Monday, 25 April 2011

Why would people take drugs?

This series of blog posts will be discussing the social aspects of drug use. It’s taken in the main from Jock Young’s 1971 seminal work The Drugtakers: The Social Meaning of Drug Use. Each post will cover questions commonly encountered whilst campaigning for drug law reform, hopefully it’ll be useful for when you yourself are out talking to people. This post’s question is: “I just don’t understand why people would take drugs.”

Now, this isn’t actually a question in the conventional sense, however it is a question in the form of a statement. I shall cover this aspect in a later post. But it is something that we do actually need to consider whilst discussing drug law reform. For some, drug use is too easily dismissed as people having reckless fun or a result of social problems, and both are used by prohibitionists to maintain their position.

Throughout history humans in every society have used drugs with different cultures using different drugs, the only exceptions are puritan religious movements. Every day we are presented with social problems. These are not the awful situations we automatically imagine, but rather simple even mundane scenarios. Clothing for seeing the grandparents, travelling miles to get to work, etc. Whereas with these we’d buy smart(ish) clothes or get a train, we use drugs in very much the same way.

For instance caffeine, a stimulant, is used in a morning to increase alertness and reduce the feelings of tiredness. Tobacco is used as a way of reducing stress and relaxing. Alcohol, a depressant, used to decrease stress built up during the day, reducing inhibitions so for conversation to be made more freely.

Caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol, are all social ascribed. They are considered useful, more accepted and encouraged, for an individual to navigate the pressures and requirements of society. Such to say, society has attributed values to the legal drugs.

But what of illegal drugs? As a society these drugs are considered to cause problems, not be useful tools. However, the reality is that some people do not find that the prescribed drugs of society are effective for their situations and may be in complete contradiction to their own personal values. We live as a society of many diverse cultures and values, thus it is unreasonable to presume that everyone’s social requirements will coincide with the solutions of socially acceptable drugs.

Further more to this point, we are actively participating in a consumer society. We create our identities by saying I am not one of “them”. To do this we buy products that have been enshrined with values. By purchasing it and using it, we consume those values. So as a society we place values upon drugs, and as an individual we consume those values. What these values mean vary from individual to individual, from drug to drug.

For the prohibitionist, the problems and values of illicit drug users are considered so outside that of social acceptance that the individual has to be victimized to the point of being criminalised. Whist we must understand that drugs are used to solve social problems, just as we eat food to solve hunger which can lead to obesity, drug use can create unintended problems. The problems created by illicit drug use however are so often made worse or even possible by the current policies of our governments.

For any further explanations, questions, or objections, please contact me at

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Three days, Three anniversaries: Student Activism, Bicycle day and 420 Day - youthful rebellion against the values of the drug war.

Levent Akbulut explores the cultural significance of observing anniversaries and touches on their potential to build a strong social and political movement.

Anniversaries and symbolic dates are a great way to build a sense of self-awareness as a cause or movement and to highlight the significance of events in history.
This year is of particular importance in the drug policy reform and anti-prohibitionist movements.

Fifty years ago, member states of the United Nations signed the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961). The convention was very much born out of the values of the American temperance movement of earlier decades and the increasing globalisation of American culture in the years following the Second World War. These phenomena owe their relevance to the growth of the United States as a major world power, and while more recently America has slowly been losing its iron grip on the internal politics of dependent territories, for the last fifty years the drug war has been a trademark of US hegemony in the international arena.

This year is also the 40th anniversary of when Richard Nixon symbolically called for a war on public enemy number 1, drugs. As the narrative goes, the drug war is supposedly fought to protect young people, or perhaps more likely the progeny of the socio-economically advantaged. This is the case although the availability of drugs is still neither controlled or restricted, rather the policy inevitably leads to a shift in scenarios where the youth get exposed to gang culture or have to consider the underground drugs trade as a career path. Richard Nixon almost certainly had the young long haired anti-war protestors sitting in front of the White house lawn in mind when he ignored the findings of the Shafer Commission and chose to push for a tougher line on the idealistic pot smoking youngsters.

