Some drugs. Photo by David Hudson
For over a century, world leaders have been deliberating over what exactly they should do about drugs. Unfortunately, all that deliberation hasn't got them too far in terms of actually keeping people or the planet very safe. The widespread collateral damage of the illegal drug trade—the exploitation, environmental damage, criminalization, corruption, murderous gang feuds, addiction, and needless overdoses—are all evidence that the way it's currently being handled does not appear to work.
The only alternative, it seems, is for governments to seize the reins of the drug trade, by controlling how drugs are cultivated, manufactured, marketed, distributed, and sold; in other words, legalization.
In 2016, cracks are already visible in the prohibition paradigm. Four US states have legalized recreational marijuana, 23 of them have legalized medical marijuana, and the general trend worldwide is for governments, especially those in Latin America and Europe, to start edging away from a hardline, punitive stance towards policies based around ethical cultivation, harm reduction, and decriminalization.
Alternative ways of tackling the world drug problem—desperately sought by countries at the bloody epicenter of the drug war, such as Mexico—will be discussed at a special UN general assembly session in New York in April. The meeting comes in the wake of a leaked document last October written by a senior UN figure that advocated the decriminalization of all drugs. The UN, under pressure from one member country, rumored to be America, frantically downplayed the significance of its own expert's briefing document. Nonetheless, the drug reform genie is out of the bottle.
Despite the wishful thinking of a quasi-religious collection of fervent "anti-drug" campaigners, whatever form drugs may take in our digitized future, they are clearly here to stay. Humans are hard-wired to get high—it's natural. In his 1989 book Intoxication, the American pharmacologist Ronald K. Siegel concluded that after the basic human desires of hunger, thirst, and sex comes a "fourth drive," an instinctive urge to change our ordinary state of awareness.
However, the world is some time off binning the international drug treaties it has been busy enacting for over 100 years. Few politicians or political parties with any power are willing to take on the high-risk strategy of "going soft" on drugs. They face the very real prospect of being pilloried by conservative, old-school media clans that are obliged to fear-monger on drugs in order to appeal to their increasingly aging readerships.
The end of prohibition in most countries, apart from authoritarian regimes such as Russia and Saudi Arabia, will most likely come in 10 to 20 years time, at a tipping point when a new generation will ensure the media and politicians jump to a different, more progressive beat on how society deals with the drug issue. A sway in public opinion, where drug morality will be more about helping people than stigmatizing them, will finally enable governments to embrace the financial benefits of a sanctioned psychoactive drug industry.
In the meantime, as we wait for global drug policy to turn around at oil tanker speed, there are ways—working within the current system of prohibition—to make drugs better in 2016. I'll focus principally on the UK throughout this article, as that's where I live, but the points I'll make ring true around the world.
The first priority when it comes to drugs is to make them less likely to kill people. As we now know, this is not achieved by simply telling them drugs are bad and trying to arrest drug dealers, because it's not drug dealers killing people. On the contrary: The first rule of selling drugs after "make a profit" is "don't kill off your customers." What is killing people is isolation, both from the kind of services that can help them stay alive and from basic life-saving information.
The more substances are banned, the more obscure and unpredictably dangerous their replacements have become. As a result, there are now more ways of getting high than ever before, making the UN's 1998 ambition of creating "a drug-free world" look positively delusional.
What's more, in response to this growing market of new drugs, ecstasy makers have ramped up purity to unprecedented levels, making it a far more dangerous drug than it has ever been. Deaths involving just about every type of drug have risen dramatically in England and Scotland over the last two years, with record numbers of people dying from heroin-related overdoses.
Michael Linnell, who has worked in the drugs sector in Manchester for 30 years and runs UK DrugWatch—a network of experts who provide credible information on dangerous drug trends—told me: "If you can get one message across to people who take drugs in 2016, to make drugs better and safer, it would be to take smaller doses. They need to remember the old drug user saying: 'You can always take more, but you can never take less.'" The second most important thing, says Linnell, is that people need to know how to deal with drug-related emergencies so they can help their friends or anyone else they see in trouble with drugs.
A wrap of MDMA. Photo by Michael Segalov
It sounds petty and morally questionable—and it is—but because drugs are illegal, the government has no duty to ensure authorities give out potentially life-saving medicines and messages on drugs. Despite its ability to bring people back from the brink of death, naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of opiate overdoses, is being handed out by less than half of local authorities in England.
Erin O'Mara, the editor of the online drug users magazine Black Poppy, herself a long-term heroin user, told me she saved someone's life with naloxone last month. She has also been saved herself.
