Just as we were about to post a new Mandarin version of a leaflet on our website, a friend raised concerns that any one caught with it in China risked very serious consequences indeed.
The Chinese Government still marks world anti-drugs day by mass killings of drug offenders , and would certainly take a dim view of anyone promoting regulation and control instead of prohibition.
So we held off. Until I had a chat with the Chinese Desk at Amnesty International who very sensibly said;
“In general I think we have to leave it up to the web users themselves to judge whether or not to download certain information from the Internet. To try to make that judgment for them takes away their own agency. Much of our own Chinese information is deemed sensitive by the authorities leading to our website being blocked in China, at least until very recently. But we would not limit our information to 'non-sensitive' issues in order to satisfy the controls.... Having said that, we would not proactively send 'sensitive' information to people out of the blue, if we thought they could get into trouble for possessing it.”
My reading of this is, “don’t do the Chinese Government’s dirty work for them” by self-censorship. That road disempowers people, firstly by depriving some individuals of the information they need to make up their own minds, and others who hold the same view as you, of the knowledge that they are not alone.
And disempowering people means those mis-using authority (by restricting access to or distorting information) have won, and nothing will change.
This set me thinking. I was struck and heartened at the recent (excellent) Release Conference by how many speakers (almost all) and questions were directly or almost directly supportive of an end to drug prohibition - because it causes more harm than good - and in favour of regulation and control. Even Chris Huhne MP (Lib Dem Home Affairs) while not advocating an end to prohibition, agreed that regulation and control could reduce access by minors to currently illegal drugs.
Yet, as someone admittedly still quite new to drug policy NGOs, I had never heard anyone from UK groups other than Transform advocating an end to prohibition in the media, with the exception of Sebastian Saville of Release supporting the idea of regulation and control in a TV debate with Evan Harris MP.
Is it possible that there are groups that recognise the truth about prohibition, but self-censor on this issue when in the media eye?
And if they do, isn’t that also disempowering people in a similar way?
And isn’t it letting the Government get away with both mis-information, and with deliberately withholding information, for example, by refusing to carry out a cost-benefit analysis of different approaches to drug policy?
As Julian Critchley (Ex- director of the UK Anti-Drug Co-Ordination Unit) said recently;
“I think what was truly depressing about my time in the civil service was that the professionals I met from every sector held the same view: the illegality of drugs causes far more problems for society and the individual than it solves. Yet publicly, all those people were forced to repeat the mantra that the Government would be "tough on drugs", even though they all knew that the policy was causing harm.”
The public are ready for the debate. As the BBC’s Mark Easton put it for the Radio 4 Today programme, and on his blog in a piece called "Legalise drugs: from Maverick to Mainstream";
“The last few years have seen an extraordinary shift in thinking about this issue with increasingly mainstream figures arguing we should consider legalisation as an alternative to what they regard as the failure of the law-enforcement strategy.“
Climate change on this issue is happening. At Transform we believe it is time to speak openly and honestly, because if we don’t, we are disempowering the public, and by doing the Government’s dirty work for them, empowering those who cynically use drug war posturing for their own ends, at appalling cost to millions of individuals, and whole communities.
We all have a responsibility to review whether we are self-censoring, and if our continuing to do so is unnecessarily perpetuating the war on drugs.
Download our new Chinese Leaflet here (pdf)
The English version is here (pdf)