Extract 6 from Transform's upcoming publication: After the war on Drugs, Tools for the Debate...
The first step towards establishing useful common ground is to point out that there are aims of drug policy and principles under which it should operate, that everyone in this debate can agree on. The principles and aims listed below will not meet with substantial disagreement (with some specific exceptions – see notes) and as such can successfully provide the starting point for more constructive debate between the advocates of alternative policy positions.
Establishing agreement on these fundamentals will allow you to maintain some control over the debate, defuse the anticipated tensions, appeal to the shared concerns of all participants, and create some breathing room in which a meaningful discussion can take place. From this point the debate can develop in a more constructive and rational way towards asking which policy alternatives are likely to bring about these policy aims we all seek.
(A table appended at the end of the guide uses these common ground principles and aims as the basis for a more detailed point by point critique of prohibition, and case for reform)
- All drugs are potentially dangerous, and all drug use is intrinsically risky
Making this point clear early on immediately establishes distance between you and any preconceptions about the law reform position being ‘pro-drug’ (a meaningless term anyway) or somehow ‘defending’ drugs or suggesting they are safe or cool. It also takes the sting out of many anti-regulation/legalisation arguments that revolve around shock/horror facts and anecdotes about how dangerous drug use is. As we will see later, the fact that drugs are potentially dangerous is at the core of the argument for their effective regulation.
- Drug policy should be based on evidence of effectiveness
This is the standard pragmatist’s argument, usefully engaging with the policy maker’s language and concern with ‘what works?’. It is a key point to emphasise, firstly because no-one can seriously make a rational argument against it (that we either shouldn't’t consider the evidence or that policy should be based on evidence of ineffectiveness), and secondly because it draws the debate away from the ideological fault lines, and towards the reality of prohibition’s failure. Emphasising evidence of effectiveness is a key part of re-conceptualising the debate as a rational/scientific one rather than a moral/ideological one.
- Drug policy should offer good value for money
This is essentially the same as the above principle that drug policy should be based on evidence of effectiveness, but has a more direct appeal to people’s pockets: both policy makers who have to decide how to allocate limited budgets, and the wider public who, as tax payers, are the ones funding drug prohibition in the first instance.
Emphasising this principle is another useful way of focusing debate on policy outcomes (rather than processes) and evidence of effectiveness. Because enforcement-led policy offers stunningly poor value for money – it is hugely expensive and creates further costs to society – economics is very fertile territory for arguing the reform position.
- Policy should be based on reality and adapt to changing circumstances
This principle also follows from broader pragmatic argument, but is worth spelling out. What seems obvious for all policy - that it should be based on reality - is less clear for the prohibitionist paradigm, the goals of which remain intimately entwined with a mission to promote abstinence and regulate pleasure.
Given society’s deep rooted dependencies on alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs (not to mention numerous other ‘vices’ and ‘sinful’ pleasures) the idea that we can become free of precisely those drugs whose effects are pleasurable becomes an absurdity. But prohibition and its legal structures remain rooted in these puritanical principles, despite the fact that the social landscape has changed beyond recognition in the 50 years or so since the UN drug conventions were drafted. Furthermore, these conventions were drafted, largely at the behest of the US, to deal with a marginal drug problem largely confined to ethnic minorities and career criminals, not the huge swathes of the population who use illicit drugs today.
- Drug policy is primarily a public health issue
This is a more contentious point to make and is developed later in the guide. However, if you do succeed in moving the debate towards your position that drugs are primarily a public health issue, the prohibitionists are obliged to argue why it shouldn't’t be – or, more specifically, why certain drugs should be dealt with as a public health issue (e.g. Alcohol) and others primarily as criminal activity(see ‘the fault lines within existing policy’).
- Policy should seek to reduce drug related harm
Again this may prove more contentious. Transform maintain that the overarching aim of drug policy should be to minimise harm and maximise well being. Within this overarching objective we can identify a number of specific aims to reduce harms related to drug production, supply and use, with success measured against relevant indicators (including reduction in demand/use).
Prohibitionists traditionally maintain that the aim of policy is to reduce the use of drugs and ultimately to achieve a drug free society. This aim sometimes has the feel of religious dogma – a commandment to which all policy aims must remain loyal, if the promised land of the drug free world is to be attained. It is important to point out that some ‘drug related harms’ are associated with drug use and misuse itself, while others are specifically created or exacerbated by the enforcement of prohibitionist policy and law (e.g. reusing dirty needles, crime to support an illegal drug habit). Consequently, reducing specific prohibition-related harms feature within the aims of drug policy reform, but become a thing of the past under a legally regulated regime. As an analogy, reducing car exhaust emissions would no longer be an aim of transport policy if everyone was driving solar powered electric cars.
As you engage in the debate try to keep this distinction in mind, making it clear that there is a difference between the aims of drug policy reform, (essentially to remove the harms created by prohibition), and the aims of drug policy itself (to maximise well-being and minimise health and social harms related to drug use and misuse). This also helps to highlight how, when prohibition is replaced, we will be in a far better position to address the underlying social ills that fuel most problematic drug use.
online July 2007...