Drug Transformation

The offices of Transform are in Easton, Bristol; a neighbourhood adjacent to the infamous inner-city suburb of St Paul’s and the two boroughs share all the hallmarks of urban decay. Both areas were hubs of afro-carribean immigration in the aftermath of World War II and in the decades since have been plagued by racial tensions, gang violence and drug abuse; in particular heroin and crack cocaine. It is perhaps appropriate then that the offices of the UK’s leading drug policy think tank should be located here, surrounded by circumstances the likes of which have both fuelled and created the drug problem in England and around the world.

‘We wouldn’t see the global regime shifting substantially for about another ten years’

Inside their modest offices I met Danny Kushlick who founded Transform in 1997, and is now their head of policy and communications. Since its inception, Transform has openly and actively advocated for wide-ranging reform of current national and international drug policy with an end to bringing about the demise of drug prohibition and ushering in a new era of controlled regulation. In this spirit they recently published a 215 page report entitled ‘After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation’ which outlined how society would regulate the use of drugs in the post-prohibition world.

For many this might seem hubristic, that drugs are and will remain illegal seems axiomatic. Kushlick is firm in his belief that the world outlined in the report is now within sight, he concedes that ‘we wouldn’t see the global regime shifting substantially for about another ten years’ but adds that ‘it is difficult to envisage prohibition going on a lot longer than that in its current form because it is so counter-productive, so 2020 would be a good time for scanning the horizon for significant geopolitical shifts’.

‘We have the wind at our backs for the first time’

‘Geopolitics’ is a word that Kushlick uses frequently when talking about drug policy, and serves to emphasize that although based in Bristol, Transform sees itself as having a voice in the international debate about drug policy. Now more than ever Kushlick feels that what he and others like him have to say is being heard; ‘drug reformers all around the world are talking about having the wind at our backs for the first time in my incarnation as a drug policy campaigner’. He argues that three developments of recent years have served to call in to question the foundations of the war on drugs.

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The first is the Obama effect or ‘the not George Bush effect’ whereby a ‘very conservative pressure has been replaced by fairly liberal one’. The second is the recession which, he reasons, has made ‘very counter-productive and expensive wars look terrible on the balance sheets’. Finally he cites the escalating violence in Mexico which has spilled into the US: ‘to have Phoenix, Arizona as the kidnap capital of the U.S. as a result of turf wars between dealers, and to have regular beheadings and heads rolling around on disco floors on the border looks terrible for the US and feels very different to wars going on at a great distance’.

For all his optimism, Kushlick does not downplay the forces arrayed against the legalization and regulation of drugs, without prompting he poses the central question that faces all drug policy reformers: ‘How do you actually undo a regime that has been around for fifty years, and held in place by some of the prime movers in geopolitics throughout the world?’. He characterizes the war on drugs not as a rational policy approach but as a ‘blind machine’ which has no ability to adapt to changing circumstances and which not only ‘doesn’t work but worse than that it actually creates what we call the drug problem’.

These statements are not revolutionary; Kushlick cites Barack Obama and David Cameron as two prominent politicians who have publicly called into question the basic rationale of the War on Drugs. Lying at the heart of the problem is what Kushlick calls the ‘threat based approach’ which is central to a policy of prohibition. By looking at drugs primarily as threat, he argues, drugs have been turned purely into a security issue and excluded from potential policy debates concerning ‘public health, criminal justice, poverty, conflict, development, human rights because effectively it has been removed from the normal policy-making world and put into the world of security’.

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Kushlick argues that as a result of this monomaniacal focus on security, little effort has been made by governments to treat drugs as they would any other area of policy. Thus one of the main aims for Transform is to call on ‘policy makers from the normal policy world to assess the War on Drugs against normal policy indicators: is it working? Is it value for money? Is it increasing security and developing public health and enabling young people to live high quality lives? No? Therefore we are doing it wrong.’

Transform is acutely aware that they run the risk of appearing too radical and stress the reasonable nature of their programme, similarly Kushlick framed many of their proposals in terms of providing a more flexible approach to drug policy. For him the prevailing drug policy is a frustrating one, relying too heavily on force and too little on nuanced social issues, as he says, paraphrasing Abraham Maslow, ‘If the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, the only things you’re going to see around you are nails’. In the final analysis for Kushlick, regulation makes sense as rather than being a move into the unknown it is a ‘move into the known: which is controlled and which is democratic’.

To those skeptical of Transform’s vision of the post-prohibition Kushlick is both pragmatic and defiant: ‘It’s not utopia, there are difficulties, clearly, with putting in place that regime. But overwhelmingly we win by putting in place a normal regime: we know how those work’. For him the fulfillment of Transform’s project is not simply wishful thinking, it is almost inevitable; ‘We’re going to win big time. In ten years I’m going to be looking for a job’.

Read ‘After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation’ at www.tdpf.org.uk