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Bertrand Marie Andrée - 1 luglio 1994
(2) Marie-Andrée Bertrand - New Players and New Strategies
in the fight against the ban on drugs and the criminal repression of drug addicts

Marie-Andrée Bertrand, President of the International Antiprohibitionist League, University of Montreal


The past six or seven years have been marked by a resurgence of opposition to the official criminal policy on drugs. A new type of player has been observed, one using strategies different from those in use in previous decades. These are new strategies involving a new vision of the social scene and the drug "problem". My aim in this article is to analyze these changes, their impact, their chance of success, to identify the major obstacles ("the main enemy").

It is appropriate to talk about a resurgence of the fight against the ban on drugs, because the struggle began at the end of the 1960s, shortly after the ratification of the International Convention on Drugs of 1961 by 77 countries. Also, the word resurgence applies, because this first rebellion ended in the late 1970s.

The initial fight

The main players in the first movement of disobedience and protest were young people and groups of users. They were backed by the leagues of people's rights and a few health, legal and university professionals.

But paradoxically this initial militancy was encouraged by the governments of countries (1) who at the time appointed study groups to assess the scope of the drug "problem" and possible solutions. Examination of the situation was extended to penal policies and their effectiveness. All this led to public debates which were given large coverage by the written and electronic press, revealing the particular nature of drug laws and the exceptional nature of the legal means of action. At the end of the inquiries, everywhere except in France, the working groups concluded that drug legislation and the terms of its enforcement had to be modified.

Yet, the recommendations of the investigation bodies had little or no impact on criminal drug legislation (2), and even when they did, it was of minor importance and only with regard to cannabis. On the whole, despite popular pressure and a certain degree of political backing, drug laws everywhere have remained attached to the prohibitive model imposed by the Single Convention on Drugs of 1961 and by the Vienna Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971. It is true that a certain degree of tolerance was adopted towards users and people in the possession of small quantities of soft drugs. But this "de facto legalization" left the door open to all sorts of discriminatory practices, since the laws remained unchanged.

How and why did a fight that lost its momentum at the end of the 1970s, leaving the overwhelming majority of the initial fighters exhausted and without hope, re-emerge in the mid-1980s and accelerate its movement to this day? Under what influence?

While it is unwise to attempt to write the immediate story and to predict the future in definite fashion, it is entirely possible and useful, in my view, and even important to identify the visions and strategies of the players and groups that emerged at the end of the 1980s and to assess their tactics in face of the major obstacles preventing the achievement of our objectives.

The accumulation of the perverse effects of drug legislation

The analyses developed by the opponents of drug policies in the 1980s are quite different from those that could be made by the militants of the first wave of resistance. In 1985, when the second wave began to emerge, there were 25 years of experience and prohibition.

What kind of analysis can be made of this experience? What led to the emergence of the new players and inspired the new strategies?

Reading over the acts founding the new fighting groups, a few central points can be identified:

1. On what is not right with the laws on drugs, analysts have the choice, but what is clear to many is first of all that the criminal system has failed because of drug legislation, and that this is a reason to end the prohibition. The police force is having increasing difficulty coping with these new "crimes". Its leaders have confessed on several occasions that they are incapable of controlling more than 10% of the international trade. The courts have been forced to devote an unbelievable proportion of their time to these cases. The length of prison sentences foreseen for drug cases, especially for the sale, importing and cultivation of drugs, but even for mere possession, has contributed dramatically to overpopulated prisons and longer sentences for other crimes, because judges hesitate to hand out only "two-year sentences for burglary when they are forced to sentence individuals to 5 years of firm prison for dealing in or importing drugs. Ten years after the Convention on Drugs of 1961 came the Vie

nna Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971, which lays down a range of coercive obligations and extends the power of prohibition to other substances.

2. In addition to material and functional problems afflicting the criminal system of each of the signatory countries of the Conventions, conflicts of a legal, constitutional, moral and social nature have emerged and become more numerous. Economic arguments have been invoked with regard to prohibition. Problems of public health have been raised.

3. The constitutionality of drug legislation and its enforcement has increasingly been questioned in the courts with regard to the substance, and the procedure has been invalidated in several cases.

4. On the moral level, agents of police and criminal investigation services have been compromised in drug cases while others have resigned from their job, denouncing the way in which the criminal justice system operates. Others have committed suicide when they were about to be accused of dealing in drugs. Researchers doing work in prisons have reported and made known to the general public the fact that in the overwhelming majority of penal institutions drugs were in ready supply, with the complicity and to the financial profit of prison staff. The moral cost of repression -denouncement, violation of private life, denial of the presumption of innocence, in addition to the corruption of criminal agents- has become unbearable to a large number of citizens and politicians.

