcement and lower levels of drug use; this was also a finding of the aforementioned report.
Globally, an estimated 200,000 drug-related deaths occur per year, and drug-related violence in producer states has continued to escalate with a huge impact on local populations. The drug war in Mexico has claimed over 100,000 lives in the last nine years, with mass graves becoming a common feature as the corruption worsens and law enforcement efforts become more militarized.
The report in question could be the first real step toward drug policy reform in Britain, despite the Conservative government’s apparent attempts to block it. Danny Kushlick of Transform Drug Policy Foundation, speaking to The Independent, suggests a reason for the government’s reluctance to publish the report: “Both Tory and Labour governments have a long and shameful history of withholding drug policy analysis that contradicts the prohibitionist orthodoxy.” The reality is that this report is just the latest in a long line of studies that have been ignored by the government, several of which have came from the government.
So why is a report that could improve the lives of thousands of drug users being ignored?
The answer is that drug policy has never been about reducing harm or protecting the public. Prohibitionist drug policy has come about because of a need for governments to control certain groups of people, and as a means of attaining political kudos through “being seen to be doing something.” Doing anything but condemning drug use is seen as career suicide in the eyes of many politicians.
The humanitarian objective that politicians and policymakers pay lip service to (with a few exceptions, Baker being one) is nothing more than a cover for this fact. If they really cared about reducing drug-related harm, then they would be pro-reform. In reality the “War on Drugs” is a war on people, and — given ethnic disparities in stop and search and convictions — only certain groups of people. Those groups do not tend to be the ones politicians rely on to stay in power.
The government and the media are often complicit in spreading propaganda as a means of provoking a reaction from the public to justify tighter social controls and maintain the interests of the elite. As Noam Chomsky states in a 1998 interview in High Times: “This engineering or manufacture of consent is the essence of democracy, because you have to insure [sic] that ignorant and meddlesome outsiders — meaning we, the people — don’t interfere with the work of the serious people who run public affairs in the interests of the privileged.”
The way in which prohibition has been used as a tool of social control can be seen in the history of drug control policies. Opium prohibition in the early 20th century, one of the earliest examples of punitive drug controls, was enacted as a way of controlling Chinese immigrant workers in the United States by exploiting fears about white middle-class values and working-class jobs. The fact there was little evidence of a serious problem existing as a result of opium use was irrelevant.
In much the same way, cannabis prohibition occurred in the United States in the 1930s as a way of controlling the Mexican and African populations. The head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, and the anti-cannabis lobby exploited depression-era anxieties and xenophobia about cannabis-using Africans through propaganda films like Reefer Madness. Racism and private business interests were the motivation for the prohibition of cannabis, not a desire to reduce harm.
Contemporary examples of “drug scares” have moved from demonizing the groups using drugs to demonizing the drugs themselves. The use of drugs like ecstasy, widely associated with the rave culture of the 1990s, has been held forth as a sign of the moral corruption of youth, where users are portrayed as unwitting and irresponsible victims. Drugs like ecstasy supposedly hail the beginning of the end for civil society, according to the mainstream narrative, while drug policy still unfairly targets those from deprived social backgrounds and ethnic minority groups.
The use of “legal highs” — otherwise known as new psychoactive substances or NPS, and most often not legal — has been conflated with anxieties about the increased use of the Internet by young people and the supposed threat this now poses to the morality of youth. There are also hints at underlying anxieties about foreign invasion in the tabloids, given that these substances are thought to be produced largely in China; the racial element of drug control seems to have gone full circle in this case.
Mephedrone, perhaps the most popular NPS of recent years, was often referred to as a “killer drug” by the tabloid press. The mainstream media chose to obsess over mephedrone-related deaths and the bizarre behaviors apparently associated with its use, despite the fact that mephedrone deaths accounted for only 1.2% of all drug-related deaths in 2012. That amounts to 18 deaths related to mephedrone compared to over 8,000 alcohol-related deaths, but we did not consider banning alcohol.
The majority of the deaths attributed to mephedrone were later found not to be the directly due to use of the drug. Regardless, the crisis had been framed and the public outcry, which was guaranteed by the media-driven moral panic, led to the prohibition of mephedrone in 2010. This occurred despite the fact that much of the evidence suggests the rise in popularity of NPS use was largely due to the impacts of prohibition on the price and purity of substances like cocaine and ecstasy. Incidentally, the figures quoted above refer to post-ban mephedrone deaths, which were lower before the drug was prohibited in 2010.
