The Harms of Prohibition

Written by on February 24, 2016

Today is the inaugural National Family Drug Support Day, setup to recognise that the problems associated with drug abuse are better dealt with through the health-scope, rather than the cross hairs of law enforcement.
Family Drug Support was setup in 1997 as an organisation that provides support for families on issues around drugs. On this day in 1997, Tony’s 23 year old son Damien died from a heroin overdose, after battling with an addiction for some time.

Tony wrote a piece for The Daily Telegraph, where he outlines programs that would help, budgeting that would be pragmatic and the tendency for law enforcement to be used in a prejudicial manner against people who use substances arbitrarily considered illegal.

So on this inaugural National Family Drug Support Day, we the families are asking all governments to focus on policies that reduce drug fatalities. Families want policies and programs that keep people alive. This includes harm reduction strategies such as safe injecting facilities, pill testing and heroin prescription programs. Families want informed and innovative policies and programs that reduce the likelihood of harm. This means substantially increasing the proportion of Australia’s $1.7 billion drug budget for harm reduction (2.2 per cent) and treatment services (22 per cent) from the current allocations. Governments must also recognise that a reliance on criminal sanctions to address drug use only serves to create more problems. Drug use is a health issue and families want services that assist rather than punish and criminalise people in a way that creates lifelong penalties. – Criminal sanctions only exacerbate Australia’s drug problem, Daily Telegraph 24th February 2016

Arbitrarily considered illegal

Australia’s drug laws were not formed on the grounds that drugs represent a public health concern. Almost every single drug that has been added to Australia’s prohibitive schedules was added with very little if any evidence. You can see this process in action right now by having a look into any of the close to 40 amendments that have been made to drug control legislation over the past five years across Australia.

Here’s WA Liberal MP Phil Edman, who took a novelty product into parliament to wail and whine about some moral outrage he felt. Never mind the fact that Edman has been caught twice for drink driving. He used his concern over a novelty product to levy a moral panic around various novel psychoactive substance (NPS) which have and are being sold in stores across WA.

You may have your own concerns about some of the NPS that have been sold and are being sold. They lack any regulatory oversight and some of them may be dangerous. However, some of them may be potentially very useful therapeutic medicines or rather interesting and potentially safer recreational chemicals. Despite the unknown nature of these chemicals, governments have chosen to side with idiotic moral panic arguments from crusaders like Phil Edman.

There is absolutely nothing new in this process. In fact, it is how we have approached drug regulation in this country and across the world for decades now. MDMA was banned in the US in 1984, despite its therapeutic potential in psychotherapy. Its potential for harm was overstated and no evidence regarding its potential for good was accepted.

Prohibition of psychoactive substances has always been based on a moral argument about what a person ought to do with their body and life. The moral argument is best described as a scapegoat. The entire point of it is to focus on a substance rather than any other feature about someone, thus deflecting any discussion that may be complex, uncomfortable or steeped in bigotry.

This is not to understate the problems associated with drug (including alcohol) abuse, nor to draw attention away from the problems of addiction or the diseases that can be exacerbated or caused by certain substances. There are very real problems that need to be addressed in humanity’s relationship with psychoactive substances. Prohibition is the anti-thesis of a solution. Movements that promote prohibition as an answer to the problems associated with psychoactive substances (including alcohol) have an authoritarian moral slant, believing that total abstinence is the only acceptable decision for anyone to make and thus ignoring any and all arguments to the contrary.


The reasons why people use a psychoactive substance are many and varied. Though there is a growing body of literature that delves into the question of why people choose to use a drug and what benefits they perceive from it, this is considered absolute taboo by the prohibitionist, who sees only absolute abstinence as acceptable.

Prohibition is not about your health, my health or the safety of the community. It is a moral position, because it denies the existence of any benefit from taking a drug for personal reasons. You are not allowed to make that kind of decision. That is what prohibition says. To adequately address concerns around drugs, a conversation and flow of information need to occur, but the prohibitionist sees any conversation that doesn’t demonise drugs or incite fear as ‘glamourising’ or ‘promoting’ drug use.

PANO_20160213_200625Today on National Family Drug Support Day, it’s important for us to focus on one particular point.

Governments must also recognise that a reliance on criminal sanctions to address drug use only serves to create more problems.