5. The economic costs of the fight against drugs have year after year turned out to be scandalously high, to the point of troubling even right-wing economists who admit that the prohibition of drugs has no economic sense in countries of the capitalist liberal type.

6. On the social level, ethnic and socioeconomic divisions are reinforced with the enforcement of drug laws which put in a criminal category the most disadvantaged and most oppressed citizens.

7. The policy of criminal repression entirely overshadows the real problems of the individual and public health of drug addicts. The State declines any responsibility for them.

Too much is too much".

And it is probably the awareness of this accumulation of disasters that gives many the courage to engage in new struggles. Some are militants from the first wave who return to fight with a new look, having developed new tactics. Others are newcomers and see the situation in an entirely new light.

New strategies: "Antiprohibitionism", "(New) drug policy", "harm reduction", "normalization"

In immediate succession, four international bodies emerged at the end of the 1980s with the avowed purpose of bringing about a change in the criminal policy on psychoactive substances and in the treatment of drug addicts. The previous decades had not witnessed anything that was as organized or of a clear supra-national nature.

The programme of these opposition groups, their name even, is testimony of new intentions and strategies with regard to the programmes of the pressure groups of the 1970s. Each of these movements is the response, moreover, of a different legal-penal context and a national culture, one emerging in Italy, the second in the United States, the third in England and the fourth in the Netherlands. These movements are also born of a particular reaction to the drug "problem" and to its real or apprehended importance in the national context. Their programme reflects the diversity of these contexts and the personality of their founder or founders.

The International Antiprohibitionist League (Brussels, 1988; Rome, 1989), created by the Antiprohibitionist Radical Coordination and the Radical Party, has adopted a clear and wide-ranging socio-legal programme which involves working with experts from a large number of countries to end the ban on drugs. Its members disseminate information in their respective areas, help in the creation of local bodies, support groups that undertake to change drug legislation, ensure representation with government officials and parliamentary committees, and in some cases even canvass for votes. Some are members of a few committees of the Council of Europe, Members of the European Parliament, advisers to the World Health Organization and in various committees of international law where they strive to demonstrate the weakness and/or harmful nature of international agreements and to propose alternative solutions.

A second body has been set up in the United States. It is the American Drug Policy Foundation created in 1987. Its name and programme are intentionally as neutral and open (and welcoming) as they appear. The founder of the organization, Arnold Trebach, acknowledges that he cannot and does not want to recommend a particular alternative solution to the current laws. Although the organization was created before the all too famous declaration of "war on drugs" by President Bush, it would nevertheless be fair to say that the United States context gives the American Foundation a particular mission, which is that of waging war on "the war on drugs". The organization has among its members theoreticians, practitioners, men and women involved in politics in cities, states and at the federal level, members of the clergy, law enforcement officials, therapists, doctors who are waging the battle against the war on drugs and for the improvement of cities through the organization of health care services for drug addic

ts on all these fronts.

The third pressure group is the European Group for the Normalization of Drug Policies created in the Netherlands in 1988. It is a forum of information. Its name is eminently strategic. It is difficult to oppose the "normalization" of criminal laws and policies and this name is worthy of recalling from the outset that the present laws on drugs are laws of exception, "ab-normal" laws that foresee offences void of the usual foundations (e.g. these are in several cases victimless crimes) for which one is forced to use particular kinds of prosecution.

Finally, the fourth group (rather a movement and a coalition), the Movement aimed at harm reduction, clearly says where it stands and what its programme is with its name. The objectives are eminently realistic, pragmatic and based on compassion: compassion for the victims of drug addiction but also compassion for the victims of repression. This movement recalls that the health of drug addicts and the safety of non-drug users is often seriously jeopardized by the unavailability of the substances used by the drug addict and by the clandestinity of the consumption and trade.

The international groups just mentioned have often sought support at the beginning from national movements (CORA in the case of Italy and the International Antiprohibitionist League; NORML - the National Organization for the Repeal of Marihuana Laws for the United States and the Drug Policy Foundation). In return, among all the international movements and sometimes with their support, local and national groups have formed in the 1990s. These include anti-prohibitionist leagues, with the focus on harm reduction and normalization in Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, Quebec, the United States, the United Kingdom, in several countries of South America, Greece, etc and with the assistance of the Transnational Party in several countries of Eastern Europe and in a few African countries.

Finally, other groups of players have formed recently. Often encouraged and supported by national and international groups, professionals from all disciplines have joined together to assist one another. Legal experts have pooled their forces (in Spain in particular), themselves calling for changes in drug legislation. In the United States, priests have created a movement denouncing the immorality of the legal policy and practices of repression. In Canada, the United States, Western Europe, those who work with drug addicts have united in the search for ways of treating and helping this group DESPITE criminal laws. In the United Kingdom, doctors revolting against the limitations posed by national legislation and the introduction of substitute measures have grouped together and taken it on themselves to go beyond the legal framework. Police officers (first former policemen, then more recently, active agents) denounce the futility of drug laws. Former law enforcement agents have set up groups to protest a

gainst the laws on drugs. Social workers are joining forces to establish distribution points for needles, more or less clandestine shelters for homeless drug addicts, etc.

Moreover, in several countries, mentalities are beginning to change, and this can be seen in surveys and call-in television programmes where the question of legalizing drugs is openly discussed and supported by a majority. In similar programmes in the 1970s and 1980s, only the decriminalization of soft drugs was discussed and in a very shallow manner. Well respected newspapers and magazines in Canada, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Spain, in the countries of Northern Europe, even Centre-Right ones, are now daring more and more to clearly pose the question of changing the drug legislation. Today's politicians are speaking out in favour of lighter sentences, or even of creating substitute measures (and some have even been forced to resign for doing so, particularly in France).

A few factors speeding up the fight against the policy on drugs

Two unfortunate factors have contributed to speeding up the fight against the current policy on drugs and the criminal repression of drug addicts.

It is obvious that the declaration of war on drugs made by President Bush in 1990 has fortified the position of the groups opposed to the current criminal policy. It is, for example, the declaration of "war on drugs" that makes it possible to consider the anti-prohibitionist struggle a movement in favour of peace. To wage war against those who declare war on drugs becomes an initiative of pacifists, as explained by the IRDRHR (3), a Dutch action group that undertakes to present as candidates to the Nobel Peace Prize some of the leaders of the anti-prohibitionist movement. Thus, in a kind of reversal of roles, the "rebels", the "insurgents" of the 1970s who were calling for the right to violate with impunity the laws on drugs, and who in fact violated them by openly and publicly consuming cannabis in front of police officers in order to be arrested and demonstrate to judges the pointlessness of the laws and the "normality" of the consumers, become here agents of social peace in the eyes of increasingly lar

ger contingents. The anti-prohibitionists, the partisans of harm reduction, adherents of the policy of "normalization" are campaigning for the "drug problem to be examined in a humane, educational, preventive, therapeutic fashion and for a stop to the call for violent and warlike measures of repression against consumers.

It is just as obvious that the "discovery" of AIDS, its prevalence among some consumers, and the increasingly well-founded assertion of the risks of contagion for those who are not drug addicts through sexual contacts are grist to the mill of the movement of harm reduction, normalization and even anti-prohibitionism.

New rationalities in the fight against the laws on drugs

The new rationalities on which the fight against the policy of repression has been built since the end of the 1980s are therefore emerging. These include the concern to contribute to peace between the social groups, the peace of cities and countries, which is overriding other considerations and means resorting to methods at the extreme opposite of those recommended by armed repression, adopting approaches stamped with realism and compassion. They also involve taking into account social conflicts rather than denial, treating drug addicts rather than imprisoning them, etc.

In addition to this is an increasingly explicit desire to provide "assistance to a person in danger" -already present, it is true, among the protagonists of harm reduction but expressing here in even clearer fashion, the need to overcome, in the case of drug addicts and AIDS sufferers, the prejudices, attitudes of rejection, or even legal and medical standards, to provide assistance, to ensure that the excluded receive the medical care accessible to the "other" citizens, to relieve the pain.

The European Cities and Drugs Policy movement draws its inspiration in part from this generous vision, finding in it the opportunity for a more responsible management of cities and public safety.

What distinguishes from an epistemological and methodological point of view these approaches from the policy based on the International Conventions and the war on drugs is therefore realism and compassion. There is here a move away from an ideal project, marked by puritan rationalism -the cruel project of a society without drugs of its choice, limited to State "medication". Only the totalitarian and single-party religious regimes can achieve this total control over body and mind.

In societies governed democratically, the phenomena that bother us should be taken into account rather than denied. To take them into account does not mean encouraging abuse or giving up in face of the problem, because there does indeed exist a drug "problem", an individual problem for some, a social problem for almost everyone. But moderation can only be encouraged in the use of legal substances. Controlled use cannot be taught until consumption involves authorized drugs.

The main enemy

International agreements are an eminently binding framework for all signatory countries. According to one of our colleagues, the latest agreement, the United Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotic Substance of 1988, is even more binding than the previous ones. These agreements are themselves the principal enemy. But they have their evil genius. They are born of the desire by the United States to act as moral policeman of the world. On the control of the production and consumption of narcotic drugs and psychotic substances, the United States has succeeded in spreading their puritan moral standards of medical control or abstinence to most countries. It is precisely there that one finds the major and first obstacle to any serious change in policies on drugs and the treatment of drug addicts, because the States that are less "worthy" of international trust in the production of incriminated substances are very keen on not being discredited for their criminality or their withdrawa

l of agreements. And anyway, any country, however "respectable", if it denounces the agreements or threatens to do so becomes a suspect of "drug crimes": production, laxism in international trade, in domestic repression, etc. It is the coward and traitor who will weaken the fine world cohesion...

The United States is in two regards the evil genius of the signatory countries of agreements. First of all because of what is happening on its domestic scene and its reaction to it. The proportions that the drug "problem" has assumed in the United States come in addition to serious social conflicts, and the country's failed policy causes it to adopt a catastrophic attitude and drastic methods in the form of the armed fight. The war between drug dealers is reaching unparalleled heights, several cities are battle fields (other cities, it is true, are practicing in remarkable fashion the policy of harm reduction). And American prisons, increasingly numerous and overflowing with drug cases, are gradually becoming a real goulag (4), a world of shame.

But the American model, although frightening, is tempting to certain more fragilized countries. The American strategies would probably be catastrophic if they were applied to the countries of Western Europe, Canada, Central and South America, not to mention the countries of Africa and Eastern Europe. Yet, some governments, even among the most moderate, are tempted by the strong methods when faced with the problems of drugs at borders and "foreigners", as I was able to see for myself last year in Northern Europe and as can be seen with the increase in prison populations which I was told everywhere was due to "foreigners" sentenced for drug cases...

Luckily and far removed from the American model, other softer and more humane methods have shown their worth in several European countries, where the action of political leaders more concerned about harm reduction has led to the creation of ingenious measures of substitution, to the opening of treatment centres, or even the introduction of maintenance cures.

Will the Europe in search of itself be able and want to drive out the evil American genius that made it adopt a legal framework leading it to a fiscao? Will it want to assume leadership in international gatherings and make amendments to the recent agreements or denounce them outright, gestures that are all entirely possible?

Europe's bad pupil: France

Although it is desireable that in this area of drugs and in everything having to do with values, each country passes legislation in respect of its culture and its own history and is able to evolve at its own pace, it is difficult to believe that the European Union will be able to do without a common policy on the trade and importing of drugs.

In Europe itself, there is a very bad pupil, France. Bad for three reasons: its particularly restrictive, unrealistic criminal measures that run in the opposite direction of everything taught to us by science on drugs; its experts continue to make no difference between drug use and addiction; its teachers and therapists therefore consider a drug addict to be the most ordinary consumer; finally, its politicians and the medical corps refuse the measures of substitution and all the more so maintenance measures.

Also, if twelve or fifteen EC Member States attempted to come up with a comprehensive drug policy that moved away from the prohibitionist model and that clearly replaced a harm reduction policy, the bad pupil, France, would probably block the attempt out of ignorance and incompetence.

International conventions and neo-colonialism

The international conventions on drugs are powerful instruments of cultural and economic colonialization of producer countries. They are a pretext for the Northern and Western countries to dominate the Southern and Eastern countries, imposing on them substitute crops, and inflicting economic sanctions if they do not abide by the orders of the rich and consumer countries. The international conventions have been the lever used by the signatory countries to literally "decultivate" in the two senses of the word the producer countries of cocoa.

This colonialization becomes more visible as the ethnic groups which founded the Americas claim the right to their space and their culture, which implies with regard to the use of certain psychotropic substances, an attitude incompatible with the one binding us in the International Conventions.

The Northern and Western countries thought it possible to "lay down THE law" in all respects, including in this area. It is hoped that the Southern and Eastern countries - some of which are struggling with their own "internal" colonialism on this matter - bring us back to more respect, modesty and civilization. Because one must confess, the drugs policy and the treatment of drug addicts practiced by the consumer countries in the fight against drugs looks a lot like barbarity.

(1) They included the United Kingdom (on several occasions), New Zealand, Australia, the United States, Canada, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany.

(2) England and Netherlands made a distinction in legislation between soft drugs and hard drugs, adopting less stringent legal action and lighter penalities in the case of the former or even decriminalization in the statute books for the possession of small quantities of cannabis for personal use (the Netherlands). In Italy and in several States in America, decriminalization of marihuana has encountered ups and downs.

(3) IRDRHR: Drugs Peace Institute - Instituut voor Drugsvrede. Postbus 15563, 1001 NB Amsterdam Nederland. Nobelprijs voor de Vrede 1994: "De drugpacifisten": Arnold Trebach, US, Mauricio Matmani Pocoaca, Bolivia, Marie-Andrée Bertrand, Canada.

(4) That is the thesis upheld by Nils Chrisie, professor of law at the University of Oslo, in his latest book Social Control as Industry, 1993.

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