Have we learned anything from our ongoing ‘war on drugs’?

If we have, surely it would be wise not to adopt simplistic, archaic approaches when assessing how to tackle the prevalence and popularity of synthetic drugs in society.

We haven’t heard much about synthetic drugs since late last year and that’s because we’re not winning the war. Synthetic drugs are the battle strategy that has exposed the weaknesses in the armour of current policy and legislation.

Drug laws assist in providing citizens with social guidelines, and have potential to reduce harm in the community. But to think that laws will stop people from taking drugs is naïve. If a substance is banned, thanks to the wonders of science eventually something new will be cooked up in the kitchen to take its place.

*Enter synthetic drugs, stage left*

In Australia, as they become known, synthetic drugs are banned. This is a popular strategy in many countries. But to hope that the problem will sort itself out under a cloak of policy and legislation is like putting a band-aid on a broken arm and expecting it to heal as well as if it had been put in a cast. This year, a record number of synthetic drugs have been detected in Europe, yet the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction has been stretched to its limits and is struggling to keep up with all the new substances. In order to develop a synthetic drug that has not been banned, only one ingredient has to be changed. To a drug cook, this process is very much like you or me varying our scone recipes.

We started congratulating ourselves on our fortified position in the ‘war on drugs’ too early. This is largely due to propaganda that media and police weave together to make us feel like we are winning. Television shows such as Border Security garner public trust in the Government’s war on dealers and traffickers. Major drug busts are glorified and immortalised, which gives a somewhat false, but I suppose necessary sense of security to a community that largely fears illicit drug use. However, the media security blanket is flimsy. It may have kept us cosy enough in the past, but is of little comfort now to people whose lives are being affected by a new wave of drugs that no one can keep up with or understand.

A ‘war on drugs’ is entirely the wrong approach. People will always take drugs. There is no question about that. The approach needs to be shifted to working with people in a holistic manner, rather than battling against them. And it needs to be a global movement, because drug trade and use is international.

Media campaigns based on specific evidence of the dangers of synthetic drug use may deter a percentage of potential users and synonymously contribute to community education on the dangers of usage. But this limits the education to scare tactics. These strategies do not take into account the underlying structural issues that are attributed to the evolution of drug addiction.

Drug addiction is too complex an issue to be tackled with reductionist legislative strategies. The constant evolution of synthetic drugs is poignant evidence of their failure.

The point so often missed in the drug debate is that drugs are ingested in order to change something in a person’s physiology. Furthermore, it is a common misconception that drug addiction is the catalyst for a dysfunctional life – the beginning of the end. It is more often the reverse that is true. What is needed in assessment of addiction is an individualised approach to addressing the structural factors in people’s lives that have led to their desire to alter their physiology so dramatically.

Empathy and understanding are needed, rather than apathy, law and war.

If there is any ‘war’ to be waged, it should be on the structure of society that makes people want to take them. It should be a war on capitalism, violence, oppression, discrimination and diminishing access to primary welfare.

Make drugs less available and people will still get them.

Threaten people with prison? They’ll take them in there instead while costing Australian taxpayers billions of dollars per year to maintain their incarceration.

The harm minimisation philosophy embraces principles of pragmatism and humanism to combat the deeply entrenched stigma and discrimination associated with drug use. The resulting culture is one of social inclusion, understanding and empathy. Empirical evidence of harm minimisation alone is not sufficient to enable the acceptance of harm minimisation strategies aimed at tackling drug use of any kind. What is needed is accessible education, available to the global community via the mainstream media.

The focus needs to shift from “how can we stop people taking drugs?” to “how can we ensure that people are using drugs safely?”

Sound good?

Well, it could be.

There could be hidden benefits in the rise of synthetic drugs.

It could be an opportunity for society to adopt a fresh approach to managing the harms and risks associated with all kinds of drug use. New Zealand is attempting to employ a legislative strategy whereby distributors must establish the safety of their products at their own expense before they can legally be sold. Although the success of this policy is yet to be established, it is heartening to see that some governments are employing strategies to mitigate harm caused by untested drugs, in line with the harm minimisation ethos.

Surely it’s time to harness some perspective and forward thinking, rather than go on another banning binge.

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