Thursday, 5 May 2011

Illegal Drugs Do Not Exist

Recently I posted the first in a series of The Social Meaning of Drug Use blog posts. It was based around the question of why people take drugs, highlighting why different drugs can be used by different people for different purposes, according to various differing social situations. Darryl Bickler, a founding member of the Drug Equality Alliance read the article and was unhappy with the terms ‘illegal drugs’ and ‘illicit drugs’, which conveys a misunderstanding to the reader. As such I’ve asked him to write a short blog to explain why ‘illegal drugs’ do not exist.

"We have been led to believe in their being a ‘War on Drugs’, and even that this is against suppliers of ‘illegal drugs’ and some activists complain that it is irrational to exclude certain ‘legal drugs’. This way of thinking is the result of a prohibitionist propaganda coup; even talking about drug law in these customary terms means that we are starting in the wrong place.

Reformists of drug law are consistently using the enemies’ fake constructs and dogma. Perhaps because drug users are ‘fair game’ in the media, and have suffered for so long, almost anything we imagine being ‘on message’ will do for many. The Drug Equality Alliance focuses on errors in understanding the law before any discussion on policy and how that goes on to affect us all unequally and unfairly. The same errors of legal construction I am referring to here also pervade the activist movement, and that is why many are unwittingly being counter-productive with their communications.

Progress will not come until the intellectual basis of the whole project is factual, coherent and understood. I find myself having to defend what are the facts, and such facts that expose government policy for being irrational, illogical and unsupported in law. The term ‘Legal drugs’ sets up the most obvious concern for us, their corollary, ‘illegal drugs’; both of these expressions are legally meaningless and mask the central untruth behind drug law administration.

The law does not create any such category of ‘legal drugs”. It is entirely misleading claiming that alcohol and tobacco are ‘legal drugs’, as it supports the idea of policy being consistent with law. It is not, despite the jurisdictional facts being made out regarding the harmfulness of these drugs, Government abandoned their powers over drug misuse (and thus the public’s) by declaring them to be involved with ‘legal drugs’. I’m not saying they must ban alcohol at all; the whole starting point is wrong - given that the law is concerned with misuse, then we must assert that an individual’s drug interests in alcohol or any drug are entirely private; the state regulates producers and suppliers of drugs where necessary to ensure safe production and distribution. If a person becomes a problem, and this is through drug misuse, then their drug rights are subject to scrutiny.

To support the myth of ‘illegal drugs’ not only misleads the public that the current regime is mandated in primary law (when it is not), but also obscures that the primary law is already a regulatory instrument intended to steer persons away from drug misuse. Government is blind to this possibility due to the mistaken belief that the law makes some drugs illegal. It confuses people about what is primary law and what is law created through policy. It’s important to remember that using a drug is not illegal in the UK (except opium); this is because the law is an instrument to regulate use through the control of drug property to target misuse.

Consider the talk about new drugs, coining expressions like ‘the soon to be illegal legal highs that aren’t really legal now anyway’. The tensions that seem to arise around the legalisation / regulation / prohibition debate are meaningless discussions from the perspective which activists seek to engage people with. The ground rules are wrong and pervasive. If the core principles of prohibition are not exposed, then anything less builds greater problems in understanding and only perpetuates the stagnation we experience. I would go as far as to say that they actually communicate the opposite of reform by reinforcing the problems we need to overcome.

You simply cannot regulate drugs; laws control people. Wars against illegal drugs do not happen, wars are fought against people. Policy is sold on a lie based upon what is lost in translation when we talk of ‘illegal drugs’ or even legal ones. The artificial divide between different users of different drugs is not only arbitrary, but actually inconsistent with the primary law – a law where ‘legal drugs’ and ‘illegal drugs’ is unknown."

I’d like to say thank you to Darryl for this, and I hope that we can start to get our heads around some of the finer details of why Illegal Drugs Don’t Exist.

*Disclaimer* The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of SSDP UK or it's members.


  1. I only have a basic grasp of the philosophy of language, so whilst I could imagine the jist of what you're getting at, this article could do with expanding a bit on some specifics, eg, "the ground rules are wrong and pervasive. If the core principles of prohibition are not exposed, then anything less builds greater problems in understanding and only perpetuates the stagnation we experience." Of course I could just be being thick, it is 7:48 in the morning.

  2. Don't worry, I'm still myself getting my head around this issue. The main gist of this issue is that the law, mainly the Misuse of Drugs Act, is applied wrong. Governments get away with it by saying that they are controlling drugs when in fact they're controlling people.
    In effect, the law makes people illegal and not drugs. By arguing for the 'legalisation of drugs' we are simple reinforcing this simple misunderstanding. A misunderstanding which is used to justify the issue we want to solve.
    The issue can use more than the space that can realistically be offered in a blog.

  3. There is more to this than Ashley has just summarised as he acknolwedges. OK, to start with what really is an arbitrary discrimination between types of drug users is not mandated in the MoDA. It is in common law terms an unequal treatment by a neutral law. It's insidious character is obscured because the way it is characterised is to present it as about listing plants and chemicals, when in truth it is about taking a fair law, concerned with drug misuse that causes social problems, and then misconstructing and misusing it. The misuse arises from misunderstanding and this is where the more important issue arises than the one Ashley just explained and I repeated here just now - that is to say, the reason we cannot have a sensible regulatory system for drug users (not drugs, but persons) is BECAUSE of the belief in "legal and illegal drugs". The law creates the impetus for controlling persons re designated drugs where these activities were causing social harm. Govt starts off with creating a lie, that lie means they can ignore the majority of drug misuse because they claim that the drug users using or even abusing alcohol and tobacco are using 'legal drugs' - this is nonsense, any drug that causes social harm is supposed to be designated a controlled drug by the govt who are responsible for administering the MoDA. Then the lie that follows is that users of controlled drugs are using "illegal drugs". As they are illegal, they cannot be regulated and then we have a 'war on drugs' and talk about drugs ad nauseum and how they ought to be treated. This is all kinds of wrong - 'controlled drugs' is the right expression in law but misleading itself, but leaving that aside here, the Act envisages regulating persons re controlled drugs, but this cannot even be considered because the administrators misunderstand the MoDA to believe that it creates 'illegal drugs' and these cannot be regulated except for specific medical/scientific purposes for specialised organisations. This is a lie, although it does reflect the international agreements they fettered themselves to, it does not reflect the MoDA or the Human Rights Act.

  4. Really we should focus on the threshold given in the MoDA, harm or likely harm sufficient to cause a social problem. Looking at this at the micro level might be seen like this: a person is minding his own business - what about his drug activities? Who cares, it's a private matter until they make a nuisance of themselves and at that point, perhaps their drug interests may be subject to scrutiny and possibly actions taken to prevent that happening again - on a macro level it is similar, it's not about saying this drug good, this one bad (this is the problem with David Nutt's harm scale) - it starts from the premise that drug MISUSE is the concern of the law, and then once misuse is identified we create proportionate targetted regulations targetted to control this mischief re any category of drug user.