Just weeks before Nixon made this declaration, the United Nations tightened the first convention and the UK’s own Misuse of Drugs act achieved Royal assent and became law. This is the Act of Parliament that is supposed to classify drugs based on relative harms but suggests cannabis is more harmful than ketamine and that ecstasy is on a similar level of harm to cocaine and heroin while excluding alcohol and tobacco from classification. So symbolically powerful is this unholy trinity of drug war anniversaries, the drug policy reform movement has made this a major theme of the work we do this year and was even adopted by ourselves as the narrative for Students for Sensible Drug Policy UK’s second annual conference where we invited students from all over Europe to attend and share their experiences as reformers.

As we in the UK enjoy the holidays of the next couple of weeks, some remembering or celebrating events of spiritual and cultural significance, others are just spending this time with friends and family. It is worth knowing that there were three dates this last week of significance for the student drug policy reform movement in the UK and especially to the youth culture for which our group seeks to provide representation.

Out of America’s cannabis obsessed war on drug users, 420 day has become a symbol of youthful rebellion against a pointlessly punitive prohibition. For some reason or another, North American cannabis culture has adopted the 20th of April and specifically at 4:20pm as a time to celebrate the consumption of the flowers of the cannabis plant.

Rumour has it the term was originally coined by a group of teenagers in San Rafael, California who used to meet at 4:20pm to go on an expedition to find an abandoned cannabis crop that they heard about. Since then, 4:20 evolved into a codeword that they used to refer to cannabis smoking generally and has gained wider social use in the English speaking world, though most notably in North America. It should be noted that different groups make different claims on the origin of the significance of the number.
Some North Americans even ritualise their use of cannabis to not start sooner than 4:20pm each day. Most significantly it refers to what is now a counterculture holiday which in many cases has a political message such as to call for the decriminalisation or legal regulation of cannabis. Why cannabis has such a culture is worth further discussion but not for this blogpost.

The date has increasingly been adopted to organise such politically motivated gatherings in the United Kingdom. The forerunners of Students for Sensible Drug Policy UK organised a 420 day rally in Leeds back in 2008, just days after voting to form Students for Sensible Drug Policy UK. This year a few of our members from London and the South East took to Hyde Park in London for the 420 day celebrations and handed out literature about our movement as well as stickers
and bustcards.

I gave a speech on why young people should become activists just after Peter Reynolds, the leader of the newly formed Cannabis Law Reform party, Clear, called on the people to become politically motivated. Independent activist, Ed Green then gave a brief background on the historical origins of cannabis prohibition.

The event was very peaceful, we were able to engage a lot of young people and everyone seemed to be having a good time. Just as we were entering the evening, some kids who seemed to be in rival gangs started throwing around glass bottles and attacking each other. One even narrowly missed my head. The violence scared a lot of the young people and you could see a swarm of heads standing up and running to leave the park, despite the pleas of their peers for the fighting to stop the few troublemakers carried on hurting each other until the police arrived.

Some have said that I should not be mentioning these incidents which took place towards the end of what was a very successful and peaceful event, but lest we forget that it is our drug laws and our social policies that have encouraged the growth of this youth gang culture. 420 day need not have lost its political and social significance as a creative reaction against cannabis prohibition.

The day earlier, the 19th of April is observed by an even smaller subculture, the psychedelic movement as “Bicycle day”. Legend has it on the 19th of April 1943, Swiss chemist, Albert Hoffman, deliberately ingested 250 micrograms of LSD. Three days earlier he noticed marked psychoactive changes while handling the substance. His intention was to predict a threshold dose. An hour later he experienced sudden and intense changes in perception. He asked his laboratory assistant to take him home. Due to wartime restrictions that prevented driving with motor vehicles, they took a bicycle home. He later wrote of his experience with LSD:

"... little by little I could begin to enjoy the unprecedented colours and plays of shapes that persisted behind my closed eyes. Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux ..."