In Queensland, I recently received a charge for driving with a relevant drug, a charge which has absolutely nothing to do with impairment. Armstrong Legal in Brisbane note the following, “The police are not obliged to prove that there was a particular concentration of a drug in a persons system, or that the drug had a particular effect on that person, merely that the drug was present in the tested sample.”

This point was made to me by the charging officer, who told me that I did not appear impaired to him and that if I had appeared impaired, there would be a very different process happening.

I had been very careful to ensure sobriety before driving, having had a good sleep, eaten well and waited an appropriate amount of time. I know that different states use different testing regimes and there is little consistency between them, though I didn’t know the specifics in differences. The inaccuracy of the devices was also something I was aware of, along with the complete disconnection between impairment and the testing procedure. I must admit being somewhat surprised to later learn that Queensland is very explicit in explaining that the charge has absolutely nothing to do with impairment.

What am I being punished for then? I did not represent any greater danger on the road than anyone else.

This is admitted by researchers in the field. Roth cites a 2007 paper published in Addiction by Franjo Grotenhermen and colleagues who observed:

“A zero tolerance approach to drugs while driving “avoid[s] the need for a reliable science-based correlation between drug concentration and level of impairment”.

As Professor Roth observes, it is a case of legislators being lazy and simply saying “a prohibitionist stance would have to do.”

Australia’s drug driving laws are grossly unfair. The Drum, Greg Barnes.

I have no doubt that someone will claim that trace detected amounts could mean some level of impairment. This sort of ambiguous reasoning is a popular one with those who uphold prohibition. It is essentially a moral claim disguised by a scientific-looking test. The claim here is that a person who uses drugs must be worse at being a human than abstainers. Again, the only acceptable outcome is absolute abstinence, as evidenced by this rather illuminating quote from a NSW Police Inspector, “For road safety, if you’re involved in the drug scene, don’t drive a motor vehicle… In the roadside test, we’re not saying you’re impaired or off your face… If you have it in your system, that’s it.”

Absolutely no evidence involved. Roadside drug testing is an arm of prohibition which is being used by authorities to gain invasive access to other people’s bodily fluids and impose punishments on them for nothing more than being a person who uses drugs.

The vast majority of people who use drugs aren’t harmed by their drug use. So it seems that those who support prohibition will find novel ways to inflict harm on people who use drugs, as a sort of perverse moral ‘lesson’. I have not been harmed by my use of a drug and nor was I impaired while driving, yet I now face these potential consequences:

The punishment for driving while a drug is present in your blood or saliva is a maximum of 3 months imprisonment and/or a 14 penalty unit fine.

As you can imagine, three months in prison for someone who has barely had a parking ticket is the sort of thing which would tear me, my life and my family’s life apart in many ways. Yet I am only one of hundreds of Australians who face these charges every week, with growing intensity from state police departments who are pushing for more and more of these tests to be conducted.

The police departments put out media releases, claiming to have removed, ‘drug affected’ drivers from the road, despite their machines being unable to distinguish between ‘drug affected’ and ‘has been drug affected at some point in the past couple of weeks’.

There are health concerns associated with drug abuse. And there are certainly concerns associated with people being impaired while driving or while performing a potentially dangerous task. These are serious issues that absolutely need to be addressed. Those issues are not addressed by prohibition, which seeks to inflict more and more harm on to people who use drugs.

The reasons we choose to use a psychoactive substance (other than alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, prescribed pharmaceuticals, other foodstuffs etc.) are many and varied. Most of us do so for some level of insight, for fun, for social reasons or practical purposes. We actively seek good information about it and discussions around it, as anyone with an interest in something does. Yet our interest in the psychoactive world is considered a moral evil. Our intrigue must be met with punishment and stigmatisation, to teach us the ‘right lesson’, to ensure that we make the ‘right choice’ and to ensure that we don’t ‘promote’ or ‘glamourise’ our filthy, disgusting interest.

Prohibition would ideally like to see all drug users repent their sinful ways and bow before the Church of Abstinence. For those of us who refuse to repent, death is an acceptable option. Don’t be fooled by those who claim that their support of prohibition is because they want to ‘protect’ people.

Prohibition has never saved anyone, yet it has managed to cause huge problems across our entire Earth. Those who really want to help would support a re-thinking of how we regulate and manage drugs. Not the continued arbitrary punishment of people who use drugs, so that it ‘sends the right message’.

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