"For many heroin users, someone dying in front of you can happen a dozen times in a lifetime," she said. "It's almost always an accident, and it almost always is something that could have been avoided. Today we have the incredible chance to save thousands of lives by making sure naloxone is given to every single person who uses opiates, as well as into the hands of their loved ones and friends."
In Wales, where there is a national program of naloxone supply, heroin deaths have bucked the UK trend and fallen by 16 percent.
While the purity of MDMA pills and crystal has rocketed in the last two years, the British government does nothing besides make patronizing noises about illegal drugs being dangerous when people overdose. It is left to community interest groups such as The Loop in Manchester—which carries out forensic tests on drugs and disseminates information, such as the Crush, Dab, Wait campaign—that are actually useful to people who take drugs.
Read on Broadly: See the Biggest Weed Pipe in the World
In 2016, the UK Home Office's drug advice website Frank stands as a woeful attempt at protecting drug users. Despite its moniker, it is unable to offer frank advice because the government is petrified of being seen to encourage drug use. It can't advise people to take small doses—that's far too risqué. Tens of thousands of responses to the Global Drug Survey (GDS) show that drug users disregard the website.
"Frank is the last place drug users will go to get information," says Dr. Adam Winstock, Director of the GDS. "Frank is good if you are a worried parent or if you've not used drugs before. It's hard to give good advice if you cannot be totally honest about drug taking. You have to talk about drug-related pleasure if you are going to talk about the harms."
Dr. Winstock, who last month decried a recent attempt by the Australian government to send out a public health message on cannabis as "summing up all that's wrong with drug education in last 40 years," says drug users will not listen if they are "demonized, homogonized, and patronized."
The most valuable information about drugs is gained from those who take them. The Highway Code, a guide to safer drug use based on the experiences of 80,000 drug users who responded to the survey, is one of these sources.
But in the drug information cavity created by prohibition, the largest pool of data and real time feedback can be found within the online drug-taking community. Specialist drug websites and forums attached to dark web markets offer drug users access to pill reports, psychonautic experiences, data, discussion, feedback, and advice.
Dr. Dredge, a psychonaut, former online dealer, and experienced online buyer, says the internet is a crucial resource for drug users. "The main way of improving experiences is research. So use pillreports.com before taking ecstasy, Erowid before taking anything you've not heard of before, Bluelight or Reddit to ask about anything you're unsure of—there is plenty of advice and information out there which could save lives," he told me. "Don't buy drugs off people you don't know, use the darkweb if possible. There are reviews on product, vendor, and the prices are cheaper than the street. You also don't have the potential of getting pulled by the police as you're on your way home from picking it up."
Related: Watch our short documentary about young men addicted to synthesized cannabis
It's not perfect, but for drug users seeking knowledge, the web is now rivaling scientific research, according to drug markets expert Judith Aldridge, a senior lecturer at Manchester University.
"Making currently illegal drugs safer, more enjoyable, and more ethical is tricky, not least because prohibition itself makes drugs less safe, enjoyable, and ethical," she told me. For Aldridge, two of the more important "within-prohibition" changes that seem likely to grow in 2016 are both internet-enabled: "The sheer number of users sharing harm reduction advice, particularly dosing, on forums like Bluelight.org has made crowd-sourced knowledge a rival to scientifically-generated understanding, particularly in connection to the emergence of new substances and to the many psychedelic compounds already in existence."
Aldridge says dark net drug markets are able to reduce harm not just for users, but within the marketplaces themselves. "These marketplaces have conflict reduction features such as escrow, customer feedback, and marketplace adjudication that may make the conflict that arises in offline markets, often connected to the widespread use of credit, less likely," she told me. "Because people buying drugs can shop and compare vendors located in countries across the globe, online drug sellers are more accountable than their offline counterparts, and operate in a more competitive environment. In theory, this should reduce price and increase quality, and early evidence suggests this may be happening."
But Aldridge says there are limitations: dark net drug dealers can only supply the drugs they can access, and the maintenance of prohibition will ensure that drug quality can never be properly guaranteed.
As we step into 2016, there appears to be no way back from a world of increasingly nasty drugs which, despite the packaging and whacky names, are actually colored bags of toxic dust churned out by ropey Chinese chemical factories. Meanwhile, help for drug users living on the bottom rung of society—those using a deadly mix of heroin, black market valium, synthetic weed, and alcohol—is drying up as austerity bites.
Within the system of prohibition, we can't rely on statutory authorities and governments to provide the help that is needed to make drug taking a safer activity. So drug users have to take care of themselves, look after their friends, and make sure they are not—as the present laws would have it—taking drugs blind.
Follow Max Daly on Twitter.