The events of the day, now known as ‘Bicycle day’ proved to Hoffman that he had made a significant discovery. This date is remembered by some people in the psychedelic subcultures, including music scenes. While official events are rarely called for, invitations to observe the event now get sent out on Facebook.

These dates are not just a reaction against the cultures we live in but exist due to the social settings that these subcultures exist within. The parallel with the drug war anniversaries lies in the reasons that they hold significance. They represent important dates in the social ritual consumption of certain prohibited substances, while these drug war anniversaries remind us of the absurd and always socially ruinous policies that seek to legislate otherwise victimless human behaviour and criminalising those the worst affected.

The 18th of April 2008 was the date a small group of student cannabis law reform activists at the University of Leeds voted to form Students for Sensible Drug Policy UK.
For years we had wondered why there were campaigns to join covering almost every social problem, but none to talk about how harmful our prohibitionist drug policies had become. Yet the constituent members of the National Union of Students would quite happily regularly celebrate the consumption of alcohol, one of the more toxic of the commonly used recreational drugs while ignoring the social and health harms caused by our current drug policies. This year in 2011, the NUS lost it’s battle to stop the government trebling top up fees from £3K a year to £9K. At NUS annual conference this year, no one was quite sure what the next step was but they all pledged to carry on. This year we are many more in number and more confident on the campuses where we organise.

These holidays when you sit down for dinner with friends and family, or whether you just use the extra time to study, remember this week as the start of a UK youth and student movement for drug policy reform. This week might even be the week you decided to get involved and become an activist...

You can start a local group of Students for Sensible Drug Policy UK at your university or college or even in your local community. Contact us through the chapter start up form on our website for more information on getting involved.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Challenging Prohibition: Is Prohibition Effective?

1. Lenke, L. & Olsson, B. (1999) “Swedish drug policy in perspective”, i Derks, J., van Kalmthout, & Albrecht, H.-J. (red.) Current and future drug policy studies in Europe, Freibourg.
2. Centralforbundet for alkohol- och narkotikaupplysning, "Drogutvecklingen i Sverige 2006" Report number 98.
3. Transform Drug Policy Foundation, "What is the true cost of prohibition? Why we need an audit" from

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Mexico Fights Back Against the Drug War

Levent Akbulut considers the recent rallies in Mexico against the drug war and suggests what they mean for our movement.

Just last week something amazing happened in Mexico. Tens of thousands of Mexicans took to the streets to call for an end to President Calderon's War on Drugs.

Since 2006 when Mexican authorities decided to crack down on the growing illicit drugs industry by bringing in the army, the violent reaction of the drug lords and their minions has skyrocketed. It turns out that people are willing to fight and commit horrendous acts when they live in poverty and there are few lucrative job options available. There are now over 30,000 Mexicans who have died since the conflict flared up and the murder rate does not seem to cease.

Mexico is a key transit and production point in the global underground illicit drugs trade. The demand of Northern countries for drugs in an unregulated market coupled with readily available weapons from the North and the violent reaction of the authorities to a growing market have all made their contribution to the bloodshed. When corruption is rife, and the people live with few options and then there is an easy source of cold hard cash the unintended consequences of the drug war make sense. More and more mass graves are found every week in this country and when at first children were usually exempt from the firing line of the drug wars and increasingly they are now targets. The only more shocking fact is the complete intransigence by many of the world’s leading powers to even consider the legal regulation of drugs.

In February last year, we joined our partners across the globe to highlight the murder of young people at a house party in the world’s most dangerous city, Ciudad Juarez,
Candle light vigils were held at university campuses, cities and in homes everywhere from Toronto to Mexico City to DC and to London. These actions were picked up by the world media, including the Guardian.

The answer to the problem may not be as simple as legalising drugs, but it must at least be considered as part of the solution. It is the failure of our societies to regulate drugs that has contributed to this plague of violent crime that has been crippling producer and transit nations for so many decades.

