Persuading Opponents of Drug Policy Reform to Take Control of Controlled Substances

Nazlee Maghsoudi



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Even on our Saturday off, we were still surrounded by innovative drug policy interventions! When strolling the streets of Vienna, we came across CheckIt, a nightlife harm reduction program that does outreach at parties, empowering recreational drug users with information on party drugs. CheckIt also provides onsite drug checking, detecting adulterants in substances and sharing the results with the community. The coolest thing about randomly coming across their office was that they had posters and fliers in the window from the TRIP Project that were so old that the colours had faded!  It was really cool for Lisa to see, as she has been volunteering with TRIP since she was a teenager and also had a CheckIt sticker on her office door for the years when she worked as the TRIP Project Coordinator.

Although the 57th Session of the Commission for Narcotic Drugs (CND) will officially begin on Monday (as last week was the High-Level Segment), we have an exciting blog entry today after attending two events put on by the NGO community. The morning event was an interactive workshop facilitated by Transform, Mexico Unido Contra la Delincuencia (MUCD) and Espolea, titled, “How to Constructively Engage with – and Win – the Debate on Drug Regulation.” The afternoon event was an International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) Strategy Meeting, where NGOs brainstormed in preparation for the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) in 2016. The former event will be the focus of this blog entry.

As we have seen over the last couple years, the debate on regulation is no longer theoretical, and has moved decisively from the margins to the mainstream. It is no longer just former heads of state that are talking about regulation, but sitting heads of state are now involved, thereby giving the debate mainstream legitimacy. It is now more important than ever that activists advocating for drug policy reform be able to support and inform the debate on regulation in a coherent and positive way. The interactive workshop this morning strived to provide practical tips for doing so.

Regulation is the norm for risky stuff… prohibition is not.

Both extremes of drug policy, namely ultra prohibition and commercial promotion, have high levels of harm. In the former, control is in the hands of criminals and in the latter, control is in the hands of profit-oriented entrepreneurs. Regulation of risky products or behaviours is a primary function of government, as their fundamental motive is the public good. We are arguing for strict legal regulation by governments that is shaped by risk and environment, and therefore does not apply a one-size-fits-all model. Importantly, in a regulated environment, activities that are outside the regulatory framework are still prohibited (such as selling drugs to children). It is important to emphasize that we do not want regulation for illicit substances to go down the same path as alcohol, tobacco, or big pharma, which have many problems of their own. Instead of this global commercialization, we can learn from these examples and use the blank slate that exists with illicit substances to create a new and much more effective regulatory framework.

Begin the debate by finding common ground.

Before you get into a debate on regulation, find some common ground with your “opponent.” This can be accomplished by highlighting the shared aims regarding what drug policy should be doing. Policy aims that few (if any) will disagree with include; protecting and improving public health, reducing drug-related crime, improving security and development, protecting the young and vulnerable, protecting human rights, and providing good value for money. Once you have established this common ground, you can critique the current system and present regulation as a path that can be used to reach these goals.

Emphasize key messages to increase the persuasiveness of your argument.

In advocating for regulation, there are several key messages that activists should emphasize:

    1. Regulation is “retaking control.” We are not relaxing or liberalizing laws, we are not surrendering or weakening our stance on drugs, and we are not creating a free market. We advocate for retaking the market and retaking control!


    1. Drugs must be regulated because they are risky, not because they are safe. In the past, as many activists may have experienced, pro-drug arguments have undermined the drug policy reform movement and have had little traction. Approaching the debate from an angle that drugs are risky eliminates a key argument of prohibitionists, namely that “drugs are bad for you and must be banned.” Activists must emphasize that we are not “pro-drugs” but we are “pro-effective policy.” A world without drugs is not realistic, and although we agree that drugs are risky, we recognize the need to reduce the harms associated with inevitable use.


    1. Regulation is not a silver bullet. Often times, prohibitionists argue that advocates for drug policy reform believe all drug problems will go away with regulation. Activists must emphasize that regulation would combat and reduce the problems associated with drug policy harms, not drug use harms. Activists must be humble about what we believe regulation can achieve and over what time span. Activists should highlight the harms that will be reduced and the benefits that will arise in the short, medium, and long term. Over claiming is truly counterproductive!


  1. Change will be phased and incremental. Activists that frame their drug policy reform debates this way are able to challenge people’s concerns about overnight change. Instead, activists should emphasize that the path towards regulation will be an incremental, evidence-based process that is carefully evaluated and monitored.

Try using these tips to engage in a discussion with someone who is unknowledgeable about, or an opponent of, drug policy reform and let us know how it goes! Feel free to comment with strategies you have found to be effective in your experiences as well. Happy convincing!