In Scotland today, as part of the UK, we live under a drug prohibition regime. This system of laws and practices treats those who posses, buy or sell particular psychoactive substances as criminals who must be punished. It is an ideological approach to managing society and its relationship with certain drugs. It is a socially unjust and empirically unsound system that is anathema to anyone interested in progressive social policy and harm reduction. In a post-Independent Scotland, we have the opportunity to opt out of a backwards, reactionary regime. Those who identify with either a progressive ideology or favour an evidence-based approach to drug use should advocate a fundamental restructuring of drug legislation.
The origins of the international drugs prohibition regime are around 100 years old. The ideology of prohibition emerged in the early 20th century United States, in an era of Christian Puritanism and colonial expansion. One key figure in this story is Bishop Charles Brent, who spearheaded the anti-Opium campaign in US-occupied Philippines, fuelled by the twin poisons of religious bigotry and racist hatred.
“The constitutional fault of the Filipinos,” Brent opined, “a fault common to all Orientals, is sensuality, which in this case finds vent in laziness, cocubinage, and gaming”.[i] Brent asserted himself politically and succeeded in being chosen as senior US delegate to the American-led Opium Commission in 1909. He later chaired the conference in The Hague (1911-12), which led to the creation of the International Opium Convention of 1912. Around this time, he preached in Shanghai Cathedral: “Civilisation is dependent for its very existence upon character, and…character…is dependent on Christianity.”[ii] Brent’s aim, to impose American ideology on a global scale, formally manifested itself on 23rd of January 1912, with the International Opium Convention being signed by twelve countries at The Hague. Two key requirements were expected to be fulfilled by signatories in the convention: the first was that cocaine and opiates should be confined exclusively to medical use, the second was that states should work towards the “gradual suppression of the abuse*” of cocaine, morphine and opium, and their derivatives.[iii]
By the mid-twentieth century, the United States had succeeded in asserting that the criminalisation of drug users be a central tenet of drug policy in most countries. This was achieved by a top-down, legalistic approach, using their soft power at the UN, having three prohibition treaties signed and ratified. The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961), the Convention on Psychotropic Substances (1971), and the UN Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs & Psychotropic Substances (1988) all work to ensure their signatories – almost every state in the world – adopt the American approach to certain psychoactive substances. Prohibition, then, as Richard Davenport-Hines identifies, is “a technique of informal American cultural colonisation”.[iv]
What is wrong with the practice of prohibition? Has it not worked well during the last century? The imposition of prohibition has succeeded in creating a highly lucrative and powerful global black market, which means that prohibited drugs are linked directly to other activities such as human trafficking, violent crime, and the arms trade. Entire societies have been militarised by the drive to ‘suppress’ the trade, and innocent people murdered because they are dragged into violent fighting between the state and armed drug traffickers – Mexico is a lamentable example of this. Individuals dependant on an illicit drug often have to engage in risky behaviour to acquire and use the substance: they must firstly enter the illegal market simply to obtain the drug, and, if they are injecting, will often share needles due to the lack of access to clean needles and the chance of getting caught in trying to acquire one (in some countries, merely carrying a syringe is enough to be arrested). Due to illicit drugs being a commodity in an unregulated market – a source of profit – they are mixed with harmful or toxic substances to increase their weight (and thus their sale price).
There is also a salient philosophical objection to prohibition. The objection rests on the opposition to the state extending its laws into the body of citizens by dictating what they do with their consciousness. This is ‘cognitive liberty’: the individual, proponents argue, has absolute sovereignty over their mind and body, so long as the activities they are involved in harming (if at all) only themselves.[v] An excerpt of a letter to psychopharmacologist and author, Alexander Shulgin, expresses this position with passionate clarity: “I, as a responsible, adult human being will never concede the power to anyone to regulate my choice of what I put into my body or where I go with my mind. From the skin inward is my jurisdiction is it not?”.[vi]
By moving beyond prohibition, we discard an authoritarian approach to individual freedom. Of course, the question of how drugs themselves are regulated and how they may be accessed is an entirely different – but related – question. Several countries have taken the rational step to decriminalise or legalise possession and sale of some drugs, and to approach drug misuse and dependence as a health issue, not a moral one.
In 2010, Czech Republic decriminalised the possession illicit drugs. Those caught by police (or some other authority) with under a certain weight of a given drug are charged with an administrative offence, and not a criminal one. For example, if someone is arrested with 1.5 grams of heroin, they may be given an on-the-spot fine.[vii] In 2000, Portugal decriminalised the use of all drugs, meaning that possession there, like Czech Republic, is only an administrative offence. They also established the ‘Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction’ – these commissions across the country operate under the ministry of health, approaching dependence as a health issue. In Portugal, deaths from overdose (notably heroin) have dropped and rates of HIV contraction have decreased greatly.[viii] In a display of political maturity, Uruguay legalised the sale, possession and growing of cannabis in 2013. In practice, this means that an individual will be permitted to buy up to 40 grams of cannabis per month from licensed outlets, and to grow six plants in their homes per year.[ix] Bolivia in 2011 opted out of the Single Convention, denouncing it for criminalising coca chewing – a centuries-old tradition of the indigenous people in Bolivia. The state re-acceded to the Convention in 2013, with a reservation on the articles pertaining to the chewing of coca.[x]
Despite these positive moves by Czech Republic, Portugal and Uruguay, they are merely pragmatic measures, challenging the boundaries of the prohibition conventions; they cannot go much further because they are still operating within the framework of the global prohibition regime. They are highly state-controlled policies, and certainly don’t allow for genuine cognitive liberty; however, given that obedience to prohibition is the norm – and enforced by the US – the changes are very encouraging. The case of Bolivia provides an interesting precedent, showing that withdrawing from the draconian Single Convention can be done.
In terms of harm reduction, there are three effective and medically sound practices that can be implemented. Drug Consumption Rooms (DCRs) are safe and hygienic places where people can use pre-obtained drugs without judgement; trained staff manage the facilities and ensure medical attention for those who overdose. DCRs are currently in operation in Switzerland, Norway and Spain, among other countries.[xi] Another practice is the prescription of medical quality heroin to problematic users – Heroin-Assisted Treatment (HAT). Beginning in Switzerland in the 1990s, it is now utilised in Canada, Germany and some other countries.[xii] In March this year, the Scottish Government disappointingly (but not surprisingly, given the conservativism of the SNP) rejected calls by doctors to adopt DCRs and HAT through the NHS.[xiii] Lastly, Needle Exchange Programmes – providing intravenous drug users with clean needles and syringes – are used in several countries, including Canada and Switzerland.[xiv] The medical benefits of harm reduction are obvious, but the less quantifiable benefit is that people can – as a result of these measures – build up self-confidence and dignity.
Scotland needs to catch up with the trend towards decriminalisation and harm reduction; instead it is decades behind, wandering in the strange world between medical Puritanism and moral authoritarianism. Those who responsibly use illicit drugs for pleasure or as a crux are vilified and/or punished as criminals; those who are dependent on a drug and ill are punished twofold: firstly, by being denied dignified assistance and secondly by being criminalised. No doubt there are a few Bishop Brents in Scotland today – there may even be some in the Scottish Government. We must make them irrelevant if we want to live in an independent Scotland that is part of the growing number of countries with a progressive drugs policy. It starts by accepting that drug use is part of human society, and changing how we see drugs and individuals who use them.
[i] Davenport-Hines, ‘The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics’, 2002, p. 204
[ii] Ibid., p. 209
*No distinction is made between use and misuse.
[iii] Op. cit., p. 210
[iv] ibid. p. 14