Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

Clean society goal an admirable but unrealistic goal

The promotion of a drug-free world, though laudable, can never be a reachable objective, argues
Brian McConnell

Published in The Canberra Times on 25 February 2002

Can a society become drug free? A few Australian towns and a small number of individuals, some in senior positions, are pursuing this cause. Some cities in the USA and Europe are also. Sweden has adopted the ideal of a drug free society nationally. In 1998 the UN formally set a target date, 2008, for ridding the world of the "scourge of drugs".

A search of the internet reveals many sites that promote drug free communities, a drug free life, drug free sport, drug free schools, a drug free workplace, how to test your kids to make sure they are drug free - moves which spawned a counter industry with the "P4Free" site which helps people show clean urine (when it is not clean) for drug tests at school or work or wherever.

All drug use carries risks and the natural response is to say ‘yes’ to a drug free society. But the issue is complex and needs careful examination before seriously considering such an ambitious task.

The first question to answer is: what drugs will a drug free society be free of?

Should widely accepted drugs like alcohol and tobacco be included in the list, or only illicit drugs and should relative danger be the criteria? The fact that some legal drugs carry more risks than illegal ones makes this task all the more difficult. Consider also volatile substances like petrol and solvents. And if we discover that a popular food contained addictive components, should that be included also?

Should it include the drug that was described thus: "the sufferer is tremulous and loses his self-command: he is subject to fits of agitation and depression. He has a haggard appearance. As with other such agents, a renewed dose of the poison gives temporary relief, but at the cost of future misery."

This was a description of coffee at the turn of the 20th century. Today, no one would consider a ban on that drug because the claims were shown to be exaggerated. But if coffee had been banned then could the ban ever be lifted? Cannabis another widely used drug, which was banned because of attitudes toward it and its users, is just such a case. Notwithstanding that this drug carries risks, but perhaps not as many as alcohol, there is emerging evidence that cannabis has beneficial medical properties. Trials are underway to examine such claims.

The point is that social acceptability and not necessarily relative danger may dictate which drugs might be acceptable in a drug free society. But if a drug is banned and there is a demand, it will still find a way into society. It has been argued that prohibition, because it generates enormous tax-free profits, promotes illicit drug use. And if supply of one drug stops, other drugs will be substituted. For example the Australian heroin shortage has seen users switch to other drugs.

Consider the practicalities. Apart from one past society in the ice-blown wastes of the artic the drug free ideal has never been achieved anywhere in the world. Even the most secure environments - prisons with guards, razor wire and searches of visitors - are not drug free.

A drug free society cannot put itself behind razor wire and must coexist beside other communities. "Cannabis-tourists", for example, returning across the border from The Netherlands, present problems for the more restrictive drug policies of neighbouring countries’.

A strongly held drug free ideology limits the responses to citizens who may use drugs. Despite the obvious benefits, such a society may not provide prescription methadone or heroin as a maintenance treatment nor provide clean syringes to protect the community from transmission of blood born viruses. Such treatment would be seen as condoning drug use. But denying such treatment may be seen as necessary "for the greater good of the community".

Of course such drug using members could be forced into compulsory treatment - yet to be proven an effective approach.

Given all of these issues can a drug free society still be achieved?

The goal of being drug free can only be achieved at an individual level; a goal that may be highly desirable. But at the collective level the achievement of a drug-free society can never be a reachable objective nor the only measure of success of managing drug problems. The harder the society pursues the collective drug free goal the greater will be the increase in harms to that society.

Brian McConnell is president of Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform.