Prohibition Isn’t About Community Health or Safety

Written by on November 17, 2016

Drug prohibition is about morality. Not healthcare and not safer communities.

The theoretical logic behind prohibiting something goes a little like this: If there is something dangerous to individual or community, then we protect ourselves from that danger. Sometimes that is done by prohibiting the danger, thus restricting the possibility of it ever affecting anyone.

Prohibition of this kind requires both the prohibitor and the community to understand the dangers. It should be self-enforcing, so the best information you can get leads you to the same conclusion as those who decided on the prohibition in the first place.

On October 18th, Minister for Mental Health Martin Foley used powers given to him under Section 132AA of Victoria’s drug legislation, allowing for a temporary 12 month prohibition of drugs, based on his sole satisfaction that the drugs represent, ‘a significant risk to the health of consumers or a significant risk to public safety’. There is no need for him to prove this. This is the fourth time in a row that these temporary provisions have been used.

Minister Foley uses these temporary powers predictably, playing his part in a cycle I have become quite familiar with: A new psychoactive chemical is discovered, followed by small scale use and supply. Popularity increases as word spreads, with a subsequent rise in use and supply. Quite often there’s a ‘moral panic’ (“Kronic hysteria: exploring the intersection between Australian synthetic cannabis legislation, the media, and drug-related harm”) fanned by certain segments of the community, bringing the substance to the attention of authorities. The drug gets banned and then moves to underground use and supply. And then the cycle begins again.

The fundamental driving force of this whole cycle is people’s desire to alter their consciousness. And this is why prohibition is about morality. There is nothing inherently harmful about altering consciousness. That doesn’t make it a risk-free activity, but risks are part of life. Those who are interested in altering consciousness go out and learn about their field of interest, creating methods to reducing those risks and educating others who are interested. Just like how pretty much every other field of interest works.

But there are those who think the pursuit I happen to be passionate about is wrong. Not just wrong, but evil and crime. Or some would say I am sick. All this does is remove my autonomy and the autonomy of this community. It removes our power to manage risks.

The drugs that Minister Foley has banned through the latest lot of unaccountable prohibition are a series of chemicals most often referred to as ‘synthetic cannabinoids’, though experts have some disagreement over whether or not some of these chemicals even are cannabinoids at all.

You’ve probably heard all sorts of things about these substances. And probably a lot of what you heard was exaggerated a little or a lot and might’ve been wholly false. These drugs are referred to by experts as Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPS), which is just a fancy way of saying new drugs. Because they are new, it follows that there is little information about them. However, it does not follow that they are inherently harmful.

I’ve tried many of these substances myself, out of interest. None of them compare to cannabis, which is what almost everyone who tries these wants. People who use these do so because they can’t legally access cannabis, which is what they want. It’s also a drug we know a LOT more about.

Drug prohibition is about morality. And it has been since its inception. I’ve lost track of the number of articles published in mainstream and alternative media sources, often written by experts, academics or long-time policy pundits pointing out that the history of prohibition is steeped in the politics of division, not in the politics of community health and safety. Cannabis, heroin and cocaine were some of the first to be caught up in a wave of prohibition. Later, more drugs were added to the lists as drug prohibition spread around the world.

Other risky activities, such as drinking alcohol, driving a car or riding a horse are not prohibited. The community of people interested in these pursuits work out the risks and try to minimise them. It doesn’t mean that bad things never happen, but it does make them less likely to happen. Drug prohibition ignores the many intelligent and compassionate people in that community and asserts that their interest is wrong.

If this were really about health and safety, then the government could speak with the community of people who use psychoactive substances about why they do it, instead of brand us all a scourge or addicts or sick. We have many talented people in the community who could work to create regulatory regimes, quality controls, manufacturing standards and even safe use guides. We can learn the lessons of the alcohol and tobacco industry and implement a model that isn’t for-profit, but instead is for-community.

That’s what we could do, if the focus really was on health and safety.

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