Day 1 – Drug Policy Alliance Reform Conference

Written by on November 20, 2015


Ethan Nadelmann knows how to make an audience feel passionate and unified. That’s the sort of quality you’d expect in the Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a nationwide non-profit organisation in the United States, with the following stated vision and mission:

Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 2.41.45 pmIn the opening plenary of the 2015 conference, Ethan focused on our need as a movement for drug law reform to remember our history and the people who have fought before us and ensure that the movement is cohesive across the younger and older generations. For the older generations, it is important they share their stories with the younger, especially if they feel that the younger generation are repeating a mistake or acting in a means that might seem naive. For the younger generations, we must learn our history and acknowledge the work of those who have come before us.

Ethan also focused on the need for this movement, which is fundamentally a movement for human civil liberties, to connect with other movements for the protection of all our liberties and grow out and up into these spaces together.

The war on drugs has been fundamentally a policy driven by fear. Fear the drug user with their superhuman strength and unpredictable violence. Fear the drug peddler on the corner looking to get your kids hooked on the latest (obviously synthetic) heromethamphocaineabis. Fear the brain damage that the drug user inflicts on themselves, making them a burden to society. Fear the moral depravity of these less-than-humans.

Our movement to reform these destructive laws is fundamentally focused on freedom. The freedom to know that we own our own bodies and minds. The freedom to not be subject to arbitrary laws enforced with discretion that often reflects prejudices or corruption.

Ethan also pointed out that we, as a movement, need to accept that potential to move two steps forward and three steps backward. He didn’t go into much detail on the drug court system in the US, which was intended to be a step in the right direction but has ended up causing more problems. I haven’t had a good look at Australia’s drug court system, but the ABC Radio National program, Earshot did broadcast an excellent short series looking into the drug courts.

The crux of the program is illuminated in this sentence, “Under this program, long term addicts, many of them hardened criminals, are released from jail in order to join a strict rehabilitation program designed to end their addiction.”
At the beating heart of this program is a philosophy of absolute abstinence. For some people, this is certainly the goal they should aim for. But for many others, absolute abstinence is an unfair and unrealistic goal. The promotion of absolute abstinence removes the autonomy from the individual over a certain aspect of how they use their own bodies and minds. It suggests to them that they are powerless before the substance (which is a fundamental principle in 12-Step programs and other – often religion – abstinence-absolutist programs), which is a line of thinking that I’m sure has other consequences on the relationship with oneself internally. To believe that a substance has moral agency and can essentially possess the ‘soul’ of the victim is not a position derived from science. It is a position based on a certain vision of morality. One that demands obedience of the individual to a certain code, usually enforced by a social hierarchy – in this case, a legal institution.

This narrative of the enslaved agent of the morally evil drug is not new. Ethan mentioned that the first US Drug Czar William Bennett, put in place after Nixon formally declared there to be a ‘War on Drugs’, was a particularly nasty individual in this space based on his promotion of policies that would not only widen prohibition, but increase the punitive penalties, including a call for the death penalty to be re-introduced for certain drug offenses. Here’s a quote from Bennett on how he understands the psyche of the person who uses drugs, someone who he clearly wishes to paint as a mere chemical slave.

“As the brain…gets accustomed to the marijuana high, it requires more and more of the drug to obtain the same or better effects. More or stronger marijuana will be sought. Not surprisingly, other drugs will also be sought to increase the high or better affect the pleasure centers of the brain.” – Forbes


We blame the drug, but it is a red herring. It misdirects our attention and focus away from issues such as poverty, physical and mental health and well-being and all the economic and political issues surrounding our own and our community’s sense of identity.

Where are our resources going when our focus is to arbitrarily stop someone from putting something in their body? A lot of the time, we’re certainly not helping those who have substance abuse issues. Those resources are disappearing into a black hole of punishment, apparently intended to deter people from using a wide variety of substances for reasons that are unclear today and historically corrupt and bigoted.

Neuroscientist Carl Hart has pointed out that only 10-20% of users of ANY drug (including methamphetamine/ice and heroin) do not develop a drug problem. The vast majority of people who use drugs do so without the problems popular in the hyperbole of the main stream media.

“Eighty to 90 percent of people who use crack and methamphetamine don’t get addicted,” said Dr. Hart, an associate professor of psychology. “And the small number who do become addicted are nothing like the popular caricatures.” – NY Times

The answer to the problems of prohibition is not a clear-cut path. Different drugs need to be addressed in different ways, perhaps with tiered levels of regulation and restrictions, depending on their potential for harm. Perhaps some other method of regulation, focusing on the lessons we have learned about both protecting people and giving people their freedoms.


We can be certain though that the answer to prohibition is not more prohibition. The rise of the Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPS), which are generally understood to be drugs only made more widely available for recreational use over the past 5-15 years, are an excellent example of the effects of prohibition on the market. Yet governments around the world have met this issue with a widening of the prohibition nets. This in turn has led to new, often more dangerous substances entering the market.

The demand for NPS has been largely driven by policies like those which infringe on people’s bodily autonomy, under the guise of Operational Health and Safety (OH&S) in the workplace and by a desire of people not to engage in the black market. From the supply side, they have been driven by a legal cat-and-mouse game, based on the legal nature of the prohibition laws themselves.

Stefanie Jones, moderator of the final break-out session for day one, focusing on NPS said that there is one message she hoped people would take from the session.

The battlefront of the war on drugs is the NPS issue.

Stefanie penned a must-read piece for the Huffington Post earlier this month entitled, Setting the Record Straight on ‘Synthetic Drugs’ — and What We Should Do About Them.

Rather than focus on public education or warnings, the typical knee-jerk reaction to deaths is to ban these drugs. For example, the NBOMe class of drugs, among others, were placed on an emergency scheduling list by the DEA in November 2013. While bans may – or may not – slow the use of a particular new substance, this method of attempting to eradicate drug use is like the story of the mythical Hydra – when one head is severed, many more grow back in its place. This is the same failed response to every mood-altering drug we have been trotting out for over 40 yrs. Banning “classics” like LSD, MDMA, marijuana, and other drugs is exactly what has spurred the creation of the “new” drugs now banned, and their prohibition will only cycle the process forward, as producers move to meet demand and evade the law.


Prohibition has created many harms in the community. Many have died or had their lives torn apart by the effects of a policy rather than the effects of a drug. The policy itself is driven by a narrative of fear, backed up by hyperbolic stereotypes that don’t reflect the real people who use drugs. A new generation of drug users are often unwillingly experimenting with drugs that are almost brand new to human usage.

It’s an uphill battle and there will be times when that walk takes stumbles back down that hill. But whether we win or lose, remember that we are fighting for what’s right.

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