Resilience and Drug Policy – Why not accept the natural process of change?

by Donald MacPherson on December 10, 2010

I  have been away from the day to day of working at the City of Vancouver for about a year now and have enjoyed the opportunity to immerse myself in new and exciting things like hanging out in Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Prince Edward Island (ah the taste of Lobster fresh from the sea!) and spending more time trying to figure out how to best assist my grown children navigate their next steps in life.

During this time I have been in constant touch with the global discourse on drug policy issues though, and am painfully aware of the need for change in the way that we address such issues as illegal drugs, addiction and mental health. While the volume of calls for change seems to be rising we do not really see the concurrent action at the legislative or policy levels in governments around the world. In the UK despite the excellent work that groups like Transform Drug Policy Foundation, the Beckley Foundation and others are doing towards outlining the dire need for change in our strategies the Cameron government has stayed the course and continues to talk the talk of the drug war seemingly unwilling to look at the unintended consequences of this war or the utter failure of the drug war to achieve any of its goals to reduce harm from the manufacture, sale and use of psychoactive substances. In Mexico which is in a state of of absolute crisis when it comes to drug policy, president Felipe Calderon floated the notion of debating legalizing drugs then quickly reversed tack and ramped up the deadly war on the drug cartels, which is really a war on innocent people caught in the cross fire. In Canada the federal government is damning the torpedoes and heading straight into a wild cycle of “tough on crime” legislation designed to show a more punitive approach to social problems that will cost billions and is guaranteed to have poor or even damaging results.  Being seen to be “tough on crime” is more important than outcomes at this juncture in the politics of staying in power. 

With so much clamor in public policy circles about “evidence-based” policy development I have been struck by the fact that within drug policy how resistant the system of global drug prohibition is. It does indeed appear to be an evidence-free zone as many have pointed out over the years and unable to respond to 21st century realities in the global drug market. This is worrisome in light of the growing interest in resilience that has emerged within the environmental movement and is being embraced by a wide array of social policy thinkers. Resilience is the capacity to deal with change and continue to develop. The Stockholm Resilience Centre defines Social Resilience as:

the ability of human communities to withstand and recover from stresses, such as environmental change or social, economic or political upheaval. Resilience in societies and their life-supporting ecosystems is crucial in maintaining options for future human development.”

And just as with the issue of climate change our policies around illegal drugs need to change in order for us to move forward to maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of psychoactive substances. In the face of zero evidence of success and significant evidence of failure and harm to society of current approaches drug control – there continues to be an attitude that if we only try a little harder, spend more money, build more prisons, tighten immigration laws, enhance border control, then things would get better. It is a sort of child like thinking – believing in a magical solution.

There seems to be a tremendous amount of resistance to doing what more and more people are saying needs to be done – we must adopt a new approach to respond to illegal drugs based on public health and human rights principles. (Check out the Vienna Declaration that I wrote about in previous posts and sign it. Become a member of quite an outstanding bunch of signatories all calling for change). Clinging to the same old same old as conditions deteriorate is to attempt to resist the natural process of resilience. In terms of our response to illegal drugs in society resilience theory would suggest that we have become so invested in given configuration of resources (resources to support and enforce global drug prohibition to stem the flow of drugs and therefore reduce drug use) that we have become unable to change even as globalization has forever changed the realities of the illegal drug trade.

Clinging to the notion of controlling drugs through the blunt instrument of criminalization of these commodities that have real demand in the global market place in light of the evidence that we have today is absurd. Resilience theory would indicate that we find ourselves in a state of minimum flexibility (doing the same thing over and over again with poor results) and maximum capital sequestration (spending billions with little results to show in terms of reaching our goals). Delaying the inevitable collapse of this system of drug control and actively resisting change towards new and innovative approaches will make the collapse much more severe when it finally does occur. Perhaps we are seeing signs of this in the horrific collapse of any kind of civil order in parts of Mexico as the failure of the Mexican drug strategy plays out with a chilling loss of lives. In essence our approaches have not kept up with contemporary developments and have resisted any notion of changing with the times.

The natural process of adaption to change - resilience

Some countries are showing that they are more in tune with the natural processes of change and adaptation to new environments. Rather than continuing with the old they are experimenting with new ideas and approaches. Several European countries have been acknowledging the need to adapt and change over the past 20 years and most recently countries like Portugal, the Czech Republic, Argentina have let go of the old and have moved sharply in a new direction – decriminalization of drugs for personal use.  How is it going to change globally? Will the cacophony of noise out there calling for saner approaches for whatever the reason whether it be compassion for folks with addictions, or a desire to reduce the ridiculous amount of wasted public funds on the futile pursuing of drugs, drug merchants and drug users, or for the business opportunities that will arise in a new post prohibition economy? Whatever the reasons change is coming and we need to get ready lest we experience the collapse of our way of operating. Which brings me to another topic that I stumbled upon while perusing the resilience world – Transition Management: New Mode of Governance for Sustainable Development developed by Derk Loorbach. Here is an editorial that Loorbach wrote last December outlining the emerging field of Transition Management. We might start thinking now of how the transition to a new paradigm of responding to psychoactive drugs will take place.

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