Is it moral for us to expect the people of Latin America to continue dying, to continue having their economies and lives destroyed? All to perpetuate this false impression of protecting the kids of Northern countries from the harms of drug use.

We know that the demand of drugs does not predominately correlate with their availability. People use illicit drugs for much the same reasons they use legal drugs like alcohol, because they can be fun, they use them to escape and when they use them to escape they are more likely to be socio-economically disadvantaged or damaged in some other way.

This is where our challenge lies- the Mexican people have started calling for an end to the War on Drugs. Like pro-reform advocates either side of the Atlantic, they are not so sure what the end goal should look like but that ultimately it would involve fewer lives being lost, less harms caused by drugs and the freedom to live in a society without having to worry about being shot in a gangland shooting.

On our campuses, in our communities and every opportunity we have we must tell people what our drug policies are doing to the people of Mexico and all other nations and communities caught in the crossfire of this dreadful war. Students for Sensible Drug Policy UK will continue to campaign alongside our allies across the globe for the right of the Mexican people to be free from drug war violence, which we believe will most likely be achieved when prohibition is ended.

Whether you are a member of SSDP, personally affected by the drug war or just a concerned citizen, tell you friends and family about it. Tell your member of parliament what our policies are doing. Let them know that you do not share the views of papers with a prohibitionist agenda. So that one day it will be acknowledged that the young people of Mexico and the young people of the UK caught up in gang violence were all victims of the War on Drugs and that we will never repeat the same mistakes again.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Conference, Congratulations and Challenges

Jess Bradley reflects on what we have learned during SSDP conference.

Whilst cleaning up after the recent SSDP conference, I had a bit of a realisation. Taking down the posters, and tidying away all the flyers, leaflets and other bumph from the conference, I was amazed at just how far our movement has come, and just how much out organisation has matured. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that I attended the first national meeting of SSDP UK in a cupboard-cum-office in the University of Bradford Students Union, where three or four students decided to turn international drug laws on their head without any real plan, resources or funding.

Bringing together youth and student activists from all across Europe for a conference is no mean task and our success at this is one measurable way to show how far we have come. Even comparing it back to last years conference shows how well we have matured as an organisation. Much like this year, last years conference pulled in a good range of big-name speakers, useful workshops and activists from the student movement. But our success should not be simply measured by the pedigree of the keynote speakers, but on all the smaller details; how smoothly the conference runs, the food provided, and the democratic structures in place and how we engage with them. Seeing as the food provided was more than cuppasoups and teas like last year, we have definitely come a long way.

But, as our keynote speaker Deborah Peterson Small pointed out, we still have far to go as a movement. Besides the fact that international drug laws are far from being reformed, our movement is far from engaging the vast majority of people on a meaningful level, which is something we are going to have to do if we are going to get anywhere near changing the law around drugs.

And of course, the speakers we invited are invariably the same old faces who tour the same conferences talking at each other every year. The reason why most of them a so keen to come to SSDP conference is because our status as a youth and student organisation at least brings some new faces into an otherwise largely stagnant movement.

Even our organisation, which has the most scope for engaging a mass movement for drug law reform is far from diverse. Looking around conference, it seems our movement is dominated by white middleclass straight men; the demographic who aren’t exactly considered the most vulnerable or most affected by the War on Drugs.

Deborah set us a challenge. A challenge to broaden the movement beyond the movement and in effect, to fundamentally change the movement itself by ensuring it is a movement created by and for those most marginalised by the War on Drugs; the services users, gang members, ex-gang members, women, queers, medical users, people of colour and people struggling under poverty.

The fact of the matter is that we are the organisation best placed to take up the challenge of creating a diverse and democratic mass movement for drug law reform. Students, when not struggling with deadlines, have the time and young people have the energy to breathe new life into a movement which really needs it, as long as we are serious about stepping out of our comfort zones (and off our campuses). The question remains: are you with us on this?