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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 12th December 2013

Drug policy needs a new word but my efforts to formulate one have not been successful, so far.

It’s been a busy week for drug policy matters so I’ll try and summarise it before coming back to my main topic. On Monday, the US Office for National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) held a ‘Drug Policy Reform Conference’ without inviting any drug policy reformers to attend. I’ll come back to this event.

On Tuesday morning, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) sent Home Secretary Theresa May its report on ketamine with a recommendation that it be reclassified from Class ‘C’ to Class ‘B’. Looked at from within the current system it does seem logical to identify that a few heavy users of ketamine suffer very serious consequences making it more potentially harmful than other substances in Class ‘C’. I’ll be interested to see what Ms May decides to do because her previous form, of accusing the ACMD of underestimating harms, might suggest she could go for Class ‘A’ rather than ‘B’. (Looked at from outside, of course, it is another example of a system that says the way to prevent people destroying their lives with harmful substances is to destroy their lives by making them criminals.)

On Tuesday evening, Transform Drug Policy Foundation (TDPF) officially launched its new publication ‘How to Regulate Cannabis: A Practical Guide’ at a House of Commons event hosted by Dr. Julian Huppert, the MP for Cambridge and member of the Home Affairs Select Committee. I’ve only skimmed this new report, so far, because it seems to say many of the things I already know and is, clearly, not meant for those who are already familiar with the debate.

Whether by coincidence or careful planning, during Tuesday night (UK time) the senate in Uruguay approved a bill setting out ways to regulate the supply of cannabis to citizens aged over 18. Here’s the Google translation of the website of the group behind this new law. The new measure allows for licensing of growers, declared, controlled content of the cannabis produced, a monthly allowance for personal consumers but a ban on cannabis being supplied to tourists. TDPF has worked very closely with organisations in Uruguay and the result is the sort of controls called for by Transform.

I took care in that paragraph to write that the new law (the president of Uruguay has already indicated that he will sign the bill into law) is about regulation because ‘legalisation’ has been hijacked by those who want to portray any changes to drug policy as opening the path to hell. Words do get adopted for the purpose of misdirecting public reaction and that is why I think a new word is required.

The ‘reform’ the ONDCP conference discussed was about treating drug use as a healthcare problem not a criminal problem. On the face of it, that sounds like a positive move. If the US government is coming to realise that someone with problematic drug use needs assistance rather than imprisonment that has to be welcomed, surely? And, of course, it does. But, what about drug use that is not problematic?

That’s where the ONDCP conference stumbled because at least one panellist was of the opinion that every drug user, no matter how infrequent, has a problem that should be addressed through the healthcare system. And the overall tone of the meeting, attended by quite a number of people with vested interests in the recovery industry, was along that line – every user needs either treatment or punishment.

Portugal’s policy on individual drug users is so much better than what preceded it that people don’t like to point out that it assumes that every drug user needs assistance and diverts them to a process that has treatment as its end result.

Like it or not, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of drug users suffer no harm and age and changing circumstances brings an end to their use without the need for any intervention of any sort.

Those who push the need for treatment in every case are, in effect, saying that all drug use should be suppressed and this makes them almost indistinguishable from traditional prohibitionists. But it is wrong to call them prohibitionists.

I have this thing about using the correct words to describe something. Take the UK government’s decision to reduce the housing benefit of claimants with surplus unused accommodation. It a decrease in the amount paid but opponents have latched onto the name ‘bedroom tax’ when attacking it. That to me creates an escape clause for any government minister being questioned about it. Asked about the ‘bedroom tax’, an astute politician will painstakingly explain why that is the wrong name and why the government called it what it did and so on. By diverting to a process issue, half an interview can be neutralised as well as portraying the interviewer as biased.

That’s why I’m not comfortable with referring to the emerging group of people who think all drug users require treatment as ‘prohibitionists’. It gives them the opportunity to talk about what distinguishes them from true prohibitionists rather than being forced to try and justify their beliefs.

So, we need a word for people who think it is wrong for drug users to be dealt with by the criminal justice system but think it is right that every user should be forced into treatment for their ‘problem’ no matter how insignificant that use is.

I wondered about ‘healthistionists’ to mirror ‘prohibitionists’ but I think that’s a rather ugly construction. ‘Treatmongers’ does draw attention to the fact that many of the advocates of this stance see the huge profits to be made by them if the money currently spent on enforcement gets diverted to the treatment industry.

Then I thought about constructing a suitable acronym, often the way new words are formulated. Every User Needs Treatment makes them eunts but that sounds a bit like something from Tolkien and I’m not sure there would be universal agreement on pronunciation.

All Users Need Treatment makes aunts of them and that makes people with very harmful opinions seem too benign. That, all bar one other*, is as far as I got. I’m completely convinced a new term is needed so do get in touch via Twitter or the contact form if you have any ideas.

*The other, I felt, would be unlikely to contribute to sensible debate though might have the greatest resonance so I, slightly reluctantly, dismissed Casual Users Need Treatment.


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