Special Report by Nick Wallis from Washinton DC
The International Drug Policy Reform Conference was held in mid-November in Washinton DC. It brought together over 1000 attendees representing over 30 different countries. The event was hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance, a US non-profit focused on drug law reform grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights. The conference was certainly a melting pot of ideas for those seeking policy reform, but it was also clear that much that needs to be done, with so many still harmed by the policy of prohibition.
Prohibition has failed. It has exacerbated harms, fed violent gangs, created a global black market that is estimated to be worth around $1.8 trillion and worst of all, it does all of these things while claiming to be “helping”. Re-thinking drug policy will take a lot of hard work from a diverse range of people.
At the conference, Dede Goldsmith shared her story. In 2013, Dede's daughter Shelley died of heat stroke at a club in Washington DC, after taking MDMA (ecstasy). Shelley's death was not caused by an overdose of the drug. It was caused by a combination of effects, including dehydration and hyperthermia. Dede's heartbreak was clear as she told her story, because it was a death that should never have happened. In Australia, there have been far too many deaths over the past few years that shouldn't have happened, leaving gaping holes in families, communities and work places.
Over the past five years, there have been nearly 40 amendments to drug control legislation across Australia that have attempted to address concerns around Novel Psychoactive Substance (NPS), which are sometimes misleadingly called 'synthetic drugs' or 'legal highs'. European countries and the US have also been locked in a game of cat and mouse between legislator and chemist.
Executive Director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation Ross Bell spoke at the conference about the NZ Psychoactive Substances Act, which attempted to regulate the market for NPS by implementing a regulated system of tightly controlled licenses and testing. For a short time, New Zealand had a regulated market for low-risk psychoactive substances but with an election looming, the potential for cheap political points at the expense of people who use drugs was too alluring for some Kiwi politicians.
Mr. Bell was still optimistic though, pointing out that with some minor technical adjustments, the Act could be used to regulate any currently illegal, but low-risk substance, such as cannabis or MDMA. But the New Zealand Government would still need to make a major adjustment in its own attitude to drug controls.
This is the unfortunate common theme in drug policy reform. Founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance Ethan Nadelmann cheered our victories but reminded us all that far too often when we get one step forward, drug policy takes two steps back somewhere else.
Australia is a nation of drug-takers. Close to all of us drink some amount of alcohol, one in three of us regularly smoke cannabis and one in ten of us are fond of MDMA. And the vast majority of us take these substances without dying, without becoming addicted and without seeing serious negative consequence.
Both drug prevention and addiction were on the agenda at the conference. An entire panel was dedicated to, 'Drug Prevention in the Age of Marijuana Legalisation'. One of the panelists, a doctor who works in public health, said that paediatricians used to be taught to tell young boys that they would develop gynecomastia if they took cannabis. Gynecomastia is the enlargement of a man's breasts. Doctors were told to lie to children as part of campaign to scare them off trying cannabis.
The panelists were all quite understanding that fear campaigns have created mistrust in the authorities on the topic of drugs, meaning that even their sensible messages fall on deaf ears. Kids are smart. They won't approach the person who says, “Just say no” for advice.
Drug addiction is perhaps the primary reason used to justify prohibition. The idea of addiction as a moral scourge has been used to justify practices such as increases in legal penalties, including a disturbing practice of removing children from loving parents who happen to use an illegal drug, coercive drug treatment models and a hyperbolic narrative of 'drug pusher' which presents this figure as a demon-like character who pushes moral decay onto unwitting victims.
Measuring the effectiveness of any drug policy is hinged on whose evidence you're using and exactly what is considered to be effective. If one group is focused on abstinence being the only acceptable outcome, then any use will be considered abuse and potentially have someone labeled an addict.
The biggest job for anyone interested in drug policy reform is clear communication of accurate information. Myths about drugs still prevail and for many, the only legitimate story to be heard from a drug user is their story of repentance. It's our job to challenge and change these perspectives.
Prohibition has failed and it's time for a new approach to the way we relate to drugs.
By Nick Wallis, producer of Enpsychedelia Radio Program, Sundays from 2pm on 3CR 855AM