Rational debate on drugs

Drug policies in New Zealand might be very different if debate on the use and misuse of drugs was based on the scientific evidence, says Dr Julian Buchanan.

Dr Buchanan spent more than a decade working in criminal justice in the United Kingdom, including as a drugs specialist, before becoming an academic. His research interests are in the same field and he has published widely with more than 40 journal articles and book chapters in his name.

“Drug laws remain rooted in the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs which reflects attitudes held at the time,” he says. “Thinking has changed drastically since then, particularly on issues like race relations and the role of women but the same hasn’t happened with drug control.

“What we’re left with is a drugs apartheid where tobacco, alcohol and caffeine enjoy a privileged position. They are heavily promoted and embedded in our culture while other drugs, many of which are less harmful, are illegal and subject to enforcement controls.”

Dr Buchanan says New Zealand’s present drug classification system, introduced in 1975, is an example of the disconnect between drug policy and the scientific evidence.

“The way drugs are classified bears little resemblance to the risks posed by individual substances. Indeed, alcohol and nicotine are more dangerous than many of the drugs on the list.

“I’m not advocating greater use of drugs that are currently illegal but I am advocating mature and pragmatic discussion that is based on the research evidence.”

Dr Buchanan has examined attitudes to drug use around the world and says a growing number of countries are exploring a different approach and getting some positive results.

“Holland effectively decriminalised cannabis in 1976 while Portugal decriminalised the use of all illicit drugs in 2001.

“Contrary to what some feared, neither country witnessed a drug explosion and both consistently report lower rates of problem drug use than neighbouring countries.”

Last year, Dr Buchanan was appointed as a consultant to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime with the task of examining the relationship between socio-economic need and effective drug treatment.