Cheaper and purer mephedrone, available for convenient online purchase and delivery, was seen by drug users as a way of avoiding adulterated and expensive drugs like ecstasy and cocaine, as well as a way of avoiding dealing with the black market. Similar motivations are driving the rise of so-called “deep web” marketplaces such as Silk Road. Now that mephedrone is illegal, it has risen in price and dropped in purity, as well as being mixed with other illegal drugs like ecstasy. Despite these findings, mephedrone was banned globally by the United Nations earlier this year. The evidence is less important than maintaining the illusion of control, even if that means the opposite is really true and more NPS continue to emerge across international drug markets.
As a result of years of being used to demonize undesirable groups, as well as being demonized themselves, drugs have come to symbolize many of the underlying fears of contemporary society: the corruption of youth; radical challenges to the political status quo; xenophobic fears over immigration and foreign invasion; and a sign of rampant hedonism, which is frowned upon by Western societies that are still suffering from the hangover of Puritanism and the days of the temperance movement.
Drug users are dehumanized and attributed with negative characteristics in order to be presented as the modern “folk devils,” and they are consequently disowned by the rest of society. It is assumed that drug users are morally deficient, mentally or physically ill, and possibly even dangerous. Why else would you use drugs, submitting yourself to the perils of certain death or inevitable addiction?
The fact these assertions do not stand up to the realities of drug use in the 21st century is irrelevant to those who enforce and maintain the orthodoxy of prohibition. Evidence that demonstrates that most drug use is not problematic is repeatedly ignored in the deliberately narrow mainstream debate. At the same time the favored stereotypes and misinformation are perpetually circulated by the mainstream media, politicians and other groups who have a stake in maintaining the status quo. Despite the slow emergence of arguments to counter the anti-drug narrative, the general debate around drug use remains largely uncritical and unchanged.
Decades of accumulated propaganda and the demonization of drug users have led us to a situation where it is impossible to challenge the orthodoxy of prohibition in the mainstream. This is the reason Theresa May and the Conservative Party are scared to appear “soft” on drugs; it could mean political suicide because of the pervasive public fear over those drug-using “folk devils” and myths about drugs that the prohibitionists themselves have created. It would also mean admitting that they have continued to allow drug users to suffer — and society to keep paying the social and economic costs of prohibition — just so they can further their own political careers while displaying unbelievable political cowardice.
So how do we challenge the prohibitionist orthodoxy? One way in which this is currently happening is through the Internet, where drug-using minorities who have no voice in the mainstream can be heard by millions. The Internet is ubiquitous, and it cannot be controlled by any government because it does not fall under the domain or control of one state. The government monopoly over information, which facilitates propaganda and social control, has finally been broken. It is no wonder then that the government has attempted to censor online critics of the War on Drugs, while the United Nations has described the Internet as a “weapon of mass destruction.”
Even several mainstream publications, such as The Guardian and The New York Times, have recently criticized the current approach to drugs, and so the widespread misreporting of drug-related issues in the mainstream media is also changing. However, challenging the orthodoxy is just one part of the problem; the governance of drug policy itself also needs to be addressed before a pragmatic and rational drug policy can be developed.
A recent research series into drug policy governance by Australian academic Caitlin Hughes and her colleagues refers to governance in the drug policy context as “the processes and mechanisms by which policy is directed, controlled and held to account.”
Improving governance thus means a more transparent and evidence-based policy process that can appropriately respond to drug-related problems by referring to best practice and available evidence. Most importantly, a process that guarantees transparency and accountability would not only highlight the lack of evidence on which current policy is based, but it would ultimately expose self-serving politicians like Theresa May who are reluctant to challenge orthodoxy for fear of damaging their careers.
In a policy environment characterized by good governance, and where media misinformation is challenged, the report commissioned — and then obstructed — by the British Home Office would have been published immediately, and reform would be on the table. In the context of a less politically and morally charged policy process, the report may never have been required in the first place; perhaps one of the several that came before it would have been heeded and acted upon.
Norman Baker has now resigned as minister of state for crime prevention, shortly after successfully pushing for the report to be published. He cited the difficulty of working with May and the rest of the Home Office as a factor in his resignation, stating that there was little support for “rational evidence-based policy” in the department.
So what did that report say after all? It found that decriminalization based on the Portuguese model was the best way forward for UK drug policy, mainly because there was no evidence to support the idea that harsh punishment reduces drug use. And what was the response from the Home Office? “This government has absolutely no intention of decriminalizing drugs,” which can be read as “this government has absolutely no intention of following the evidence.”
This author attended the event presenting the report, where MP Julian Huppert and Baroness Meacher called for reform, but there are still dissenting voices who allege bias in favor of reform. If that bias does exist, it is because the evidence overwhelmingly supports it. But despite this, politics has not quite caught up to reality — in the words of Mike Rice from the International Drug Policy Consortium. Until the political narrative on drugs drastically changes in the Britain, it looks likely that this report is doomed to be ignored, while drug policy reform remains a distant dream and thousands continue to suffer as a result.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.