3. February 2022

Panicked opposition to drug reform

The report of the Norwegian Royal Commission on Drug Reform is far more detrimental to the prohibition regime than expected. Not only does it document how moral panic has affected the development of policy but also shows that human rights are involved, and several non-government organisations (NGOs) have requested that the politicians recognise the Royal Commission’s conclusions. This means that the political process is secured constitutionally and that the Norwegian state accepts its obligations under international law.

Integrity equals standing up for what is right. In times of moral panic, it is imperative to contest established prejudices, and the Royal Commission’s report separates the wheat from the chaff. When it comes to politicians, some don’t want decriminalisation of drugs, and others support the Royal Commission’s recommendations. Even so, the report goes against the prohibition of drugs, and those who oppose the reform should think twice.

Human rights

Not only has the argument for punishment been countered but the Royal Commission also looks at the human rights dimension of drug policy and finds that the ” changing the focus of the national drug policy from punishment to health, through the decriminalisation of use and possession and introduction of health-oriented measures in response to drug use will contribute to Norway better respecting and fulfilling the citizens’ right to health”.

The same conclusions are drawn when it comes to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the right to privacy. The Royal Commission’s report shows how human rights are becoming more prominent and how the world is moving from interpreting international law obligations in the light of a drug-free ideal to emphasising the intention to protect health and welfare.

Prohibition has failed miserably on this front. Instead of being a useful tool, it has had devastating side effects, and those politicians who continue to insist on punishment oppose human rights recommendations. The result is a liability  – one that becomes only more criminal in intent.

Constitutional responsibility

As the report elaborates, the burden of proof lies with those who want to limit freedom. We cannot go from criminalising to pathologising drug users without looking at the right to self-determination, and several organisations have noted the requirement for a new Royal Commission to deal with issues of constitutional importance. A failure to comply is to oppose the realisation that the convention’s obligations. It means to disregard a disputed area of rights, and the supporters of punishment should rather reflect on this instead of supporting a policy on totalitarian premises.

After all, moral panic has been demonstrated by the report. Words such as “public panic”, “unbalanced views”, “misleading perceptions”, “misapplication of punishment”, and “reality-resistant iniquity” summarise the development of the drug policy. We are dealing with a debate characterised by “stereotypical representations”, “moral indignation”, and “revenge urges” and one in which a “scientific understanding of the drug problem has played a minor role”.

“Panic” is used several times, and there is a connection between this phenomenon and the violation of human rights. To the extent that the policy is characterised by moral panic, we will be dealing with arbitrary persecution, and the Royal Commission’s report indicates that prohibition is without a legitimate constitutional basis.

Thus, until the state has clarified basic constitutional issues, amnesty should be introduced. This does not just mean that drug users should be left at peace; this means that people who, for example, grow cannabis should be allowed to walk free and that the police should not use resources to prosecute drug offenders.

This is controversial enough. Nevertheless, this is what is needed if we accept the human rights perspective. We must acknowledge that that like most of the shameful laws of the past, the prohibition of drugs violates the principles of human rights, and that those who have been punished are entitled to seek redress.

The unconscious rules

For those who see the prohibition of drugs as a quest for decency, this is extremely difficult to accept. Identity is linked to action, and it creates great pain when what was supposed to be a beneficial commitment to society turns out to be the opposite. Once they realise this, people find themselves in the same position as soldiers who have fought wars built on lies, and it requires a major psychological reorganisation before the world becomes whole again.

It is this task that the police, politicians and other prohibitionists are struggling with. They are not fond of introspection, and the result is a debate stifled by commonly held delusions as well as an incentive to look away from human rights  – all to preserve a questionable self-image. Even so, it is not possible to support the punishment of drug law violators without being increasingly corrected by evidence. This is what the prohibitionists are grappling with, and the Norwegian politicians should not only ensure a principled review of drug policy but also look forward to a truth and reconciliation commission.

This will be the showdown with a drug policy on totalitarian terms. It takes a truth and reconciliation commission to deal with the injustice that comes with the current drug policy, as responsible individuals are obliged to do away with a policy based on the scapegoat mechanism.

This phenomenon – our tendency to blame out-groups for societal problems that we have a collective responsibility to solve – is the only reason why a drug policy continues as it does. This is what makes the persecution so palatable for prohibitionists, and thanks to politicians’ encouragement of the scapegoat mechanism, the unconscious continues to define the political process – until integrity and responsibilities take its place.

The Alliance for Rights-Oriented Drug Policies (AROD) therefore recommends citizens and politicians to focus on the responsibility for the persecuted groups. According to the Royal Commission’s report, this is where we must put the bar because only that is sufficient for the rule of law.

This article was published 13 May, 2020, in Drugs and Society 


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