Saturday, June 30, 2007

Different audiences in the drugs debate

The third extract from Transform's upcoming publication : After the War on Drugs, Tools for the Debate:

Different audiences in the debate

These starkly opposed assumptions (see: the fault lines in the debate between prohibitionist and reform positions) mean that the drugs debate is often conducted between groups of people who see the issues around drugs and their control very differently. You will encounter a range of different audiences in the political, media, NGO or public arenas, who have a range of different views on drug policy and policy reform. It is important to adapt your approach accordingly. The positions that you will find yourself arguing against can be roughly categorised as follows:

Evangelical prohibitionists

These tend to be people directly involved in drug enforcement; those who have a strong faith position (where drug use often equates to ‘sin’); or, occasionally, those who have had bad personal experiences with illegal drugs. (Note: none of these backgrounds preclude supporting reform – see: Transform’s archive of high profile supporters of reform). Always remember and respect the fact that these views are usually sincere and well-intentioned - they may have witnessed real drug related harm, are fearful it will get worse and passionately want to prevent it. To them drugs are a Pandora ’s Box, and prohibition – the law - is keeping the lid on it. They genuinely believe that ‘legalisation’ (as they perceive it) would pry open the box, cost lives and make the world a worse place. As such, they see themselves as prohibition’s principled guardians and advocates of law reform as their natural enemies.

Such views may be so deeply entrenched that there is little point trying to turn them round - it can be like arguing Darwinism with committed creationists. Sometimes the best you can achieve with such individuals or audiences is to use any public forum as an opportunity to put your views across, contrasting your rational reform position with the ideological prohibitionist one – and let the audience make their own minds up. That said, in Transform’s experience many of the least likely people, including some of our seemingly most implacable opponents, have in time been won over. Never give up hope, but be ready to cut your losses.

Knee-jerk prohibitionists

‘Knee-jerk’ isn’t meant here in any rude way, maybe ‘prohibitionists by default’ would be a good alternative term. These are people, probably constituting the bulk of your audience, who default to supporting some or most of the prohibitionist positions outlined above on the basis of exposure to one sided discourse and debate over a number of years. It is important to remember that, superficially at least, drug war rhetoric is very appealing, especially when unchallenged in mainstream debate by any coherent alternative. This audience’s position is based on ignorance of the reform analysis, rather than entrenched ideology, and is fertile ground for informing and changing perceptions. The shifting public opinion on cannabis reform (15% supporting decriminalisation/legalisation in the mid 80s, to over 50% today) provides strong evidence of how exposure to informed debate on this issue invariably pushes people in the direction of supporting reform. This is why you need to be getting involved in the debate.

Unconvinced reformers

This audience is your most receptive target. These are people who understand the failings of the current system and instinctively know that ‘something needs to be done’, but they are unclear what that might be. In the absence of a clear argument being made for moves towards legal regulation they will generally not feel inclined to challenge reforms being put forward by government, such as increased coerced treatment or harsh criminal justice crackdowns and ‘get tough’ initiatives. Their views on legal regulation may be clouded by misunderstandings about ‘legalisation’, put forward by cannabis evangelists or extreme libertarians. When they are presented with a coherent set of policy alternatives this group will usually be happy to support them.

Prohibitionist politicians

There is a fourth audience – the prohibitionist politicians, potentially the most important audience of all but often the most unequivocal and effective opponents of reform. The drug policy debate operates at an entirely different level to the rational / scientific one. It is important to bear in mind that many politicians hold a hard-line prohibitionist position for self-interested and career reasons – they are self-appointed ‘drug warriors’. Usually they are senior parliamentarians (ministers and their shadows), their spokespeople and the civil servants who back them up. They will trot out a ‘tough on drugs’ party line and back it up with a well-practiced repertoire of moral outrage or evasion, regardless of their personal views. They are the nearest thing you will encounter to a mortal enemy in this debate: they know their case is indefensible but argue it anyway. They are treating an important debate with disdain and in doing so are perpetuating a system they know to be harmful. No amount of brilliant argument will sway them because they are not interested in genuine intellectual debate or new ideas. If you have thoughts on how to influence this group please get in touch with us.

part 1
part 2

online July 2007...

No comments: