In The Misuse of Drugs Act needs to go Part 1 we discussed the beginnings of Aotearoa’s drug laws in the Victorian era and how the USA and the UN played a major part in what our drug laws looked like. In this post we look into the War on Drugs [TM] and how it shaped the drug laws Aotearoa currently has. CW racism. Like…a lot of racism.
In the late 1960s in the US, the Nixon administration was concerned about three things:
- The number of American soldiers either fighting in or coming home from the war in Vietnam with opioid addictions.
- The anti-Vietnam war movement which was gaining momentum, driven by people who were often part of communities that were involved in the psychedelic revolution.
- The Civil Rights movement, in which groups like the Black Panther Party and the Black Power Movement were forming. Black people in America were showing how much of a gutsful they’d had of lynchings, sundown towns, racial segregation and its associated Jim Crow laws, and so on – and it was gaining traction.
So in 1971 Nixon declared drug abuse Public Enemy Number 1 and openly declared ‘war’ on drugs.
Nixon poured millions of dollars into law enforcement and medical programs as part of his ‘new kind of offensive’ against drug abuse.
Because police in the US already had free licence to arrest black people for ‘suspicious behaviour’ (read: existing while black), the new anti-drug laws gave them more ‘legitimate’ reasons to target black people.
Coincidence? Lol no. Not in the slightest.
John Erlichmann, who was Nixon’s domestic policy adviser during his administration, says:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Harper’s Magazine, 2016
So basically the President of the United States created drug policies specifically to target political opponents and disguised this as care for people with drug dependence issues. These policies may have stayed contained to the US were it not for some conveniently-timed international agreements which persuaded the rest of the world to jump on board.
The Convention on Psychotropic Substances 1971
The UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances 1971 was created as a reaction to the new drugs on the market, and expanded the definition of “a substance in need of control” to include substances that:
- Have the potential for dependence
- Create “central nervous system stimulation or depression, resulting in hallucinations or disturbances in motor function or thinking or behaviour or perception or mood”
- Have a similar medicinal-to-problematic use ratio as other substances that have already been scheduled, and
- Substances showing ‘sufficient evidence’ of abuse ‘so as to constitute a public health and social problem warranting the placing of the substance under international control’
Social problems? In MY psychedelic revolution? It’s more likely than you’d think.
The language used in the Convention made it pretty clear this was aimed at the drugs associated with the 60s counterculture. Especially the psychedelic ones. Y’know, the ones that were being used by some of the people that said things like ‘tune in, turn on, drop out’ and ‘why are we fighting in Vietnam again? This is a terrible idea’.
The Convention scheduled a bunch of new substances including LSD and psilocybin into Schedule 1, and amphetamines into Schedule 2. Cannabis was still in Schedule 1, so now 3 of the top 4 drugs of the psychedelic revolution were in the Most Dangerous And Scary category, putting people who have and/or use those drugs in the Most Arrestable and Social Delinquent category (much to Nixon’s delight).
It also included clauses that required UN member countries to put in place laws that made it a punishable offence to do anything that breached the Conventions, and required “adequate punishment, particularly by imprisonment or other penalty of deprivation of liberty” for serious offences. These requirements are international, so if a person arrested in one country has a conviction in another, their previous offences will be counted against them.
And one of the worst bits, Article 23: ‘A Party may adopt more strict or severe measures of control than those provided by this Convention if, in its opinion, such measures are desirable or necessary for the protection of the public health and welfare.’
What does that mean? Well…The Death Penalties for Drug Offences: Global Overview 2022 showed
- 35 countries retain the death penalty for drug offences
- 6 countries admitted to executing people for drug offences in 2022
- 285+ people were executed for drug offences in 2022
- 3,700 people are awaiting execution in prison for drug offences around the world.
Just let that sink in for a minute. Killing people for possessing substances that were classified based on a definition of “abuse” that is subjective at best and has little basis in evidence.
On the plus side, the 1971 Convention did introduce a requirement for warning labels for drugs like amphetamines and benzodiazepines so people know that their over the counter pick-me-ups are actually addictive. That’s it. That’s the only positive we could find.
Just in case you were thinking maybe this wasn’t a case of cultural imperialism on a global scale, you should know that there is a 13- member Board that administers the Conventions. It’s made up of:
- Three members with medical, pharmacological or pharmaceutical experience
- Ten other members
If the Board feels like any country or government isn’t ‘executing the provisions of the convention’, they have the right to an explanation. If the Board doesn’t think that explanation is good enough, they can insist the government in question ‘adopt remedial measures’. If the government in question still isn’t performing in line with what the Board thinks is correct, they can ‘call the attention of the Parties, the Council and the Commission to the matter‘.
Basically if you don’t toe the line, the Board will tell everyone else in the UN that you’re being difficult, including the people in charge of the UN. This is how trade embargoes start, so from an economic standpoint, it’s best to do as you’re told. Even if the laws are put in place for spurious reasons.
So in 1971, everyone who was a UN member, including Aotearoa, got given a new shiny set of rules to abide by based on the ‘social problems’ of certain countries, like not wanting to go to war, or not wanting to be murdered for being black. And all those countries were instructed to go forth and implement drug prohibition according to those rules.
This is what Aotearoa based the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 on. And we still use it now.
So, let’s recap
The drug laws we’re using now, in Aotearoa in the 21st century are
- Written in 1975 with no real, critically assessed reviews since then
- Based on laws from a time where being openly racist was legally, socially, and morally encouraged
- Based on ideas of societal harm from a time where conservative Christian morality and the Temperance movement were vastly influential
- Guided by international treaties formed with very little critical evidence, and based on principles developed by moral crusaders with racist agendas and the machinations of a US President who oversaw the tail end of projects like MK Ultra and Operation Midnight Climax, and was finally impeached for using espionage-style intelligence gathering techniques on his political opponents
- Overseen by an international Board that threatens to penalise the hell out of you if you don’t do your drug law enforcement the way they want.
Join us next blog when we take a look at the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 in action today and see why it’s absolutely not fine in the least.